For a guy with a two-thirds majority in the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has accomplished remarkably little since 2012.
In the past year, real wages declined 3 percent while the economy fell into recession. Even so, this may be the least-worst bad time for the LDP to seek a renewed mandate as Abe enacts his unpopular policies on state secrets, security policy and constitutional revision while revving up the nation’s nuclear reactors. Notice that he doesn’t call for a referendum on any of these policies, because he knows he would lose. So instead he will trample an enfeebled opposition in next week’s election and pretend that’s what matters.
Some government advisers whisper that Abe doesn’t really care about economics. Instead, he is obsessed with enacting his ideological agenda and needs an extra two years to realize his stated goal of overturning the postwar order that most Japanese are proud of.
There are many reasons why Abe doesn’t deserve to be re-elected as prime minister and why his call for snap elections reflects a poor sense of priorities. His politically expedient decision to sacrifice legislation intended to empower women in the workforce highlights his failings. Abe of course is pledging yet again to embrace “womenomics” to revitalize the economy, but has a track record of empty promises and hollow PR gestures. His “pink” Cabinet reshuffle featuring a record tying five female ministers backfired badly when two resigned while Abe distanced himself from the fiasco.
Don’t get me wrong — Abe probably understands womenomics and the need to boost women’s labor force participation for the benefit of the economy — but there is no fire in his belly about this issue like he has for constitutional revision or rewriting Japan’s wartime history. Judging from LDP posturing in the Diet, there has been considerably more energy devoted to downplaying the history of Japan’s unsavory treatment of “comfort women” from 1932-45 than in promoting gender equality in the 21st century.
Abe cultivates an image of empowering women, announcing lofty targets for women in management and boardrooms, but he isn’t doing much to make this happen. Touting an ambitious vision without audacious action means it is just hot air.
Let’s not overlook the good news on Abe’s watch, though. This year Japan rose in the World Economic Forum’s global gender-equality ranking from 105 to 104, putting Japan on course to achieve equality in eight decades. Alas, the recently dissolved Diet would have passed legislation aimed at giving momentum to Abe’s grandstanding on womenomics, but by calling a snap election he scuttled the effort. Next year?
It never seems to be the right time to do something meaningful about promoting women in the workforce. As a result the Japanese economy is underperforming and many women are unable to pursue a fulfilling career while raising a family. The Diet passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in May 1985, but the results have been underwhelming. Nearly three decades on, the status of women in the workforce has improved somewhat, but they remain underrepresented in management, suffer various forms of harassment and discrimination and are still paid much less than men. Too many women find that combining a career with marriage and raising a family is mission impossible.
In Japan there is a chicken-and-egg debate about women in the workforce, with some arguing that because women are not really committed to their jobs — 70 percent withdraw after giving birth — firms don’t invest in skills training and sideline them from the fast track. In reality, though, studies show that women opt out of careers because they aren’t given desirable opportunities and find themselves marginalized. Many women despair that they are faced with limited and dreary prospects and thus give up in the face of institutionalized discrimination. Employers cite their high dropout rate as vindicating their argument about women’s limited career commitment without considering how their poor management of women discourages them.
Abe deserves credit for addressing the shortage of child care facilities and long waiting lists, but in the absence of significant changes in corporate culture and government policies, boosting child care space is an inadequate Band-Aid because it’s only one of the impediments to women’s employment.
Only about one-third of mothers with children under the age of 6 are working. This is low compared to the 61 percent in the United States, 55 percent in the United Kingdom and 53 percent in Germany. This represents a massive squandering of many women’s skills, depriving firms of some of their best workers. Moreover, enabling more women to work will boost household income and help fight deflation, which Abe identifies as the key cause of Japan’s economic malaise.
Japan’s corporate culture may not be quite as antediluvian and culturally hidebound as Western media often suggest, but it has been slow to catch on to evidence that empowering women helps the corporate bottom line by boosting profits. Some firms have figured out that workforce diversity makes sense and are tapping women’s potential, but not very many.
What makes sense for firms also makes sense for women if diversity is properly managed. However, corporate human-resources managers are often resistant to change and prefer to retain the one-size-fits-all patriarchal employment model that is unsuitable for working mothers. Long hours, the lack of flexible full-time work options, transfers to regional offices and other practices make it harder than it ought to be for women to pursue careers, much less positions in top management. One proposal for a new career track that eliminates transfers to branch offices sounds good for women, but the catch is 20 percent less pay. Ouch!
Japan has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Overall in 2012 women earned 26.5 percent less than men in Japan versus a 2011 OECD average of 14.8 percent. This is partly due to the large wage disparity between full-time and nonregular jobs, as women constitute 70 percent of the latter. It is therefore troubling that Abe supports a new law allowing firms to hire nonregular employees on an open-ended basis that will reinforce women’s marginalization and wage disparities. Team Abe touts how many more women have entered the workforce over the past two years, but glosses over the fact that job growth in the era of “Abenomics” is concentrated in poorly paid nonregular jobs.
Mr. Abe, are your renewed pledges to empower women just more hot air or will you enact policies with teeth that will make it happen?
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.