Let Japanese Women Soar

A visitor to Japan might be surprised to learn that the world's second-largest economy is mired in its third recession in 10 years. Shops and restaurants are crowded, women tote purchases from Tiffany's, men pay high fees to play golf, and homelessness remains low.

But unemployment keeps edging up, and a secure career with one company is a thing of the past. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promises major changes, but so far he's avoided proposing one paradigm-busting reform that could make a big difference: improving opportunities for women.

Workplace discrimination against women remains fierce in Japan. While in America, women earn on average 75 cents for each dollar men earn, in Japan the figure is 52 cents. Japanese bosses don't even try to hide their prejudices: Why, they ask, should they hire a young woman, who is likely to get married, have a baby, and quit?

Such a stereotype has, ironically, helped foreign companies in Japan. They eagerly hire the best and brightest women, and give them opportunities they could never dream of at Japanese-owned firms.

With all the big fixes needed in Japan's economy – bank and corporate reform, reflating the economy, an end to pork-barrel construction projects, to name a few – why should Japan also make a major social shift that goes against centuries of tradition? Because the economy would benefit in the long run. After all, women's mass entry into the US workforce produced a net economic gain, economists say.

For now, Japan is forgoing the intellectual candlepower – and increased buying potential – of nearly half its population. Certainly, some women, such as the former and current foreign ministers, do succeed. But they are the rare exception.

And the government's reluctance to change a law that would allow a woman to become emperor – the crown prince has only one child, a daughter – is the ultimate example of a need for more gender equality.

Affordable child care is one place to start. In Tokyo, it can be prohibitively expensive, at 300,000 yen ($2,250) a month. If work and family became compatible – and foresighted bosses promoted women – Japanese men might further evolve out of their traditional attitudes.

Those attitudes have pushed many young women to forgo marriage and children. Japan's birthrate is now one of the lowest in the world; the population soon will be shrinking, which points to another choke point – not enough workers to support a fast-growing elderly population. Expanded options for women could mean fuller nurseries, too.

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