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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Several months ago, I mentioned I would be addressing the gender question in a future article. I received several letters urging me to do so. A couple of correspondents, however, argued that the question of women is a purely domestic affair and not relevant to the theme of “Japan in the global era.” From various perspectives, though, the issue of women is global.

In the concluding piece I wrote for the Evian Group Compendium of Policy Briefs on global and domestic governance, I indicated under the subheading “the prevalence of global injustice and inequality” that “one of the greatest divides that has developed in recent decades has been in the condition and status of women.”

Though there remains a great deal to accomplish in achieving full equality and in abolishing all the forms of discrimination against women in the West, many of which are highly pernicious, considerable progress has been achieved. There are trends converging in the same direction in other parts of the world.

The Mideast is notorious for some of the most primitive practices in respect to women; yet even there cracks appear. Women’s movements have been a rising force in civil society in Iran and in Jordan. The Arab Human Development Report, a quite remarkable document compiled by a number of Arab think tanks under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, cited three main reasons for the backwardness in which the region has languished: the deficit of freedom, the deficit of learning and the deficit of women’s empowerment.

As one of the authors note, failing to tap the potential of 50 percent of your human resources is like failing to pump oil from half your wells. This may not be very poetic, but the point does emphasize that discrimination against women in work and education has a negative impact on all of society.

Although the status and condition of women may vary for a long while yet according to cultures and traditions, certainly a civilized global society must insist that barbaric practices in respect to women cease. This includes not only the physical atrocities to which women are subjected to in certain societies, such as circumcision, but also the curtailment of freedom and rights in comparison to men. If women want to wear veils, they should be free to do so; if they do not want to, they should not be forced to. Diversity must be recognized and respected. Discrimination, of any form, and the curtailment of individuals’ rights and dignity must be resisted.

Good global governance cannot be achieved until and unless throughout the world women are granted the same rights and respect as men. Not only does this apply to women in Japan, as elsewhere, but Japan should also aim to be a constructive player in building global governance for the 21st century.

The issue of women in Japan in the context of the global era is important for two other reasons.

As I have tried repeatedly to hammer home in this series, the Japanese economy must be put back on a growth path; as still the world’s second-biggest economy, it must be a locomotive rather than a sinking tanker (as it is at present). All means, therefore, must be resorted to in order to achieve that end. In the management of enterprises and institutions in Japan, as I have pointed out, Japan suffers a major handicap in being so closed to foreigners. Japanese companies look to a quite narrow talent pool by ignoring international managerial markets. If Japanese businesses were recruiting managerial talent on a global basis, as opposed to a purely domestic one, the chances for greater dynamism to be restored would be high.

The same comment applies to women. Even during the halcyon days of the bubble economy, in the mid-1980s, the very poor utilization Japanese companies made of their female employees shocked me. To have well-educated women speak in artificial high-pitched voices, serve tea, take photocopies and generally pander to the wishes of their male colleagues is a quite blatant misuse of resources.

My feminist inclinations and susceptibilities aside, it just seemed to me impossible that a society that so misallocated resources could possibly create wealth in a sustained fashion. Although I am no longer based in Japan, from what I see when I visit Japan and in my contact with Japanese overseas, I am not convinced that there has been much change. That is alarming. In the past it was purely a Japanese problem. Now, however, with Japan having become such a terrible drag on the world economy, it is a global problem.

This is an area where sweeping and radical reform is called for. It calls for change in substance, but also in style. If women want to serve tea, speak in an artificial high-pitched tone, spend their time bowing and scraping, and use highly submissive language (“keigo”), then they should be free to do so. It should not, however, be expected of them and certainly not enforced. Perhaps something along the lines of the Deming Prize could be established for those companies that are seen to be the most enlightened and dynamic in making good use of all their human resources. An emancipation of women in Japanese society will lead to a greater liberation of the country’s creative forces.

The second point is also closely connected with the global era. We talk of the revolution in information and communications technology. The world is much smaller, but it is also rife with tensions and challenges, hence the enormous need to develop cross-border networks and engage in dialogues across cultures. This is an area in which Japan, as I have stated repeatedly, is very weak, uncommunicative and inarticulate. As I have also said, this arises in good part because of the inability of the Japanese business, government and opinion leaders to speak English with sufficient fluency.

I am by no means the first foreigner to remark that, for whatever reason, Japanese women tend to be much more articulate and fluent in English than Japanese men. Among Japanese men, perhaps as a sign of machismo, fluency in English tended in the past to be denigrated. An “eigo-ya” (literally, a vendor of English) was someone who was useful for entertaining foreigners, but otherwise not an important member of the community. In 1984, when I was assisting the Britain-based Trade Policy Research Center in trying to set up a high-level meeting in Tokyo to discuss the launching of a new trade round and I mentioned to my Japanese interlocutors that fluency in English was preferred so as to avoid the need for interpreters, I was told that in that case I would not get any “heavyweights.” I am not sure whether this attitude still prevails, but no great progress has been achieved on the linguistic front among most Japanese men I come across.

On the other hand, one does encounter quite a few Japanese women who speak English fluently, articulately, often quite sophisticatedly. If women do have the edge on men in Japan on communicating in the global era, then it would be far better for Japan and the globe for women to be given the responsibility of Japan’s external communications. There is no doubt that this would also have a major impact on Japan’s role and responsibility in addressing the question of women in relation to global governance and in creating a more dynamic and open society in Japan.

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