For a moment last week, it seemed like Japan's power center had descended into the dark ages. The heckling began as Ayaka Shiomura, a member of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, called on city authorities to do more to support child rearing.
“You should hurry up and get married, then,” shouted a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) assemblyman, since identified as Akihiro Suzuki. “Can’t you even have children?” said another male politician to laughter among colleagues in the LDP seats. Ms. Shiomura paused, fought back tears, and continued speaking.
Mr. Suzuki's outburst proved an embarrassment to the leader of his party – the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has described empowering Japan’s women as a pillar of a growth strategy he announced Tuesday. The aim: to bring diversity into boardrooms and prop up a shrinking labor force. Bringing women’s participation in the workforce up to the same level as that of men could raise GDP by nearly 13 percent, Goldman Sachs forecast in May this year.
Bridging the gender gap at work will bring clear economic benefits to a country that will have a much smaller, older population by the middle of the century. But the sexism on display at the Tokyo assembly has reinforced the suspicion that no matter how serious Mr. Abe is about helping women break through the “bamboo ceiling,” his plans could founder in the face of Japan’s male-dominated corporate culture.
Abe wants women to fill 30 percent of senior management positions by 2020, compared with just 7.5 percent last year, and plans to create 400,000 new daycare places by 2017 to enable more employees to return to work after giving birth.
“This is a men’s issue as much as a women’s issue,” Sakie T. Fukushima, a vice-chair of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives said at a recent panel titled "Can women save Japan?"
Breaking the 'bamboo ceiling'
Attitudes have improved in the three decades since Ms. Fukushima began her career in business before going on to be the first woman appointed to the boards of major Japanese companies such as Sony and Bridgestone.
In April, Chie Shimpo became the first woman since the end of World War II to head the banking arm of Nomura Holdings, Japan's biggest investment banking and brokerage group. In February, Hideko Kunii became the first woman to join the 13-member board of directors at Honda.
But Fukushima is not ready to celebrate yet. “It is shameful to have so few women in senior positions in [one of] the world’s biggest economies,” she said. “This is partly responsible for Japan’s lack of global competitiveness.”
The statistics are similarly grim across the pay scale. Women make up 40 percent of Japan's workforce but, on average, earn 70 percent of a man’s salary for the same work, according to government figures.
Japan performs just as poorly in international gender equality comparisons: in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender gap index, Japan ranked 104th out of 136 countries. At 63 percent, Japan’s female participation rate in the labor force, compared to 85 percent for men, is one of the lowest among OECD countries.
“It’s very difficult for Japanese women to find regular work once they’ve left their job to get married or have children,” says Riwa Sakamoto, director of the economic and social policy office at the ministry of economy, trade and industry. “A large number of women still face a choice between raising a child or pursuing a career. This is a work-life conflict that leads to both low female labor force participation and a declining birthrate."
Does 'Womenomics' fall short – or go too far?
Despite the economic risks of a shrinking workforce – and the benefits of equilibrium in gender participation in the labor market – some prominent women are skeptical of Abe’s conversion to womenomics.
Yuko Ando, a Fuji TV anchor, cites the sexist assumptions behind government plans to extend maternity leave to a maximum of three years. The policy is touted by officials as an opportunity for working women to "cradle their children as often as they like for a full three years," she says. "Do women really want that or, in fact, do they want back-up systems in place so they can return to work and resume their careers when they like?"
More than 60 percent of Japanese women leave their job after having their first child, a rate that has remained unchanged for the past two decades.
But not all woman are desperate to break free of their traditional roles. A 2013 health, labor, and welfare ministry survey of 3,000 unmarried women aged 15-39 found 34 percent did not want to work when they settled down. The proportion of women who said they definitely wanted to work after marriage was only slightly higher, at 38 percent, while the rest were undecided.
Ms. Ando and others want to see legally binding quotas and punitive measures against companies that fail to meet them – two measures not currently on Abe’s agenda.
In response, the trade ministry and the Tokyo Stock Exchange created the Nadeshiko brand in 2012 to publicly acknowledge and endorse firms that, for example, promote more women to senior positions or raise the number of male employees taking paternity leave.
Nissan, one of 26 firms to have been granted Nadeshiko status in the past year, intends to fill 10 percent of managerial positions in Japan with women, and 14 percent of similar jobs at its businesses worldwide, by 2017.
"It’s about recognizing that diversity is a real business strength, and not just about being nicer towards female employees,” says Yoshiko Terakami, manager of Nissan’s diversity development office, who points out that 60 percent of cars sold in Japan are driven by women.
To help female employees return to work after having children, Nissan offers up to 2 years and 11 months of maternity leave and child care leave – longer than the current legal requirement of up to 12 weeks for the former and until the child turns one for the latter – along with flexible working hours.
One of the beneficiaries is Keiko Hoshino, a manager in the firm’s corporate communications department whose 3-year-old daughter is looked after at one of three on-site daycare centers Nissan has opened in Japan.
“I’d always intended to come back to work, but after you have children you do have conflicted opinions,” Ms. Hoshino says. “My mother gave up work when she had children and when I joined Nissan I thought I’d do the same. But when I jokingly asked my boss if I would be ‘forgiven’ for taking time off to have a child, he urged me to return as quickly as possible. He said the department couldn’t function properly without me.”