Working women are playing a bigger role in Japan than Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Kathy Matsui thought possible when she penned her first report on womenomics in 1999. Yet the country needs to pick up the pace of change or risk being overtaken by a demographic crisis.

Two decades ago, Matsui struck an optimistic note amid general gloom over Japan in her first analysis of women in the economy, setting out how empowered women could bolster flagging growth as the population aged.

In a new version out earlier this month, Matsui, now chief Japan strategist, explains how Japanese women continue to trail their peers in other developed countries in many respects, even as they pour into the labor force in ever-increasing numbers. There are now 3 million more women working outside the home than in 2012, yet they earn on average only three-quarters as much as men, partly because so many are in part-time roles.

“This country is already on the brink of a demographic crisis,” Matsui said in an interview in Tokyo. “If your sole key resource as a nation is your human capital, you don’t have a lot of options but to leverage every single human being.”

Matsui gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a patchy score card in her report — highlighting the slow progress on his pledge to increase women’s representation in leadership, and shortfalls on Abe’s targets for men taking paternity leave and mothers staying in work.

Japan, which is set to lose 40 percent of its working-age population by 2055, is already missing out on what could be a 15 percent boost to the economy if women worked to their full potential, according to Matsui. That would entail not only raising the proportion of women in work to match that of men, but having each of them work longer hours.

Matsui notes that Japan’s labor participation rate for women has soared to 71 percent — higher than in the U.S. and Europe, even amid blatant gender discrimination in fields from education to politics.

Tokyo Medical University made headlines last year when it admitted to excluding women in favor of less-qualified men. And in early April, one of the country’s best-known feminists shocked attendees at the elite University of Tokyo’s entrance ceremony with a blunt speech warning students of the prejudice women would encounter in school and after graduating.

Japan offers some of the most generous parental leave allowances in the world, yet few men take advantage of them, and women face barriers to returning to work because of child care shortages. Working mothers suffer because fathers do less housework than their counterparts in other developed countries.

Abe, a conservative, jumped on the womenomics bandwagon after he returned to office in 2012, becoming an unlikely champion of working women as he sought to tackle what he has called the “national crisis” of the aging and shrinking population.

He pledged, among other things, to put women in 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020, though progress toward that goal has been glacial. In politics, only about 10 percent of Lower House lawmakers are female, while Abe has just one woman in his 19-strong Cabinet.

“I’m advocating gender quotas in parliament,” Matsui said. “It’s just unacceptable to me that the most important laws and decisions affecting everyone living in Japan are determined 90 percent by one gender.”

In 1999, Matsui’s report cited the growing number of women using cell phones, buying computers to access the internet, snapping up luxury goods and even purchasing their own homes as trends on which to base investment decisions.

The 2019 womenomics report proffers a different basket of companies that are positioned to benefit from women at work, including in fields such as child care, elderly care and temporary staffing.

Matsui also offers a host of recommendations for Abe’s government, corporations and society as a whole — though some of her ideas have fallen on deaf ears for decades. She wants more to be done to break down the barriers between regular and nonregular workers, and an end to a tax system that pushes married women to be housewives. She also calls for looser immigration rules to allow more foreign caregivers.

But it’s not only the legal structure that needs to change, according to Matsui.

“The government can only do so much and a lot of the kind of heavier lifting needs to occur in the private sphere, not only within or inside corporations, but also within homes,” she said.

Values, expectations and media stereotypes have an important role to play, Matsui added.

“Because Japan is so much at the forefront of aging and shrinking population, all global eyes are on Japan,” Matsui said. “Is Japan going to be the template that other aging societies will follow? Or will other nations say: ‘Don’t do what Japan did!'”

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