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Is womenomics improving Japanese working women’s lives?

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Women, dressed in ceremonial kimonos, smile in front of an electronic board displaying the Nikkei average as they pose after the ceremony which kicks off the first day of trading in 2018 at the Tokyo Stock Exchange in Tokyo, Japan, 4 January 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

In Brief

Womenomics is a bundle of policies aiming to empower Japanese women economically. It was implemented in 2013 as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s broader approach to boosting the economy — a set of policies known as Abenomics.


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How successful has womenomics been in Japan?

The objectives of womenomics are to increase the number of women in the workforce, facilitate their ability to stay in the workforce and boost the number of women in leadership positions in a wide range of sectors. Has womenomics achieved any of this?

The number of women in Japan’s workforce has been steadily increasing since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was implemented in 1986. Between then and 2012, the overall rate of women’s labour force participation rose from 53.1 to 60.7 per cent. In 2016, the figure was 66 per cent, indicating that participation continued to accelerate after womenomics was announced.

The increase in the number of women in the workforce since the mid-1980s has been accompanied by a gradual easing of labour regulations, which led to an increase in ‘irregular workers’ — that is, those employed under precarious work conditions. Women in irregular work made up most of the increase of women entering the workforce after the introduction of the EEOL. The rise in precarious work has affected both men and women, but has had a stronger impact on the female workforce. Recent statistics indicate that 6 out of 10 women workers are irregular workers.

In Japan, women’s labour force participation by age has historically been depicted by an ‘M-curve’. This means participation rates have typically been highest for women in either their early 20s or 40s, with lower participation rates between these two ‘peaks’.

But this pattern is now shifting significantly. The changing shape of the M-curve indicates that more women are remaining in the workforce during their child-rearing years. This has been aided by generous, and improved, maternity leave policies, among other things.

The number of women in managerial positions increased from 11.1 per cent in 2012 to 13 per cent in 2016. The proportion of women in the upper echelons of economic and political power, however, remains very low. Japan’s poor representation of women in positions of power is reflected in the three-year continuous drop in Japan’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, to 114 out of 144 countries as of 2017 — the lowest amongst advanced democracies.

It can be argued that womenomics has had some success, particularly in increasing the number of women in the workforce and their ability to remain there after giving birth. Still, another perhaps more important question that we might ask is: has womenomics been good for women? As Ueno Chizuko, Chelsea Szendi Schieder and many others have argued, while womenomics is about women, it is not really for women.

Take, for example, the group of working women called ‘Tuna Girls’ from Saitama. Fed up with waiting for state support services, these women formed their own women-led start-up for local working women who struggle to balance work and family. Tuna Girls felt that the ‘shining women’ government support that they kept hearing about in the news was not filtering down to them, so they felt compelled to take matters into their own hands.

Or we could listen to the full-time mothers and housewives in Narita City who, according to one city councillor, feel apprehensive when they hear news stories about womenomics policies — policies they believe might ‘force’ them into the workforce, something they have little interest in doing. Many women in Japan do not want to work after they have had children.

This should come as no surprise if we consider the lack of support mechanisms in place for them or the difficult conditions under which many women and men work. Under Abenomics, there has been an increase of karōshi (death from overwork), a decline in real wages (while corporate profits have risen) and an increase in the wage gap between irregular and regular workers. The number of working poor, those who earn less than 2 million yen (US$18,000) per year, has grown from 10.9 million in 2012 to 11.32 million in 2016.

On top of this, many women suffer sexual harassment at work, and some face matahara, a particular type of harassment reserved for women who return to work after maternity leave.

The shortage of childcare facilities, particularly in Tokyo, and particularly for infants, is an enduring problem that womenomics has not addressed adequately. The government promised to provide 320,000 slots by 2020 and to abolish waiting lists, but findings from an independent study put the required number of slots at more than double that promised figure. There are also strong cultural norms discouraging women from remaining in the workforce when their children are young, particularly between the ages of 0 and 3, and strong social and professional disincentives against men taking childcare leave despite it becoming more attractive to do so under womenomics. The intersection of these norms with inadequate infrastructure for working mothers raises questions that womenomics is not adequately addressing.

Another disincentive for working women is the tax system, which encourages low-earning married women to limit their income to a certain threshold. Japan’s tax and social security systems have made it the only country in the OECD where double-income households are more likely to be in poverty than households on a single income.

These factors — an inhospitable and unrewarding work model, insufficient infrastructure for working parents, and tax systems that favour the male-breadwinner family model — mean that women’s capacity to actively choose their living and working styles is still constrained.

There is a disconnection between the policies of womenomics, which seem to be formulated and implemented at an elite level for women working in the upper echelons of their profession, and the needs of the vast majority of working women. Womenomics might be on target to achieving its goals, but attaining those goals will not improve the lives of the majority of women in Japan without radical institutional changes in workplace and employment practices, and in the gendered division of labour within households.

Emma Dalton is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Peak Japan’.

One response to “Is womenomics improving Japanese working women’s lives?”

  1. A Cabinet Office survey in 2017 estimated that only 3.7% of corporate executives are women. A Jiji press article put it at 5.9% in 2017. Ie, much lower than this author reports.

    PM Abe announced his Womenomics a few years ago. The number of women in his Cabinet has not increased. Neither have the numbers of women in managerial positions in various governmental ministries. So, it has all been a lot of high sounding talk but very little real progress.

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