National / Social Issues

Prominent feminist says Japan 'should not feel complacent' despite signs of progress on women's empowerment

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

Japan “should not feel complacent” amid signs of progress on female empowerment, sociologist and prominent feminist Chizuko Ueno has urged, saying much work remains to be done.

Speaking at the 24th annual International Conference for Women in Business earlier this month in Tokyo, Ueno said that although the ratio of female candidates running in the July 21 Upper House election hit an all-time high of 28 percent, the figure — and the government’s own goal of having 30 percent of leadership roles filed by women — was far too low.

That goal was part of the government’s “202030” initiative, which was established in 2003 and approved by the Cabinet in 2010 and aims to hit the 30 percent target by 2020.

“When I first heard of 202030, my impression was ‘why isn’t it 202050?'” Ueno, who is widely credited as pioneering women’s studies in Japan, said during a panel discussion at the conference on July 7.

According to multiple media reports, 104 women, or 28.1 percent of the total, filed to run in Sunday’s Upper House election. Although that was a record, Ueno was firm in her stance.

“We shouldn’t be delighted at reaching 28 percent,” she said.

According to final media tallies, 28 women were elected in the poll — a tie for the record reached in 2016 — in the first national election following the passage of a nonbinding law in May last year urging political parties to nominate male and female candidates as equally as possible.

Ueno was one of more than 50 luminaries in politics, business, academia and media from Japan and abroad who attended the conference, where they discussed topics including diversity promotion, leadership, and the Women 20 (W20) — a private engagement group that makes policy recommendations on women’s empowerment for Group of 20 nations.

Ueno also spoke about the smaller female presence at the University of Tokyo, where she serves as a professor emeritus. She said the ratio of female students at the university has long remained under 20 percent, due mainly to a low number of women taking the entrance exam.

“Unless you raise your hands, you won’t be picked. So, I want women to actively raise their hands,” Ueno said.

“What we should aim for is ‘202050’ for women,” she added.

Still, Ueno noted that bolstering women’s representation should not be the ultimate end in itself. Rather, she said, “we should think about what kind of society we want,” and draw on women to achieve it.

Ueno was thrust into the national spotlight when she delivered a welcoming speech at the university’s entrance ceremony in April, in which she said sexist thinking was everywhere and that the nation’s top university was not an exception. That speech sparked mixed reactions within and outside the university; her argument resonated with some but others questioned the appropriateness as a congratulatory message to incoming students.

During a panel discussion at the conference earlier this month titled “Making the case for gender equality,” Ueno said that her speech had received the strongest backing from “women in their 40s.”

Another panelist, journalist Daisuke Tsuda, said he has fought for gender parity in the art world, where male artists are more likely to be picked for festivals. Almost equal participation between men and women was attained for next month’s Aichi Triennale 2019, one of the largest international contemporary art festivals in Japan, with which Tsuda is involved as artistic director.

He shrugged off speculation that female artists were given inflated evaluations to serve the purpose of evening the numbers, contending that selections were made based on whether artists met the festival’s theme: “Jo no Jidai” (The theme in English is “Taming Y/Our Passion.”) The theme is meant to let artists put their spin on the Japanese term “jo,” whose meanings include emotion, information and compassion.

Tsuda said his approach was intended to crack the glass ceiling and challenge municipal governments, which usually strive for equal participation by both men and women but fail to realize it in their cultural projects.

More broadly, despite calls for more female participation in society, progress remains somewhat slow.

On the political front, Seiko Noda, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told the conference that strong resistance always emerges from within the party “against laws allowing women to exercise more power.”

Noda is a member of an LDP group working to create a rule mandating companies to encourage employees to take paternity leave, which could lessen the child care burden on working mothers.

During separate discussion at the conference, she said eliciting the abilities of women is a key national strategy that has failed to make progress. The solution to break the impasse, she said, is to “create a law or system.”

In a separate panel discussion on business growth and diversity, Akira Matsumoto, former chairman and CEO of snack-maker Calbee Inc., said there are three factors that stand in the way of women climbing the corporate ladder.

One factor, Matsumoto said, is that diversity is often “low on top management’s priority list.” The second factor is that diversity comes at a price, he said.

“The number of managerial positions is limited so more women in those positions means less men in those positions,” he said.

“There are always people who are opposing the move,” Matsumoto added.

The third factor, he said, is that mixing different types of people can be an “unpleasant experience” for some.

Matsumoto also criticized the management of firms that claim to be pushing forward diversity but say they cannot find suitable personnel, blasting that as “an absolute lie.”

“If they really want to put a woman in a certain post, they should simply find the most appropriate person in the company,” he asserted.

The Japan Times is among the sponsors of the annual event, which began in 1996 and is hosted by consultancy Ewoman Inc. This year’s theme was “Scale Up,” a message about women’s individual careers as well as their contributions to business growth and Japan as a country.