For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, losing two of five female Cabinet members to scandal in one day is hugely embarrassing — a grave setback to his efforts to shake up the staid, male-dominated world of Japanese politics.

More importantly it's a reminder of the real problem with Abe's female-empowerment drive: His policies remain more symbol than substance.

In a Cabinet reshuffle last month, Abe hired the five female ministers to buttress his case for raising the profile of women in Japan, which ranks behind Burkina Faso in gender equality. For a time, his Liberal Democratic Party basked in global headlines celebrating its progressiveness and commitment to getting more women into the workplace — a key to Japan's future growth.