Can women really ‘shine’ under Abe?

The prime minister has vowed to help women break the glass ceiling in the workplace but critics have questioned his motivation


Staff Writer

Sayaka Osakabe used to love being the editor of a quarterly newsletter.

She dedicated herself to the job, working late nights and weekends in order to conduct interviews, take photographs and complete all editing and production duties before deadline.

Osakabe, however, also wanted to start a family with her husband.

In looking for employment, she specifically chose to work at a company that held kurumin certification from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Such certification is generally given to organizations that support their employees’ child care.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t have been more wrong about the company.

Osakabe says she was harassed constantly by senior management after becoming pregnant.

Senior management, she says, told her that it was tough to be pregnant and hold down the position, and that she was putting her baby at risk by trying to continue working while pregnant. She unfortunately suffered two miscarriages as her boss repeatedly tried to persuade her to quit and was eventually forced to resign.

“I thought it was completely natural to do both — work and have children — but now I can do neither. I have nothing left,” Osakabe says. “What a woman does with her life is her choice and obstructing that in any way is a violation of human rights.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to give the economy a shot in the arm by increasing the number of women in the workforce. The reality, however, is that women face job insecurity, maternity harassment, sexist remarks and a distinct lack of day care facilities to look after their children.

In speeches, Abe has repeatedly stressed the need to create a society in which “all women can shine.” Smiling broadly while surrounded by female business leaders in photo opportunities, the prime minister has taken every opportunity to promote “womenomics” as a policy plank.

Abe has vowed to ensure women make up 30 percent of leadership positions nationwide by 2020. He has also pledged to increase the capacity of day care centers across the country. In September, he hosted the inaugural World Assembly for Women in Tokyo, winning accolades from prominent female guests both at home and abroad.

But Tomomi Yamaguchi, an associate professor of anthropology at Montana State University and an expert on gender issues, was less than impressed.

“Abe’s policy is to help support a few elite women at the top. He is not interested in fundamentally changing society to eradicate discrimination against women or protect their human rights,” Yamaguchi says. “He is only focused on two things — improving the economy and taking measures to increase the low birthrate.”

Despite being the third largest economy in the world, Japan ranks far behind other nations when it comes to gender equality. Just last month, Japan ranked 104th in gender equality out of 142 countries and territories, according to the World Economic Forum. Thirty-nine female lawmakers held a seat in the Lower House before the prime minister dissolved the chamber on Nov. 21 — just 8.1 percent of the total number. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Abe, had 40 female lawmakers in the Upper and Lower houses, which represents about 10 percent of the 408 politicians in its ranks.

When Abe appointed five female ministers in September, two of which were forced to step down over scandals, a number of political commentators viewed the move with some cynicism, suggesting that the prime minister didn’t pay much attention to the qualifications of the candidates. Most of the women he chose were ultra-conservatives such as Eriko Yamatani, minister in charge of the North Korea abductee issue. Abe and Yamatani once headed a group of lawmakers to “investigate radical sex education and gender-free education.”

Critics say Abe has simply jumped on the bandwagon of the gender-equality movement. And by dissolving the Lower House after pushing through other legislation the prime minister valued, all of the bills that were being deliberated — including bills to promote the status of women — have been scrapped.

“I looked at that lineup and thought, ‘This is Abe’s idea of female empowerment?'” Yamaguchi says. “It isn’t about choosing just anyone as long as she is a woman. With their background, how are we supposed to believe that the government is serious about female empowerment?”

It is not that Japan has not taken action toward gender equality. In 1985, Japan ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. And in 1999, it enacted the basic law for a gender-equal society and set up the Gender Equality Bureau in 2001. But change has been slow, and analysts are saying that Japan cannot delay strengthening its female workforce any longer.

In a May report titled “Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk,” Goldman Sachs Managing Director Kathy Matsui argues that the country’s gross domestic product could be bolstered by as much as 13 percent if the gender gap is closed at the workplace. Matsui is the person who coined the term womenomics back in 1999.

Tomoya Kondo, senior economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, is also vocal about the need for Japan to increase its female workforce. “The clock is ticking and Japan must deal with the many issues at the moment, including the pension and an aging society in addition to a stagnant economy, low birthrate and shrinking population,” Kondo says.

At the same time, however, he also notes that individual companies in every industry are all different — some have fewer women than others for a variety of reasons — and setting a universal target for women in leadership roles by 2020 is not exactly realistic.

“If companies start promoting women just for the sake of statistics, it is an unfortunate situation for everyone,” Kondo says. “It might look good on paper, but it could trigger dissatisfaction among everyone — even among women themselves who want to be promoted for their ability.”

The government is reviewing tax systems so that more women are motivated to work. For example, Abe has ordered a review of the spousal tax deduction system that cuts the taxable annual income of the main household earner by ¥380,000 if the dependent spouse is making ¥1.03 million or less annually. Under this system, a household now pays less total net tax. Another tax-break system is often referred to as the “¥1.3 million wall,” where dependents that make ¥1.3 million or less are exempt from paying pension premiums.

These tax systems were originally introduced between the 1960s and 1980s, during the postwar period of rapid economic growth. Over this time, women were expected to stay at home and support their working husbands by doing the household chores and taking care of the children. However, according to data from the internal affairs ministry, the number of households with spouses who were both working reached 10.65 million in 2013, while the number of households with only the husbands working dropped to 7.45 million.

“There was a time when many people benefited from these tax systems but times have changed and more people are choosing other ways of working. Therefore, the systems should not get in their way,” Kondo says. “It all comes down to each individual or household’s choice and all the government or companies can do is create a system where various choices are available.”

Last month, the Abe administration announced a “policy package so that all women can shine.” In it, he places female power as Japan’s biggest potential and is very careful to mention women in various situations, including those who had to quit their jobs after giving birth and those who were on temporary contracts. He even voiced support for single mothers.

But Ryuko Kurita, representative of the nongovernmental organization Action Center for Working Women, notes that Abe’s policies and government legislation tell a whole different story. “People don’t tell men to ‘shine.’ The fact Abe is using the word ‘shine’ at all is questionable from a gender-equality viewpoint,” Kurita said.

One of the biggest controversial issues during the last extraordinary Diet session was a revision of the worker dispatch law to enable the removal of the three-year cap for temporary employees, which could lead to an indefinite temporary status for some workers. The majority of people working in that insecure environment are women — out of the 18.13 million nonregular employees in 2012, 12.47 million were women, according to the internal affairs ministry. This bill was also scrapped.

Furthermore, in his economic reform strategy, Abe has designated six areas in Japan — including Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa — as special economic zones, and will include various deregulations such as enabling foreign housekeepers to come to Japan to assist women who want to go back to work.

“The only people that can afford to hire such housekeepers are those who are of an elite status,” Kurita says. “It’s like the prime minister only sees two types of women — those who are high-paid elite women and those who are housewives. The reality, however, is that majority of women are somewhere in between.”

During his policy speech in September, Abe stated how former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton enthusiastically supported his “endeavors to create a society in which women can shine.”

“We will change the world, starting from Japan,” he told his audience. However, the prime minister appears to have forgotten just how far down the international gender-equality scale Japan is. It has a lot of catching up to do.

Last but not least, there is an undercurrent of sexism that still exists in many people’s minds — whatever industry they’re working in. In June, a Liberal Democratic Party Tokyo assembly member triggered domestic and international outrage after yelling “Why don’t you get married soon?” to a female lawmaker who was addressing the country’s low birthrate.

Osakabe, who was forced to quit her editing job after two miscarriages, recalls a few remarks made by male senior management at her former company.

They include such comments as “You don’t need to be thinking about getting pregnant again for the next two or three years” and “You need a lecture because you don’t understand the value of life — I made my wife quit her job as soon as she got pregnant. What is your husband thinking?” She is still trying to conceive but suffers from ovarian dysfunction as a result of the miscarriages.

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old decided to do something about maternity harassment in Japan and established a support group called Matahara net.

“This isn’t about letting women shine,” Osakabe says. “Women will shine if they want to and women will work hard to become management if that is their goal. It is about making sure that we — the bottom majority of working women — are able to work in a normal working environment.”

Although Osakabe is initially concerned with helping women who face maternity harassment at work, she also wants to change the country’s backward working environment so that everyone can have a better life — both at work and at home.

“What we are going through right now is something that other countries went through 20 or 30 years ago and we cannot put it off any longer,” she says. “We need to create a better world for our children and the next generation.”

This is the first of a special two-part series on working women. Join us next Sunday for the final installment.

  • Ken Gai

    Interesting related material** via World Economic Forum, posted July 17th..

    Are women really ‘shining’ in Japan?
    Labour force participation rate in Japan, China, and South Korea graph**

    • Japanese Bull Fighter

      If Miz Ishizuka thinks that a shared Confucian heritage is an important variable in explaing low female labor force participation rates in North East Asia, I would like to hear or read her explanation for why Italy has a much lower rate than Japan. As far as I know, Confucious never made it to Italy. And, while she’s at it, I’d like to see how she explains the data in the WEF report that overall shows that very poor and very authoritarian regimes tend (on average) to do a better job of “empowering women” than do relatively wealthy and democratic regimes.

  • rossdorn

    “Can women really ‘shine’ under Abe?”

    I consider the question an insult to my intelligence…. and after all the years here, I have yet to find an honest japanese woman answering that question differently.

    But then, maybe many Japanese consider “shining” to be what happens when you become a member ob AKB 48 ?

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    I like to think that I was one of the first people to point out that Abe is a Meiji era style “reformer.” He is interested in women (or immigrants or more international education) only to the degree that these contribute to the Meiji era goal of a wealthy country, strong military (fukoku kyohei). But, Abe is not the only one guilty of elitism. Kathy Matsui with her Womenomics tends to focus on women executives like herself. Bloomberg, BBC, Guradian, and other reports always focus on how few female executives or managers there are in Japan, not what the deal is for ordinary Japanese women.

    • GIJ

      “I like to think that I was one of the first people to point out that Abe is a Meiji era style ‘reformer.'”

      You may have been among the first, thought there is no way to really verify that. But Abe’s connections to Meiji-era leaders are well known. After all, Abe represents a parliamentary district in Yamaguchi Prefecture and is descended from a long line of men and women who were natives of that prefecture–and that prefecture used to be a part of the Choshu Domain. And Choshu, of course, was the home region of so many of the top Meiji-era leaders (Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo, etc.). Given how obsessed he is with his family lineage, I’m sure Abe sees himself as a kind of successor to those late 19th century “reformers.”