A leap for Japan’s women – and its economy

Tokyo elected its first female governor, another sign of Japan’s slow progress to revive the economy by encouraging more women in the workplace.

Tokyo's first woman governor Yuriko Koike arrives for her first day in office at the city's government building Aug. 2.

Tokyo, which is one of the world’s largest cities, just elected its first female governor, Yuriko Koike. In Japan, a country far behind in advancing women in the workplace, her election is a milestone. The former TV newscaster likens her victory more to a break in a sheet of steel than a crack in the glass ceiling. What helped her defeat two male opponents? A big factor was her focus on a main issue for Tokyo families: long waiting lists for daycare.

Enabling more women to work has become essential for Japan, the world’s third largest economy. The country’s economic growth has been largely stagnant for nearly a quarter century despite high government spending and other financial stimuli. One obvious reform is to improve the rate of female participation in the labor force, which helps drive consumer demand and improves productivity. If Japan were to achieve a rate similar to northern Europe, according to the International Monetary Fund, it would increase its gross domestic product per capita by 10 percent.

The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying for four years to improve conditions for working women. He has increased childcare places and lessened the tax on families’ second earners. But he admits that attitudes about gender roles in Japan are “unwittingly, firmly ingrained within us.”

Since 1985, the proportion of Japanese women in part-time jobs has more than doubled to more than 54 percent. But progress for women in secure jobs or in executive suites has been much slower.

One American expert on Japan, Andrew Gordon of Harvard University, writes that Japan has no consensus on women’s proper or desirable role in the economy of society. “Calls for women to act as ‘good wives’ by earning money or contributing to the economy are frequently met by admonitions for them to be responsible and dutiful by staying home and having children,” he writes in a recent book, “Examining Japan’s Lost Decades.”

Many Japanese may not yet accept a moral imperative for any woman who desires it to enjoy a steady and prosperous career. But the economic case for women in the workplace has become quite clear.

“I believe that pushing policies for women will be good for Tokyo and bring happiness to the capital,” said Ms. Koike after taking office Aug. 2, even as she identified as one of her first tasks shortening the waiting lines for daycare openings.

“I’d like to make Tokyo a city where both women and men can shine,” she added.

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