Japan's prime minister has made it his government’s main political goal to pull the country out of the economic doldrums through a program of inflation and opening the economy to greater flexibility and expanding entrepreneurship - policies widely known as “Abenomics”. A main plank of such economic reform is the empowering of women - or “womenomics" as it has come to be known. “Active participation of women [in the economy] forms the core of my growth strategy,” Shinzo Abe said in a major policy speech last April, recently adding that women should make up “no less than” 30 percent of leadership positions in all areas of society. In some ways it is the easiest task on his reform agenda – and in some other ways the hardest. There is, after all, no need to confront and overcome opposition to his reforms from Japan’s many entrenched special interest groups, such as the powerful farmers' lobby, the construction industry or the postal service. Only entrenched cultural habits. Abe himself is sold on the idea, or at least he has been very vocal about it in speeches and newspaper opinion pieces under his byline. “Women are Japan’s most underutilized resources," he wrote in an April opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. Fine words, but can he turn them into action in Japan’s historically male-dominated society? It is estimated that if women were empowered to their full potential - or at least comparable to other nations in the developed world - it would bring in some 8 million skilled workers and managers at a time when the population, and thus the labor force, is declining.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs has estimated that Japan could raise its gross domestic product by as much as 14 percent if it made better use of its female productivity.
On the other hand, the country needs to overcome equally entrenched cultural notions that women - especially during their childbearing years - should stay in the home.
In Japan, it has long been the practice for young women - known as “OLs” or office ladies - to spend a few years working in an office making tea and carrying out such mundane tasks as photocopying - and then they marry, have their first child and leave corporate life to become a fulltime homemaker.
An incident in the Tokyo Municipal Assembly this summer showed just how strongly entrenched in Japanese culture these prejudices are. A young assemblywoman named Ayaka Shiomura, 35, of the minority Your Party, was speaking in support of more government support for pregnant women and new mothers, when she was rudely shouted down.
Akihiro Suzuki, 51, was eventually shamed into admitting that he was one of the hecklers, apologizing for it and resigning from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - though not his seat.
Catcalls and sexist heckling are common enough in Japan’s assemblies. There is even a word for it – “matahara” - meaning “maternity harassment.” But this incident went national because it seemed to summarize in a very personal way what Abe is up against in his goal to empower women, even from members of his own party.
The party leaders forced the hapless Suzuki into a very public abasement, as he apologized and bowed deeply to his female colleague on national television. The heckling “was so unexpected in this modern age, it was not something I had prepared myself for,” she later told a packed meeting of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.
There is a lot of room for improvement in Japan when it comes to the empowerment of women. Japan has one of the lowest ratios of females in managerial positions than almost any other developed country. It ranks fairly well in the number of women employed – about 40 percent of the work force - but only about 10 percent are in management positions. By comparison, the figure for Singapore is more than 30 percent.
The last time Japan tackled gender equality was a passage in 1985 of the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. That legislation outlawed outright discrimination against women in the workforce, but has been, proponents of change say, of little use in promoting women to more responsible positions in corporations,
“We’re not seeing the gender gap closed,” says Kimie Iwata, president of the Japan Institute of Women Empowerment and Diversity Management. “Just providing equal opportunity is not enough; we need positive actions,” she added.
Keidanren, the important Japanese business federation, is on board with Abe on women and has been urging member companies to develop plans to increase the number of female managers and directors on their boards.
Several Japanese corporations are, in fact, promoting more women to management positions. Shiseido, the big cosmetics company, has set a goal of 30 percent by 2016 - even though the bulk of the company’s customers are women. The technology-related Rasona Co also targets 30 percent by 2020.
On the other hand, many of the more classic Japan Inc. corporations are still diversity challenged. Sharp, the electrical appliance company, boldly hopes to raise the number of female managers to 5 percent over the next five years. The same with Komatsu.
Iwate said her organization opposed establishing strict quotas, along the lines of Norway - which mandates 40 percent on pain of being de-listed - but she wishes to work more through persuasion, noting that diversity leads to fresh ideas, new products and possibly whole new profit centers.
“There is not a single [Japanese] Company that isn’t wasting human resources,” she said.
Legislation may be introduced into the next session of the Diet - the national legislature of Japan - to help propel "womenomics" a little faster. The proposed legislation could accelerate elimination of childcare waiting lists, support return to work three years after raising a child and other assistance for re-entering the work force or starting a business.
Though if Tokyo assemblyman Suzuki is typical of the rank and file in the national parliament - and the Japanese Diet has one of the lowest ratios of women members in the democratic world - it may face some tough going.