Why Does Japan Make It So Hard for Working Women to Succeed?


CreditCreditIllustration by Peter Oumanski

By Brook Larmer

Two gray-haired men from Tokyo Medical University bowed their heads in shame before the assembled media in early August. An internal inquiry into one curious case — how did a government official’s son gain admission despite doing poorly on the entrance exam? — had exposed a pattern of fraud and discrimination. For more than a decade, investigators found, the school had systematically altered entrance-exam scores to restrict the number of female students and to award admission to less-qualified male applicants. The supposed rationale, that female doctors are prone to leave the profession after marriage or childbirth, only inflamed a national debate on gender inequality. The school initially denied any knowledge of the wrongdoing, but one of the bowing men — Tetsuo Yukioka, who happened to be chairman of the school’s diversity promotion panel — offered an oblique explanation: “I suspect that there was a lack of sensitivity to the rules of modern society.”

A century and a half after opening up, Japan is now one of the planet’s most advanced, affluent and democratic countries. But in one key respect, it has remained stubbornly regressive: Japanese women, to a degree that is striking even by the lamentable standards of the United States and much of the rest of the world, have been kept on the margins of business and politics. Five years ago, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, vowed to create what he describes as “a society where women can shine.” Falling birthrates had left Japan with one of the world’s oldest and fastest-shrinking labor forces. (The population from ages 15 to 64 is expected to plummet to 45 million in 2065 from 76 million in 2017.) Rather than open the gates to immigration, an unpopular solution in insular Japan, Abe embraced a plan to ease the way for millions of married and middle-aged women to return to work. The effort, Abe said, was “a matter of the greatest urgency.”

The nickname for Abe’s program, “womenomics,” originated with Kathy Matsui, the vice chairwoman of Goldman Sachs Japan. Matsui, a Japanese-American who has lived in Japan on and off for more than three decades, told me she became aware of women’s underutilized economic potential soon after the birth of her first child during the stagnant 1990s. “A lot of my ‘mama’ friends were not returning to the work force to the extent that I assumed,” she recalled. “I realized that maybe the growth solution for Japan was right in front of my face.” After Abe adopted “womenomics” in 2013, Matsui predicted that the plan could add 7.1 million employees and lift Japan’s gross domestic product by nearly 13 percent. Activists and scholars were skeptical — the breathless calculations seemed to underplay the institutional sexism that pervades Japanese society — but Matsui credits Abe with depoliticizing the debate. “He moved the issue of diversity out of the realm of human rights into the realm of economic growth,” Matsui says.

The correlation between the advancement of women and increased development rates follows a simple logic: More working women means more growth, especially in rapidly aging societies, where their participation alleviates the impact of a shrinking labor force. And a more inclusive economy can create ripple effects, expanding the talent pool, forming a more skilled work force and putting more money in the hands of women. In Japan, the ultimate hope was that women would no longer be faced with the cruel choice between remaining single (to pursue a career among men) or having a family (and giving up a career). “With this one stone, we could hit three or four birds,” says Rui Matsukawa, a legislator and member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and mother of two. “It was like a survival strategy.”

Japan is not the only country that could benefit from tapping into women’s latent economic power. The McKinsey Global Institute has calculated that in China, an increase in women’s employment, hours and productivity could add 13 percent to its G.D.P. by 2025. The relative gains in India and Latin America could be even larger, because gender gaps are wider there. Over all, McKinsey estimates that a global drive toward gender equality — in work, government, society — could create $12 trillion in economic growth by 2025.

CreditIllustration by Peter Oumanski

Those fancy projections are tantalizing to investors — indeed, last month BNY Mellon started the Dreyfus Japan Womenomics Fund. But achieving them won’t necessarily transform society. Abe’s policy has succeeded in bringing more than one and a half million more Japanese women into the labor force over the past five years. The percentage of Japanese women who work, in fact, has surpassed the levels in the United States and is helping offset a steady decline in male workers. Yet most of the work is part time and relatively low paid. These jobs help the economy, but they do little to advance careers or bridge Japan’s gender wage gap, which, at 24.5 percent, is third-worst among developed countries. (In the United States, the gap is 18.2 percent.) “Womenomics was never aimed at women’s well-being,” says Kaori Katada, an associate professor in social policy at Tokyo’s Hosei University. “It targets economic growth only. For that purpose, it intends to fully ‘utilize’ women and consume them as human capital.”

Japan has only sunk further in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, falling last year to 114 out of 144 countries, where it is wedged between Guinea and Ethiopia. The ranking reflects the continuing dearth of female leaders in business and politics. A 2017 Japanese government report found that women make up just 13 percent of managerial positions in Japan, compared with 44 percent in the United States. According to a recent Reuters poll, three-quarters of Japanese companies say they have no female senior executives. A 2015 law now requires larger companies to set targets for hiring and promoting women and to report on the results, but there are no penalties for inaction.

Politics is even more of a male bastion. With women accounting for just 10 percent of the members in Japan’s lower house, the country ranks 161st out of 193 countries in female political representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. (Saudi Arabia ranks 60 places higher, two spots ahead of the United States.) A new nonbinding law urges political parties to do “as much as possible” to field more female candidates and to strive for gender equality. But again, the law has no teeth, and Abe isn’t exactly helping. After his re-election as party leader in September, he formed a new 19-member cabinet with just one woman. Asked how this jibes with womenomics, Abe tried to brush it off, saying his female appointee had the “presence of two or three women.”

Japan’s narrow-gauged success in getting women into the work force masks a deeper failure to uproot or even to challenge a discriminatory culture that makes it nearly impossible for women to advance a career while raising a family. Japanese women are still expected to do the vast majority of unpaid labor. How can they also keep up with the punishingly long hours and bonding over evening drinks that companies often require of their employees? Abe’s government has taken many helpful steps: approving more day-care centers (though nearly 20,000 toddlers are still on waiting lists), passing a law limiting overtime to 100 hours a month, expanding parental leave for women and men alike (though barely 5 percent of new fathers take any leave at all). Ingrained attitudes and policies change slowly. Earlier this year, for example, a Japanese day care worker was forced to apologize to colleagues for becoming pregnant out of turn. Her company’s director had apparently dictated that a more senior worker be allowed to get pregnant first.

Last month, Ogata ran into trouble again with her male colleagues in Kumamoto. As she was speaking to the assembly, another lawmaker demanded to know what she had in her mouth. A cough drop for my sore throat, she said. The men stopped the session and scoured their rule books for lozenge-eating infractions. After hours of bickering, Ogata was thrown out for refusing to apologize. The incident, she believes, was payback for her earlier defiance. “They felt bad that their outdated attitudes had been exposed and criticized in public,” Ogata told The Guardian. “This is part of a struggle between me and other councilors, most of whom are older men, to make the council more relevant to the everyday lives of ordinary people.” Even a cough drop can make a cameo in the larger struggle for Japan’s economic future.

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