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Japan lags European peers on female empowerment

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The latest EU-Japan summit wrapped up on April 23, with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda holding talks with European Council President Janez Jansa (the Slovenian prime minister) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. The meeting came at a time when both Europe and Japan are facing an enormous combination of difficult issues, including rising oil and food prices, climate change, and the Tibet question.

Lurking in the background was the debate swirling over the foiled attempts by The Children’s Investment Fund, the Brit- ish-based investment fund known as TCI, to increase its share in J-Power, a move that was blocked by the Japanese government. The seemingly arbitrary nature of the decision prompted much negative commentary, including remarks by European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson that Japan was “the most closed investment market in the developed world.”

Energy is one resource that Japan needs to secure for the long term and to manage efficiently. And it is in Japan’s interest to do so in a way that meets international standards. The same applies to another important resource: people, or more specifically, women.

The gap between Europe and Japan in this area was starkly highlighted at the recent unveiling of the new Spanish government. The 17-member Cabinet includes posts held by nine women, including the defense ministry, which is now run by Carme Chacon, who just happens to be seven months pregnant. A photo of Chacon reviewing the troops made front page news around the world.

Spain has been taking the cause of female empowerment extremely seriously for the past few years, as it attempts to emerge from the shadow of what has been termed “criminal machismo.”

In 2007, the government introduced legislation to compel certain companies to have a 40 percent ratio of women in upper management-level jobs. And the current Cabinet’s high representation of women is no fluke — last year ministerial portfolios were evenly split between the sexes.

The moves to promote equality in a country that has long been perceived as a bastion of masculinity are part of a continent-wide trend to better reflect society. Finland in 2007 was actually the first European nation to appoint a majority female Cabinet. Norway has a law that requires state-owned firms and some private companies to maintain a 40 percent ratio of women on their management boards.

Germany stands out for electing its first female chancellor in 2006, Angela Merkel, almost 30 years after Margaret Thatcher started her impressive tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Germany also ranks very high on the Gender Empowerment Measure, a ranking developed by an agency of the United Nations. Of the 93 countries for which data are available, Germany was ninth on the GEM scale. At the top was Norway, followed by neighbors Sweden and Finland.

Japan, however, ranks much lower in 54th place, behind Vietnam, the Philippines and even the United Arab Emirates.

The ranking is all the more striking since Japan promised long ago in 2000 to take measures to rectify this trend under the Basic Plan for Gender Equality. But the situation has actually deteriorated over the past eight years. Indeed, in 2003, Japan was ranked 43rd on the GEM scale, 11 spots higher than it is today.

In virtually all areas of influence, whether in business or politics, Japanese women are remarkable by their absence, with few exceptions. One area of concern is the bureaucracy, which some consider to be the true seat of power in Japan. But here, as elsewhere, women are extremely under-represented.

In the central government for example, only 1.7 percent of positions rated at section chief or higher were held by women as of 2005. Move higher up the hierarchy and the figure drops far below 1 percent. In contrast, 12 percent of the senior management posts in the European Commission are held by women, and even this has been decried by critics as far too low.

Some critics may argue that the various legislation and proposals introduced by the government have failed to promote female participation in the workforce and society, and that they were merely signs of Japan’s catering to foreign values and influence.

But the truth of the matter is that Japan is facing an intense labor crunch in upcoming decades and that effectively marshaling its resources — human and otherwise — will prove to be crucial.

A recent white paper predicted that Japan’s workforce will shrink to 42 million people in 2050, from just over 66 million today. This represents a contraction of over one-third. This dire prediction has created pressure to devise more measures that address what is called the “work-life balance,” part of which includes questions relating to the status of women in the workplace.

Japan’s successful rise as a developed nation is a story that has commanded the world’s attention for nearly a century. For a country to have risen to the level it has, with so few natural resources to count on, is a testament to the intelligent and effective use of its main resource: its people. But for Japan to maintain a semblance of what it achieved in the past, it must accept the realities of what it faces today and act accordingly.

As a prelude to the G8 summit later this year in Toyako, Hokkaido, labor and employment ministers from the G8 will meet in Niigata to discuss the various issues each nation faces. It is to be hoped that Japan will be able to learn from the good examples of its partners to implement practices that are better than what it has been using thus far.

Perhaps fittingly, this meeting begins on Mother’s Day. It may seem rude to discuss such things as increasing female participation in the workforce on a day reserved for celebrating mothers, but for the future prosperity of Japan it is to be hoped that this will be allowed just this one time. Ignoring half of its potential human resources is something Japan cannot afford.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K.