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Women can save Japan

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In Brief

By almost any measure Japan ranks as one of the worst countries in the OECD, or among advanced economies, to be a working woman. Women are vastly underrepresented in senior positions in companies, politics and society.


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The way in which the employment system and labour market work means that women have to choose between having children or a career. To have both is not a real option for most because of labour market institutions and social norms.

Yet with an ageing and shrinking population Japan desperately needs more women to realise their full work potential and for the fertility rate to increase. Japan’s demographic crunch and rapid ageing mean that the womenomics program — getting more women into the workforce and more productively employed to boost Japan’s economy — is at the top of the policy agenda. For social equity reasons, elevating the status of women has been a high priority in some circles for a long time. But the need to revive the economy gives womenomics greater urgency now.

It is still the norm that when women re-enter the workforce after child rearing they do not return to their former career paths but are instead forced into non-regular work — not unlike casual employment with fewer rights and benefits or job security than ‘regular’ workers. In 2002 only 18 per cent of women with one child under three years kept their regular job. That is now 30 per cent — progress but from a low base — according to Nobuko Nagase.

When the expectation is that women will exit the workforce after marriage and for childbirth, companies do not invest as much in training them. Japanese women are among the most highly educated in the world but without the on-the-job training or investment in human capital formation of their male counterparts, it is no wonder that there are so few female managers in Japanese companies.

There is underrepresentation in politics as well. Women currently hold only 12 per cent of seats in the upper house and 9 per cent in the lower house of the parliament. ‘Japanese women are making cracks in the glass ceiling of politics’, explains Emma Dalton. Japan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party, elected a woman, Renho, as its new leader, while Yuriko Koike recently won election as the governor of Tokyo and Tomomi Inada was promoted to minister of defence. Yet beyond this symbolism it remains to be seen how this mini-boom can be translated into policies which benefit women.

The good news is that female labour force participation has been rising. And with an unemployment rate of only 3 per cent, anyone looking for a job is likely to be able to find one. But many women who want to work cannot — they do not show up in the unemployment rate because they are not able to participate in the labour market.

One binding constraint is the lack of childcare places available. ‘In April 2015, some 23,000 Japanese families could not find a suitable nursery for their children to attend’ according to Naomi Koshi in this week’s lead piece. The reality is that  it is impossible for both parents to work when they cannot find daycare for their child. The result is that the mother usually has to exit the workforce.

Not surprisingly, there is growing anger among mothers and families about the dearth of available childcare places in Japan. In an article in the latest East Asia Forum QuarterlyNobuhiro Aizawa explains that in February the phrase Nippon shine — a slightly less polite version of ‘go to hell Japan’ — went viral and became the subject of debate in the Japanese parliament. The phrase originated from an anonymous working mother decrying in a blog post ‘the fact that her one-year old child had been denied a place at nursery school’.

‘The phrase “go to hell, Japan”’, Aizawa explains, ‘perfectly captured the frustration many Japanese women feel [about] being asked to work more and raise more children without effective government policies to support them’.

One of those responding to this crisis is Naomi Koshi, the mayor of Otsu city, near Kyoto. Since being elected four years ago, Koshi has succeeded in creating 2000 new childcare places (Otsu’s population is 337,000). As a female mayor, Koshi is also in the minority — women account  for only 2 per cent of all mayors in Japan. Koshi’s achievements are impressive but there is clearly much work to be done at all levels of the country and Japan cannot rely solely on local leaders.

With so much unmet demand for childcare places, liberalising that market and letting new providers in — domestic and foreign — seems like economics 101.

There are also more difficult reforms needed. The biggest barriers to womenomics are labour practices and workplace norms. Working hours are traditionally long in Japan and people believe that leaving work early, especially before your boss, signals that one is not serious about their employment. Much of this unpaid overtime is unproductive. But when men and women are expected to stay late or miss out on career progression, who takes care of the children?

Some womenomics policies seem to be working, according to Nagase. Companies with more than 300 employees are required to develop action plans to create more family-friendly working conditions. There is now less stigma attached to taking maternity leave — less progress has been made toward normalising paternity leave.

But there is a long way to go. Tax policies and company norms entrench the traditional family structure of the man being the breadwinner and women being the homemaker. ‘Though women are granted legal equality under the Japanese constitution’, Koshi explains, ‘true equality has yet to be attained in practice’.

The Japanese economy, society and its population — population decline literally threatens the extinction of Japan in 1000 years on current trends — needs its women to shine. Critical steps are to systematically remove all the barriers and impediments to Japanese mothers’ working, and establish equal treatment of women in the Japanese workplace. This will assist in both lifting the birth rate as well as lift Japan’s shrinking growth potential over the period in which female labour redeployment yields its productivity effect.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

5 responses to “Women can save Japan”

  1. Pretty much on the dot, but the piece contains the phrase “Nippon shine ― a slightly less polite version of ‘go to hell Japan'”, which superficially pushes the envelope for the famed flexibility of the Japanese language. A gloss (the dictionary meanings of the second word) would have been in order. I could only locate paint manufacturers when I searched for “Japan Shine”, and it took quite some further digging to find that what you meant by “shine” was something better depicted by “shi-ne” maybe, “die” or “die away” here. Will anybody else, even those well up on Japan realize that?

    You will know that Prime Minister Abe also makes statements to express that he wishes women to shine (the sunny meaning) in Japanese society and there is a lot more of “shine” that goes around in modern public discourse in Japan. Your not glossing this term sort of de-fangs it and leaves an at least vapid if not outright confusing impression. Telling us the “real” meaning behind the awkward romanization you provided would express the rage of the mother a lot better.

    Torkil Christensen
    Sapporo, Japan

  2. “Japan ranks as one of the worst countries in the OECD, or among advanced economies, to be a working woman. Women are vastly underrepresented in senior positions in companies, politics and society.”

    If that is indeed the case, why not name and shame the other countries that Japan is “one of the worst of.”

    Singling out Japan looks suspicously racist to this Japanese citizen.

  3. “Female labour force participation is rising.” I am sure there are far more Japanese women who want to stay home as house wives than women who want to work outside home. Most women go out to work because their families cannot afford to live only on their husbands’ salary or wages.
    Only a small number out of all Japanese women working have good pay jobs; they work in professional jobs as doctors, lawyers, politicians, nurses, computors specialists, etc. Most engage in drab, nerve-fraying and/or physically exhausting jobs.

  4. This article has two major problems. The first is the author’s comment that Japan is “one of the worst countries in the OECD is rather disingenuous. The OECD has only two Asian members, Japan and South Korea. The result is that the comparison is more one of East Asian cultural to European/American culture than a statement about the country’s actual standing. A better comparison would be to compare Japan to its East Asian neighbors, including non-OECD members China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

    The second is the author’s comment that, based upon current trends, “population decline literally threatens the extinction of Japan in 1000 years…” is a ridiculous extrapolation.

  5. Following the 10 July 2016 election, there are 50 women serving in the House of Councillors. This makes the percentage of women Senators 20.7 % (50 out of 242), not 12% as stated above.

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