Japan’s Womenomics Rebooted

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Japan’s Womenomics Rebooted

The country still lags its peers on workplace equality, but there are some signs of progress.

Japan’s Womenomics Rebooted
Credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“Abenomics won’t succeed without Womenomics,” Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared. But with the snap December election forcing a delay of women-friendly reforms, will Abe deliver in his second term?

In May, Abe told the “Women in Business” summit in Tokyo that female empowerment was a key agenda item, saying: “Corporations have so far been driven by men’s ideas. But half the consumers are women. Introducing ideas by women would lead to new innovations…When we realize a society where women shine, we can create a Japan full of vitality.”

Despite having reportedly helped squash a “gender-free” push back in 2005, Abe has announced a series of reforms to boost Womenomics, including ensuring sufficient childcare centers for 300,000 children by March 2020; requiring listed companies to disclose the number of female executives by March 2015; and reviewing the tax and social security system to ensure its neutrality toward women workers.

“Together with other measures to facilitate women-friendly work places such as disseminating good practices and promoting disclosure of company information on female participation, the government aims to raise the employment rate of women (aged 25-44) from 68 percent (in 2012) to 73 percent in 2020 and to increase women occupying leading positions to 30 percent in 2020,” the government said in its growth strategy prepared for November’s G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.

The strategy also announced plans for the next Diet session to introduce “a new working hour system to break the link between wages and the length of time spent at work, while protecting workers’ health and achieving a better work-life balance,” as well as reviewing international best practice concerning labor disputes.

However, after previously winning praise for appointing a record-equaling five female cabinet members (two subsequently were forced to resign), Abe led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into the December 14 election with only 42 female candidates, just 12 percent of the party’s total, of which just 25 were elected.

Asked before the poll about female candidates, LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki said: “We can’t necessarily produce results if we push during a short period of time. Things won’t work well unless we steadily make efforts to cultivate people.”

Overall, only 45 of the 475 lower house seats available were won by women candidates, up slightly on the 38 won by females in the 2012 poll but down from the record 54 of 2009, and still well below most major developed nations’ parliaments. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan had just nine women candidates elected, despite having previously mooted plans for a quota system to improve female representation.

Noriko Hama, an economics professor at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, expressed skepticism over Abe’s female push, telling the Guardian that the lack of women politicians was “shameful and damaging” to Japan’s international reputation.

“Women who want to go into politics find it difficult to get nominated because they have to penetrate a particularly thick wall [of male chauvinism],” she said.

Abe’s campaign has not been helped by his finance minister, Taro Aso, who declared that the problem is those “who refuse to give birth.”

The World Economic Forum rated Japan a lowly 104th in its latest survey of the global gender gap, up just one place from the previous year, although neighboring South Korea placed 117th and China 87th.

Japan’s ranking came despite estimates by Goldman Sachs that closing the gap could boost the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) by nearly 13 percent, helping to offset a forecast 30 percent fall in the nation’s population by 2060.

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde has suggested that raising female workforce participation to the level of Northern Europe could increase per capita income by up to 8 percent.

Currently though, Japanese women earn on average around 70 percent of the male salary for the same work, a figure that contrasts with Britain’s 85 percent, while a 2010 survey found 60 percent of Japanese women were leaving the workforce after having children.

The career and non-career track employment system has also left many women locked into jobs with limited progression. Only 12 percent of new sogoshoku (elite track) hires in 2011 were women, according to a labor ministry survey, despite laws banning workplace discrimination. Inflexible working hours, a lack of childcare places and cultural traditions have been blamed at contributing to the estimated 3 million women in Japan without jobs but seeking work.

Tax, Legal Changes

Still, signs of progress have been seen in the corporate sector, with brokerage Nomura appointing this year its first woman trust bank head since 1945, and female directors now on the boards of the nation’s three megabanks. Women delivery drivers and construction workers are no longer a rare sight as Japan utilizes its formerly neglected labor resource, in preference to broad-scale immigration.

Importantly, the government has flagged plans to abolish the current spousal tax deduction system, which offers tax deductions providing the low-income spouse’s salary does not exceed around 1 million yen a year. The system has been blamed for encouraging married women to stay out of the workforce, but according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the reform will offer tax deductions to the spouse with the higher annual income, with no upper limit placed on their spouse’s income.

The new system will be introduced among tax reforms planned next year, likely coming into effect for fiscal 2016 “with a view to encouraging more women to enter the workforce and play a more active role in society.” With 14 million people currently covered by the system, the potential boost to the nation’s workforce is obvious.

“Many women have not thought deep and hard about the possibility of their working husbands falling ill, or the prospect of their children getting into expensive schools,” said Yukari Horie, head of Arrow Arrow, a nonprofit organization that advise on work-life balance.

“They have often chosen to become tax-free dependents just because many others have, and are staying so because they have this unfounded fear about losing their tax benefits. I hope the tax reform will give them a chance to think of other options for themselves,” she told the Japan Times.

Devin Stewart, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council, told The Diplomat after a recent Japan visit that progress was apparent, including proposed moves by business lobby Keidanren pushing companies to publish action plans on women employment, immigration policies allowing more nannies, the deregulation of part-time workers beyond the three-year limit, and an increase in childcare leave benefits from 50 percent to 67 percent of initial salaries for both parents.

“More women are working in the bureaucracy, and they are bringing about reform to the way Kasumigaseki [Japan’s government district] operates. A group of women who were selected to be trained for management training have created a network for change in Tokyo’s central government. In their spare time (often in pre-dawn hours), these women have put together a proposal for change titled, ‘Towards Sustainable Work Style: Proposals from Female Officials Working in the Japanese Central Government.’ Each ministry is now considering how to adopt their suggestions, such as reducing work hours and allowing workers to telecommute,” he said.

“In the courts, there has been some progress for the protection of women workers. This fall, the Japanese Supreme Court overturned a Hiroshima court ruling about maternity harassment (also known as pregnancy discrimination) in violation of the equal employment act. The Supreme Court has ordered a re-trial– a victory for the plaintiff. It means Japan may start enforcing laws that protect women’s rights like this one, which has been in place since 1986.”

Despite concerns over the planned female executive target – one analyst described it as potentially creating a small elite of “platinum kimonos” due to the lack of trained talent – Stewart said attitudes were changing.

“We are witnessing a gradual, nascent feminization of the workplace in Japan, and this is a good change. It is coming from the necessity of a globalized market, a shrinking population, and via the innovations of entrepreneurs and other change-makers. Abe’s rhetoric in the past two years has helped to give this change some momentum,” he said.

“While women’s movements in the United States were underpinned by a sense of morality and human rights, that is not necessarily the case in Japan. Rather in Japan, it is being driven by a practical sense of necessity.”

While critics suggest Womenomics will end with Abe’s departure, Stewart said a generational change by 2020 would ensure women’s empowerment “becomes the norm rather than a political buzzword.”

By this time, a bigger problem may be a surplus of unskilled men, victims of a “mancession” in which employment in male-heavy industries such as manufacturing continues to decline, argues Peter Tasker, an analyst at Arcus Research in Tokyo.

“…It won’t be long before the most pressing problem will not be integrating capable women into the workforce, but dealing with large numbers of useless, past-their-sell-by-date men,” he said in the Nikkei Asian Review.

For Abe though, ensuring Womenomics succeeds may be crucial to extending his own sell-by date, as well as the nation’s future.