Why Japan Needs a Pivot to Women

Promoting an active role for women is defined as the central piece of Abenomics, Japan’s economic policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At WAW! 2014, the World Assembly for Women which convened in Tokyo on September 12 and 13, Abe reinforced this point by stating that “creating a society where women shine” has been one of his top priority issues since the launch of his administration in December 2012.[1] But what does “creating a society where women shine” mean, and what are its implications for Japan’s economy and society? What is truly needed for Japan is not just creating a society where women shine, but for our society and corporations to embrace more diversity – in other words, changing the rules of the game. Diversity can be the game changer to transform and reinvent Japan.

Graying and shrinking Japan

Japan is the world’s third largest economy, but has one of the lowest birth rates; the population declined by 0.17 percent to 127.3 million in 2014. Japan is shrinking, and also graying. According to a recent report on population projections published by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs[2], the number of elderly people aged 65 and above has reached 32.96 million, accounting for a record high 25.9 percent of the total population. About one in four Japanese is now older than 65. There is an acute awareness that the country’s social security system cannot be sustained under these current demographic trends, and an obvious remedy is to look to “Japan’s most under-utilized resource”[3]– women.

But should women only be considered as an economic stimulant? Does a healthy society discuss women’s empowerment only when the nation desperately needs to boost the economy? Being able to participate fully in the economy when women choose to do so, and maximizing their abilities and potential should be understood for what they are – fundamental and inalienable women’s rights. However, there is no denying that arguments based on GDP growth speak more persuasively to policy makers and corporate executives. One estimate shows that if women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s, Japan’s gross domestic product would be boosted by 16 percent.[4] Once the decision makers understand that women’s participation in the workforce is a rights issue as well as an economic priority, measures to accelerate that trend would become more sustainable. It is now imperative for the government to mainstream women’s empowerment in the policies that they formulate.

Japan’s standing today

Abe is eager to create a society where women shine. At last month’s World Assembly for Women 2014, he candidly admitted that Japan cannot claim to be a straight A student in appointing women to executive positions, and went on to reiterate his commitment to rectifying the trend. What is Japan’s standing today?

Japan has set a target of having women fill at least 30 percent of leadership positions by 2020, but only 11 percent of today’s managers are female. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2013 ranks Japan 105th out of 136 countries. While Japan ranks highest in indices for women’s literacy and longevity, our low ratio of women in management positions has consistently pushed Japan down the list.

And who will be eligible to fill the leadership positions? Female participation in the labor force is a mere 63 percent in Japan, far lower than in other advanced economies. About 60 percent of women who work leave their jobs after giving birth, and in most cases end up gone for good, since women find it too challenging to juggle housework and careers in the current working environment. This tendency has remained constant for the past 20 years. Further more, there is the infamous M-shaped curve in work force demographics graphs, where a deep dip is visible proof of the absence of 30- to 34- year old young married mothers from the labour force. These trends suggest, most worryingly, that when we look ahead to 2030, there may simply not be enough women managers in today’s work places to provide a pool of talent of potential leaders.

Government policies: Is that enough?

Creating a family and retaining a career should not be an either / or issue. Women should be able to pursue both. For that to happen, relevant policies need to be in place to facilitate women’s choice to stay in the work force.

One measure employed by the government was to set a two-year target of securing places in childcare facilities for 200,000 children by March 2015. Having enough childcare slots to eliminate waiting lists would help relieve women from some of the stress and the burden of balancing childcare and work. Other proposed policies include the introduction of a new professional qualification of “children supporter.” The aim is to solve the current shortage of child minders, by calling upon experienced mothers for their help, and utilizing their child rearing expertise in a professional context.

But what is needed goes beyond having the right policies and regulations in place: we must overhaul the traditional working ethic and the mindset that shaped Japan. These brought about the “economic miracle,” the prosperous, glorious Japan of the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan made its presence known to the world as an economic powerhouse. Today, however, it has become increasingly evident that some of these qualities now form part of the conundrum that stifles us.

Transforming the economy and the society: Diversity as Game Changer

The greater participation of women in the economy represents not only a transformation for the economy, but is a transformation for the society, says UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. Yukako Uchinaga, the Board Chair of J-Win – a Tokyo based non-profit that promotes workplace diversity – echoes the message and stresses that women’s advancement will be a key trigger to change Japanese society.[5] Policy makers and corporate executives have begun to realize that promoting women is not only the right thing to do, but also an economically wise thing to do. Promoting women is not just a quick economic fix, but is wise for long-term development of society, because it means empowering half the nation economically and socially. So what needs to be done?

Firstly, more publicity and acknowledgement for companies that actually promote diversity is necessary, sending out the message that more opportunities for women lead to business innovation and enhanced competitiveness in global markets. Diversity helps organizations look good AND makes sound economic sense. According to a 2010 Cabinet Office survey on consumption and saving trends, 74 percent of respondents said women have the final say in household expenditures.[6] Companies should see that it is in their interests to pay attention to such consumption trends, and to be recognized as a brand that suits the choices made by women.

Success stories exist, where companies that promoted diversity improved their sales. An all-women team at a major electronic appliances company developed a light-weight, colourful hair dryer that will not dry out hair and leaves it shining by retaining just the right amount of moisture. The team’s shared goal was to launch products that ensured that women consumers “felt good” while using it and “looked good” after using it. Not only did their product turn out to be a mega-hit, the sales enhanced the corporations’ image as being attuned to the needs of the consumer.

A woman entrepreneur successfully tapped into a relatively uncultivated non-drinker market by producing bottled premium Japanese green tea in the price range of $40 and above.[7] The initial idea was to create a stylish drink for pregnant mothers and guests with dietary restrictions who wished to stay away from alcohol beverages at functions. With Japanese cuisine, or Washoku, designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, these bottles of premium green tea have now made it to the banquet tables of international conferences and major airlines’ first class lounges. The business has had a positive impact in creating a new market in Japan and abroad, reviving quality tea farming in Japan, which was losing its competitive edge to cheaper PET bottled tea. This anecdote indicates both the market potential represented by women, and also their entrepreneurial potential.

One initiative that acknowledges enterprises that work to promote diversity, would be the announcement of “Nadeshiko Brand” companies by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Nadeshiko is a delicate pink-fringed flower related to the sweet william, which has traditionally symbolized Japanese women. The Nadeshiko brand is often associated with “Nadeshiko Japan,” the nickname of Japan’s national women football team who lifted the nation’s spirits by winning the FIFA World Cup in 2011, the year of the devastating Tōhoku earthquake.

Enterprises may use the “Nadeshiko” brand once they are recognized as being outstanding in encouraging women in the workplace, providing them with opportunities to advance their careers. Due to their innovative spirit, these enterprises are considered to possess exceptional growth potential for their proven management ability to utilize and optimize diverse human resources.

Secondly, Japanese society must overhaul its traditional mindset and gender stereotypes. A 2012 Cabinet Office survey on the Division of Labour and the Gender Roles[8] shows somewhat stereotyped perceptions of gender roles. According to the survey, 51.6 percent believe that a woman’s place is in the home with families while men should be the sole breadwinner. This mindset was grotesquely highlighted this year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Male law makers heckled a female law maker during the Assembly session, as she called for more childbearing support. A voice was heard shouting “You hurry up and get married” – as if getting married provided any solution.

Partly because of the absence of support for a reasonable work-life balance in the typical workplace environment in Japan, women tend to remain confined to relatively low paid work with little prospect for career building, while employers still assume that women will quit after a short stint. This deprives women of motivation and opportunities to further their careers, and leaves them with little incentive to stay in the labor force. As a result, employers are less likely to invest in advancing women’s career opportunities.

While Japan’s population is projected to shrink, involvement of women in the labor force and making the most of their skills should be deemed critical. However, a worrying reality is that a vicious cycle is at work: more than 60 percent of female workers leave the workplace when their first child is born, and employers are dissuaded to invest in women’s career opportunities. Even when women do return to work, they often have little choice but to return as relatively low-paid non-regular workers, or hi-seiki, working part-time with little job security. This trend has resulted in gender differences in pay, with women making up 70 percent of such low paid non-regular workers while men make up 70 percent of regular employees, or seiki.

Thirdly, we need wide-spread understanding of this basic truth: what matters is productivity, not overtime. Working long hours has been the long-time hallmark of Japanese workers, resulting in severe distortions in work-life balance. An OECD report rightly points out that although labour input is high, it is more than offset by a yawning productivity gap; output per hour of labour input was 31 percent below the average of the top half of OECD countries in 2012.[9] Fewer women would be forced to leave work in order to look after children at home, if they spent less time at work.

We also need to reduce the traditional cycle of semi-compulsory after-hours socializing sessions, not to mention weekend-long team-building outings to lakes and beaches. This pattern of working long hours stems from the traditional Japanese working practices which made a virtue out of how many hours people put in. This mentality has to be curtailed so the workplace becomes attractive for both men and women.

During the bubble economy years of the late 1980s, an energy drink became wildly popular among male office workers. The tagline was that it could boost energy levels to enable them to “work and fight for 24 hours.” These days, the same drink only modestly claims to guarantee enough energy “for an extra three to four hours,” an interesting sign that companies are aware of the change in the working modality of the contemporary worker: No one wishes to work and fight for 24 hours anymore.

Transforming Japan: Diversity as Game Changer

As the old saying goes, new wine should not be poured into old wineskins. If Japan is to create a society where women shine, simply implementing policies and regulations will not be enough. The crucial task is revamping the traditional work ethic and mindset that made Japan what it is today. These are the very set of norms that helped the nation scale the peaks of success in the past. Transcending these notions is not easy, and will require social and cultural adjustment. However without the collective will and intent to change the rules of the game, transforming Japan will remain a far and distant goal. Diversity can be Japan’s game changer, for both men and women. For it is not just women who should shine – the men need it just as much.

Diversity will have a transformational power of change in Japan, because it requires our society to grow out of its homogenous modus operandi. It means nurturing a society more open to and receptive of different ideas and beliefs. It will involve men―as decision makers, as co-workers, and as family members―coming to terms with the reality of increased female participation at all levels of society. Given the demographic constraints, it is not a matter of choice, but a matter of time. 

[1] Shinzo Abe, “Opening Speech at the Open Forum, World Assembly for Women,” Speech, Tokyo, 12 September 2014.

[2] “Our Nation’s Seniors 65 Years and Older: Statistic,” Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, last modified 14 September 2014.

[3] Shinzo Abe, “Speech on Growth Strategy,” Speech, Tokyo, 19 April 2013.

[4] “Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment,” UN Women, accessed 6 October 2014.

[5] “Can ‘Womenomics’ Change Japan ?” Asian Voices, NHK World (Tokyo,Japan: 4 October 2014)

[6] “Survey on Gender Views regarding Consumption and Savings,” Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, accessed 6 October 2014.

[7] “Finalists, Women Entrepreneur Business Competition,” DBJ, 24 June 2013.

[8] Gender Equality, Number 55 (March 2013), Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office.

[9] “Japan: Advancing the Third Arrow for a Resilient Economy and Inclusive Growth,” Better Policies Series, April 2014, OECD.