Hot-air Abe can’t campaign on ‘womenomics’


Special To The Japan Times

For a guy with a two-thirds majority in the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has accomplished remarkably little since 2012.

In the past year, real wages declined 3 percent while the economy fell into recession. Even so, this may be the least-worst bad time for the LDP to seek a renewed mandate as Abe enacts his unpopular policies on state secrets, security policy and constitutional revision while revving up the nation’s nuclear reactors. Notice that he doesn’t call for a referendum on any of these policies, because he knows he would lose. So instead he will trample an enfeebled opposition in next week’s election and pretend that’s what matters.

Some government advisers whisper that Abe doesn’t really care about economics. Instead, he is obsessed with enacting his ideological agenda and needs an extra two years to realize his stated goal of overturning the postwar order that most Japanese are proud of.

There are many reasons why Abe doesn’t deserve to be re-elected as prime minister and why his call for snap elections reflects a poor sense of priorities. His politically expedient decision to sacrifice legislation intended to empower women in the workforce highlights his failings. Abe of course is pledging yet again to embrace “womenomics” to revitalize the economy, but has a track record of empty promises and hollow PR gestures. His “pink” Cabinet reshuffle featuring a record tying five female ministers backfired badly when two resigned while Abe distanced himself from the fiasco.

Don’t get me wrong — Abe probably understands womenomics and the need to boost women’s labor force participation for the benefit of the economy — but there is no fire in his belly about this issue like he has for constitutional revision or rewriting Japan’s wartime history. Judging from LDP posturing in the Diet, there has been considerably more energy devoted to downplaying the history of Japan’s unsavory treatment of “comfort women” from 1932-45 than in promoting gender equality in the 21st century.

Abe cultivates an image of empowering women, announcing lofty targets for women in management and boardrooms, but he isn’t doing much to make this happen. Touting an ambitious vision without audacious action means it is just hot air.

Let’s not overlook the good news on Abe’s watch, though. This year Japan rose in the World Economic Forum’s global gender-equality ranking from 105 to 104, putting Japan on course to achieve equality in eight decades. Alas, the recently dissolved Diet would have passed legislation aimed at giving momentum to Abe’s grandstanding on womenomics, but by calling a snap election he scuttled the effort. Next year?

It never seems to be the right time to do something meaningful about promoting women in the workforce. As a result the Japanese economy is underperforming and many women are unable to pursue a fulfilling career while raising a family. The Diet passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in May 1985, but the results have been underwhelming. Nearly three decades on, the status of women in the workforce has improved somewhat, but they remain underrepresented in management, suffer various forms of harassment and discrimination and are still paid much less than men. Too many women find that combining a career with marriage and raising a family is mission impossible.

In Japan there is a chicken-and-egg debate about women in the workforce, with some arguing that because women are not really committed to their jobs — 70 percent withdraw after giving birth — firms don’t invest in skills training and sideline them from the fast track. In reality, though, studies show that women opt out of careers because they aren’t given desirable opportunities and find themselves marginalized. Many women despair that they are faced with limited and dreary prospects and thus give up in the face of institutionalized discrimination. Employers cite their high dropout rate as vindicating their argument about women’s limited career commitment without considering how their poor management of women discourages them.

Abe deserves credit for addressing the shortage of child care facilities and long waiting lists, but in the absence of significant changes in corporate culture and government policies, boosting child care space is an inadequate Band-Aid because it’s only one of the impediments to women’s employment.

Only about one-third of mothers with children under the age of 6 are working. This is low compared to the 61 percent in the United States, 55 percent in the United Kingdom and 53 percent in Germany. This represents a massive squandering of many women’s skills, depriving firms of some of their best workers. Moreover, enabling more women to work will boost household income and help fight deflation, which Abe identifies as the key cause of Japan’s economic malaise.

Japan’s corporate culture may not be quite as antediluvian and culturally hidebound as Western media often suggest, but it has been slow to catch on to evidence that empowering women helps the corporate bottom line by boosting profits. Some firms have figured out that workforce diversity makes sense and are tapping women’s potential, but not very many.

What makes sense for firms also makes sense for women if diversity is properly managed. However, corporate human-resources managers are often resistant to change and prefer to retain the one-size-fits-all patriarchal employment model that is unsuitable for working mothers. Long hours, the lack of flexible full-time work options, transfers to regional offices and other practices make it harder than it ought to be for women to pursue careers, much less positions in top management. One proposal for a new career track that eliminates transfers to branch offices sounds good for women, but the catch is 20 percent less pay. Ouch!

Japan has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Overall in 2012 women earned 26.5 percent less than men in Japan versus a 2011 OECD average of 14.8 percent. This is partly due to the large wage disparity between full-time and nonregular jobs, as women constitute 70 percent of the latter. It is therefore troubling that Abe supports a new law allowing firms to hire nonregular employees on an open-ended basis that will reinforce women’s marginalization and wage disparities. Team Abe touts how many more women have entered the workforce over the past two years, but glosses over the fact that job growth in the era of “Abenomics” is concentrated in poorly paid nonregular jobs.

Mr. Abe, are your renewed pledges to empower women just more hot air or will you enact policies with teeth that will make it happen?

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Richard Solomon

    Unless the electorate votes for non-LDP candidates in the upcoming election PM Abe will continue on his merry way implementing the unpopular policies noted in this article and only giving lip service to women economics. How/when will the voters in Japan wake up to see that Abe is all ‘smoke and mirrors,’ as we say in the USA, when it comes to respecting the will and needs of the people? He is invested in serving his nationalist, small farm, and corporate supporters and ignoring the general population of Japan.

    • rossdorn

      Yes he is “ignoring the general population of Japan”, as you call it. And why on earth should he not? They have alwáys been electing him and his kind, don’t they? So what else do they deserve?

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    I wonder if there is any other country on the face of the planet that
    is as blessed with foreign nationals offering unsolicted advice as is
    Japan? I would think that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to say nothing
    of David Cameron and Francois Hollande and maybe even BO are absolutely
    blind with jealousy. Maybe if they would ask politely, Temple
    University would send someone in to help them run their countries.

    • Steve Jackman

      Yes, we should all become more apathetic and indifferent. I propose the Japanese government start subsidizing lobotomy surgery for those foreign residents who question the status-quo and are guilty of thinking too much. How dare they try to corrupt the pure Japanese mind by implanting crazy thoughts into their heads.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        You obviously do not read 2channel. There is no shortage of Japanese with crazy thoughts in their heads.

      • Steve Jackman

        I guess you missed that I was being sarcastic when I wrote “crazy thoughts”.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        No, I was being equally sarcastic in reply.

      • Steve Jackman

        I’m afraid you’re way off the mark, if you are comparing the nonsense on 2Channel to the thoughtful and insightful articles written by Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times.

    • Bradley Fried

      Many foreign nationals like myself have been educated, lived, and worked in Japan for many years and we care about the country deeply. Lacking citizenship or Japanese ethnicity does not strip us of our right and interest in expressing opinions and wishes for the future peace and prosperity of our adopted country.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Indeed, foreign nationals are free to express their opinions and wishes. They’re even free to engage in puerile name calling such as “Hot Air Abe.” I like to engage in puerile name calling myself although I try to keep it to restricted venues. But, telling us what we already know about Abe and the LDP does not help us get something better in their place. I and many other Japanese voters would be happy to see him gone. I’m certainly not going to vote LDP. But, if foreign commentators really want to be useful in terms of their adopted country, they should be offering workable suggestions on strategy. If you look at the support polls, you will see that a very large fraction of the Japanese public is unhappy with what Abe has done and what he is not done. That demonstrates that we do not need foreign commentators to tell us how bad he is. What is clearly missing in Japan is a strategy for building an effective opposition. That is where foreign nationals might be able to make a contribution.

      • Steve Jackman

        It seems to me that you had difficulty understanding the article, so let me try and spell out for you what the author is writing about.

        If you follow the news, you would know that Japan is the the midst of an election campaign. You would also know that one of the points Abe is campaigning on is his push for “womanomics”. The author is trying to set the record straight by saying that anyone who is thinking of voting for Abe based on his dismal record of promoting women’s rights over the last two years should reconsider. He is also challenging Abe to follow-through on his empty rhetoric so far, when he gets reelected for another four years. Now, that’s not so difficult to understand, is it?

        I should also explain to you that it is often the newspaper, not the author, who writes the headline. Furthermore, please understand that newspapers contain different sections for news and opinion pieces. Perhaps, you missed to notice that The Japan Times publishes Jeff Kingston’s articles in the Opinion/Commentary section.

        Lastly, if you’ve been reading other opinion pieces in this newspaper, you should know that many contributors, including Jeff Kingston, William Pesek, Jiro Yamaguchi and Hugh Cortazzi regularly offer “workable suggestions”. You just need to read their articles carefully with an open mind.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        I am aware an election is coming up. I have the ticket I will take to the polling place when I vote in front of me as type this.

        I am aware of Abe’s lots of talk not much action record on issues pertaining to women. I have criticized foreign commentators who confused Abe’s rhetoric with action. Several of the Japanese major newspapers have published Abe score cards and noted that he has failed to deliver.

        But, since criticism of Abe on this point is not in short supply in Japanese, what is the point of Kingston’s article? What percentage of JT readers are voters? What percentage of those readers turn to foreign pundits to help them make up their mind?

        If Kingston and the other pundits want to influence Japanese voters, they should write in Japanese. There are very few foreign nationals who write opinion pieces in Japanese. The novelty alone would attract far more attention than yet another JT opinion piece in English. For example, when Glen Fukushima wrote a piece in Japanese in Shukan Daiyamondo about the decline in the number of Japanese studying abroad, it really started the media and government officials looking at this issue. Kingston and the other JT pundits should do the same if they really want to be influential.

        Because headlines are often not the work of the person writing the article, I tried to avoid making a direct attribution to Kingston.

        As for William Pesek, Jiro Yamaguchi and Hugh Cortazzi, I have seen nothing that amounts to a “workable suggestion” in any of their columns, just vague “do this, do that” statements. It’s like telling Americans “you ought to have gun control” without explaining how to walk the talk.

    • GIJ

      “I wonder if there is any other country on the face of the planet that is as blessed with foreign nationals offering unsolicted advice as is Japan?”

      The answer to this question, as far as non-Western countries are concerned, is “probably not.” But as I’m sure you know, Japan isn’t really like other non-Western countries. There exists in Japan a certain tolerance for foreign nationals (more specifically, citizens of wealthy, white-majority countries) who offer unsolicited advice regarding how Japanese should manage their political and other affairs. Perhaps this is a relic or hangover of the Meiji Period (when The Japan Times was founded, in 1897) when Japan reinvented itself as a Westernizing state in Asia that would follow the advice–solicited or not–of the “superior” European and North American powers regarding how to emulate them.

      I know you find this extremely irritating, but in a way it validates one of your most dogged and persistent claims–namely, that Japan as a whole is hardly a closed society and in fact quite open. I’m virtually certain that Jeff Kingston would never be able to get a job as a columnist with the Jakarta Post and offer unsolicited advice regarding how Indonesia (the country of Kingston’s actual academic expertise) should govern itself. Much of Indonesia, of course, was directly ruled for centuries by Europeans so the people there have little interest in reading a white American man’s views of how the country ought to be on a daily basis. Minus such a nasty colonial history vis-à-vis the Western powers, Japanese just don’t mind as much.

      Or in fact, most Japanese are totally unaware. I seriously doubt The Japan Times is a well-known publication to the average Japanese person living in Japan.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        It’s probably unknown to most of the foreign nationals in Japan as well who come first from China and second from Korea. In fact there are more Vietnamese and Nepalese than there are people from North America and Europe.

      • GIJ

        Yes I know, since you’ve pointed this out repeatedly in other comments you have made elsewhere. I do hope you read the rest of my comment, which was an attempt to answer your (probably rhetorical) question. But I think my answer was a good one.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        I should have prefaced my comment by noting that I was in full agreement with you.

    • Psuede

      I rather enjoy the discussions between people of different national origins. The world is more globalized than it has ever been in history. Different economies, and by extension their cultures, have an effect on each other. I like the exchange of ideas because we can compare ourselves to each other, and see different policies that worked in some countries and failed in others. For example, I can read this article, and say that although less Japanese women stay in the workforce after having a child than in the U.S, Japan pays its woman more than the U.S. does (It’s around 77% to what a man earns). There can be give and take, and things learned about not only economic policies, but even about culture. We learn how people start reacting to policies in retrospect to their traditions, and to the society of the country. We make observations. You make observations. I think it’s wonderful, and I’m sure that people in Japan who are interested in the U.S. just as much as I’m interested in Japan may read Japanese language newspapers from here to keep tabs on what’s going on. Besides, this is an article on economics. The economy is definitely in the top 10 things people worry about, no matter where you are in the world. It kind of unites us in a way (even though it was the U.S.’s fault everything went to crap).

  • rossdorn

    While the article is of course correct on most things, this one sentence is trula insane:

    “His politically expedient decision to sacrifice legislation intended to empower women in the workforce highlights his failings.”

    So what the author tells us is, that it is quite o.k. to ruin the economy and the currency in one stroke, and also walking close to the line that will provoke a military conflict with China… his one true failure is his politics concerning women????

    Good Lord….