With one of the most advanced higher education systems in Asia, Japan has partly distanced itself from other neighboring countries where educational gender gaps continue to prevail.

Now, female leaders in Japan are calling for a concerted effort by the nation to help empower women elsewhere in Asia.

“As an Asian country, Japan shares responsibility” for promoting social development and sustainable and peaceful growth in the region, Kathy Matsui, vice chair and chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs Japan Co., said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Matsui spoke on the occasion of the eighth-annual fundraiser last month for Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a multicultural university aimed at fostering future female leaders.

Opened in 2008, AUW currently has 605 students from 15 countries, including India and Nepal, and 430 graduates.

Most of the AUW students, who often come from impoverished families and in most cases are the first family members to pursue higher education, are granted scholarships that fully cover their tuition.

“Given that there are no Japanese students enrolled in the school, many people might think it has nothing to do with Japan,” Matsui said.

But she said a number of major Japanese companies, including Fast Retailing Co., which runs the Uniqlo clothing chain, and electronics giant Toshiba Corp. have largely contributed to the college’s success as its sponsors.

Since the launch of its first two stores in Dhaka in 2013, the Uniqlo chain has also been offering internship opportunities for AUW students “as part of its corporate social responsibility,” Matsui said.

She said in addition to cooperation from businesses, she hoped other organizations and individuals would support the initiative given more than half of all Japanese firms rely heavily on other Asian markets amid an aging population and declining birthrate at home.

She stressed that Japan owed its current position in the global market to other parts of Asia that offered their assistance when Japan was facing the same problems that developing Asian regions are now grappling with.

“Japan shouldn’t turn its back now,” said Matsui, who is also an AUW board member.

She said female education was a silver bullet that opened doors to further lifetime opportunities that may help solve various global issues, such as malnutrition and poverty, as women tend to pass their knowledge on to children and other community members.

In many Asian countries girls have access only to secondary education, Matsui said, stressing that higher education with curricula focusing on critical thinking like that offered at AUW was crucial to foster future global leaders who could make a difference.

Matsui hopes to strengthen ties between AUW and Japan’s educational institutions in the future through student exchange programs.

Meanwhile, former Japanese model and race car driver Keiko Ihara, who was a guest speaker at the March 16 event, believes Japan, too, could benefit from a greater presence of women in other Asian societies.

“I was blessed with so many opportunities to choose from and a chance to be socially active,” Ihara said, praising Japan’s education system, which offers easy access to higher education. “Many women (in other countries) with talent and enthusiasm for learning are deprived of those opportunities and it’s a huge loss for their own countries and the entire Asian region.”

She said, however, that outside of education, women in Japan — regardless of how motivated they are — continued to struggle in their adult lives, and were hardly accepted as equals.

According to data released last year by the World Economic Forum, Japan slipped to 111th in the global gender gap ranking in 2016. The country was placed 118th for economic participation and opportunity.

“Not much has changed since my debut (in Japan) 15 years ago,” Ihara said.

Worried about the future of her sport, Ihara in 2015 launched a project aimed at increasing the number of women in the industry by fostering training for women who want to become race car drivers, mechanics or engineers. In cooperation with Mazda, 40 apprentices are taking part in the initiative.

“I think it’s essential that all Asian countries work together to invest in human resources development to ensure growth and stability in Asia,” she said.

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