Doubts are growing over whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can advance policy proposals to promote foreigners and women, given the realities of this highly conservative nation.
In his revamped economic growth strategy finalized Tuesday, Abe’s government pledged to increase the number of foreign and female employees amid fears that the shrinking population will lead to a smaller workforce and stifle economic growth.
But analysts say that many people in Japan still have conservative attitudes toward both groups, which could frustrate Abe’s efforts to get them into jobs with fair conditions and higher status.
In the longer-term economic and fiscal policy blueprint released with the growth strategy, the government promised extra funds to raise the birthrate, aiming to keep the population at around 100 million 50 years from now.
In a nod to the non-Japanese workforce, the government decided to extend the contract lengths for its on-the-job training program to five years from three.
Some analysts warn of resistance to this measure, given deep-rooted fears that foreigners may compete with Japanese for jobs and that a multicultural influx might threaten Japan’s social stability.
Meanwhile, other countries may criticize the expansion of the traineeships as tantamount to legalized abuse. Many foreigners are lured to Japan with the promise of training only to be tied to jobs that pay less than the minimum wage, said Kenji Yumoto, vice chairman of the Japan Research Institute.
Yumoto’s concern is already reality. The United States condemned Japan in an annual report on Friday, saying the so-called training program has been abused, resulting in forced labor.
“The Government of Japan has not, through practices or policy, ended the use of forced labor within the TITP (Technical Intern Training Program), a government-run program that was originally designed to foster basic industrial skills and techniques among foreign workers, but has instead become a guest worker program,” the U.S. State Department said in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2014.
In the report, Washington urged Japan to “establish a third, neutral, nongovernment entity to conduct a management audit of the TITP” and “establish an oversight mechanism to promote accountability in the TITP to hold perpetrators of forced labor responsible for their crimes.”
Skepticism is also growing about whether Abe can, as pledged, increase work opportunities for women, following the sexist heckling of a female member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly last week.
Ayaka Shiomura, an assemblywoman from Your Party, was taunted by fellow lawmakers on June 16 while asking questions about maternity support policy while the assembly was in session.
On Monday, Akihiro Suzuki, 51, an assemblyman in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, admitted making some of the comments, including a sneer about her unmarried status.
Suzuki apologized to Shiomura, 35, but the incident prompted international media to lambast Japan’s ingrained gender discrimination. One respected international news agency reported that it “illustrates deep-seated conservative attitudes in Japan, where many men still believe that a woman’s place is in the home.”
Criticism has been mounting even within the ruling party, with Seiko Noda, chairwoman of the LDP’s General Council, saying that Suzuki’s remarks “almost denied the prime minister’s growth strategy.”
Mariko Mitsui, a researcher in the field of women’s policy and a former Tokyo Metropolitan assemblywoman, said such sexist attitudes are a “big problem that seeks to stifle women’s voices,” adding that Abe’s challenge to enhance empowerment of women would “end up in failure.”
Yumi Matsuyama, an associate professor at Shigakkan University, said, “If Japan is considered a society biased against women, the growth strategy being implemented by such a country would not gain international credibility.”
“The same is true of views against foreigners. The most important policy the government should incorporate in the growth strategy is to change the mentality of Japanese,” Matsuyama added.
Political commentator Norio Toyoshima said that Japan should polish its hospitality. In saying that, he used the word “omotenashi,” a slogan Japan used in its bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, and which it claimed represented a world-class welcoming and service culture. The word became one of the nation’s top buzzwords last year.
In the revamped growth strategy touted as the “third arrow” of “Abenomics,” a three-pronged deflation-fighting program that includes aggressive monetary easing and massive fiscal spending, the government set a goal of raising the proportion of women in leading corporate positions to 30 percent by 2020, tagging it “womenomics” after the concept championed by Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at the Goldman Sachs Group.