For Japanese women, Abe's vision of 'womenomics' losing its shine

Prime Minister Abe said he would boost the economy by tapping one of Japan's most underutilized resources: women. But the effort has taken several hits recently.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP/file
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for photos with his new cabinet members following their first meeting in September.

When Japan’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a physical therapist who claimed her employer had practiced “maternity harassment” by demoting her when she became pregnant, it was a victory for a female workforce that struggles for equal treatment.

The shockwave ruling was also a win for beleaguered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who came into office in 2012 pledging to get a stagnant economy moving again in no small part by boosting women’s role in it. So key was Mr. Abe’s vision of women coming to Japan’s rescue that he coined a name for it: “womenomics.”

But in recent weeks that effort has been overshadowed by setbacks that have put Mr. Abe on the defensive and left “womenomics” looking like a fading gimmick. 

First, two of the five female ministers Abe named as part of a cabinet reshuffle in September resigned last month over campaign finance irregularities and prohibited campaign activities. One was trade and industry minister Yuko Obuchi, the daughter of the late former prime minister Keizo Obuchi and – at least until her resignation – an oft-mentioned potential first woman prime minister.

The other disgraced politician, Midori Matsushima, had to step down as justice minister after it was revealed that her organization had given out hand-held fans during a previous campaign's summer rally. Gifts to voters are illegal.

Japan's wartime history has also served up fresh woes. The Abe government sought unsuccessfully last month to have the United Nations retract part of a 1996 report on forcing women, mostly Koreans, to work as sex slaves in military-run brothels during World War II. The effort played well with right-wing supporters who insist the women were prostitutes, but dismayed many Japanese women, some of whom took to social media to express their “shame” over Japan’s past actions – as well as attempts to whitewash them. The move also ran afoul of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, with whom Abe wants to set up a summit meeting. Her message to a delegation of Japanese lawmakers last month was simple: No progress on the comfort women issue, no summit. 

But perhaps the cruelest evidence that Abe’s touted “womenomics” is so far having little impact came in the form of a World Economic Forum (WEF) report on global gender equality that placed Japan 104th out of 142 countries evaluated. That was better than last year's 105th place, a result of some progress in pay equality. But Japan ranked well below the other members of the Group of Seven wealthy economies and even a few notches below such developing countries as Tajikistan and Indonesia. 

Still, say some Abe supporters, longer-term prospects are much brighter than one WEF report and a couple of ministerial resignations would suggest.

Masako Mori, a senator from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and until September’s cabinet reshuffle the minister for gender equality and women’s empowerment, is quick to point out shortcomings when it comes to female workplace participation. Speaking in Tokyo last month at the International Bar Association's annual conference, Senator Mori noted that she and her husband passed the bar together 20 years ago, “but I’m the one who frequently runs into obstructions.”

Sixty percent of working women leave the workforce when they have their first child, she says, while surveys suggest that more than 3 million women who would like to work do not, and for a myriad of reasons ranging from low skills to an inability to find childcare.

But Mori also insists that Japan is taking the steps to allow it to rise significantly on that WEF ranking. Abe has an ambitious plan for government-funded day care that aims to eliminate waiting lists by 2017, she says. And Abe has submitted a bill to the Diet, or parliament, that would require all companies with more than 300 employees to set targets for hiring women and for promoting women to managerial positions.

“Negotiations with [affected companies] were quite, quite difficult,” she says. But she adds that it’s a measure of the importance Abe gives to his “womenomics” that he held firm on getting the legislation to the Diet.

Mori touts the long-term potential of such steps, but she also says social change must happen as well. “Japanese men are changing,” she says, “because the women who raise them are changing.”

Herself a mother of two, Mori says she took the campaign to improve prospects for women in the workplace to the ministry she ran for 20 months. At the outset, she asked how many of the men working under her had taken childcare leave, for example, “and the answer was zero.”

By the time she left in September, “all the young men with a new baby had taken childcare leave,” she says proudly. “That really reflects the new thinking we’re seeing in Japan.” 

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