Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week held a ceremony to award certificates to seven Japanese companies that “lead the way in letting women shine.” But the fanfare heralded the uncomfortable fact that Abe’s promotion of “womenomics” — getting more women into leadership positions to boost Japan’s economy — is failing.

Abe’s own officials have conceded that the goal of women occupying 30 percent of management positions by 2020 is “not sufficiently shared by society as a whole,” and lowered targets for women in section-chief positions in the national bureaucracy from 30 percent — unrealistically high — to a lowly 7 percent. The target for companies has been lowered to 15 percent. Surely Japan can do better.

There are 38 million stories (the number of females of working age) as to why women are not more prominent in Japan’s workplace, all of them different. Encounters last week with a few bright Japanese women illustrates why womenomics is a much more complex struggle than politicians pretend.

It is an issue that goes beyond creches or nursery places, and infiltrates culture, the way society is organized, and the attitudes of men and women, with all sorts of devious implications. Above all, there is a contradiction between the demands of womenomics, for more women occupying senior corporate and government positions, and Abe’s other clarion call for more babies to boost Japan’s falling population.

My interlocutor and guide was a 50-something clinical professor and departmental head in a busy and reputed university medical faculty in a major Japanese city. I shall call her Mariko Sato to spare her love or hate mail.

She has always worked, but her career, as opposed to her clinical job, started slowly “because my professor believed that a woman’s real job was to have babies, and he gave no encouragement for my research. I was determined to prove him wrong.” She got lucky when her professor retired and she was able to earn a Ph.D., win a research fellowship abroad and climb the career ladder.

She has made her own sacrifices, a late marriage, no children, breast cancer soon after she was promoted to full professor, including a major operation and nearly two years of chemotherapy. In typically dedicated Japanese fashion, she did not take a day off for her treatment, and her 10 days in the hospital for the operation was a “holiday.” In Europe, a woman in her position with stage 2 cancer would have taken a year off and been treated free under government health insurance. But under Japan’s health insurance scheme, Sato had to find more than ¥5 million out of her own pocket, though private insurance helped pay ¥3 million of it.

Just now Sato is tearing her fresh crop of hair over her own dilemma of working mothers. In her department of 40 people, she had six clinicians off for maternity leave a year ago. “Now there are only three off, which is a lighter burden,” she explains, “but still a burden because there is nothing in the budget to allow me to find temporary replacements for the pregnant women. We all have to work harder.”

What concerns her most is a bright doctor/researcher in her mid-30s who returned from a year’s maternity leave and was given tenure. Luckily she got a place for the toddler in the heavily oversubscribed university day care center. Even so, the woman insists on leaving the university before 6 p.m. each day, so that she can drive home, feed, bathe and put her child to bed.

Most senior staff in the department, including Sato herself, stay until at least 9 p.m. every day and turn up at least one day over the weekends plus holidays. There aren’t enough hours in the day for them to do their clinical work and then turn to research, success in which is essential for a bright doctor hoping to climb the academic ladder.

In middle and senior positions, university professors have to find time for endless meetings. “It’s talk, talk, talk,” says Sato, “but no one dare say, ‘No, I am too busy,’ just in case something happens and you get stabbed in the back or lose a post.”

She talked to the mother, whose husband is a general medical doctor with a flourishing inherited practice in a prosperous area of the city. The woman said that if anything happened or if she was pressed to spend more time at the university, she would quit to be with her family.

Sato is torn. “It is much easier with men. They come dedicated to the work and don’t take family time off. I don’t know what I would do if one of my female staff took time off for a second child because the whole system, including budgets that are squeezed tight all the time, will not support women who come and go and who are not dedicated to their work.” Sato cannot see another budding female professor in her own or the next-door department in the next 10 to 15 years.

National statistics show that Japanese women are increasingly a presence in the workforce: 63.6 percent of women between 15 and 64 are currently in paid work. International figures show that this is above the average for rich industrial countries, almost the same as in the United States. Closer examination shows that Japanese women occupy lower-paid and part-time jobs. A Japanese woman’s climb up the corporate ladder, not to speak of her arrival in the C-suite, is much more labored. Advocacy group Catalyst found women held 3.1 percent of board seats at leading Japanese companies, compared with 19.2 percent in the United States and 20.8 percent in Canada.

The mothers in Sato’s department are typical of Japan in another way: not young, but in their 30s, having graduated, qualified as doctors and earned a Ph.D. before getting married. The most important and often underestimated feature of today’s Japan is delayed marriage and later arrival of children — if any. Even a generation ago a woman still unmarried at 25 was “spoiled Christmas cake.”

Bringing up a child has become more time-consuming and expensive. There was a saying in the West that “children should be seen and not heard.” In big families, clothes were mended, altered and handed down from sibling to sibling, as were dolls and toys. Today’s children in the West and Japan want their own fashionable clothes, toys, games. Little wonder that a working woman who has had her first child at 30-plus is reluctant to have another, especially if she has to find her way up the career ladder.

One wishful solution would be for women to heed their biological clocks and start having children in their early 20s, as they used to. But society today has changed, and neither men nor women want to be burdened with making such choices as marriage or children so early in their careers.

It would help to make Japan’s “lifetime employment” system more flexible, so that companies could allow employees space for themselves and their families as well as for their careers. However, it does not help to replace secure well-paid lifetime jobs with insecure contract work. Short-term, companies boost their profits at the expense of workers who, with uncertain income, feel less confident to make lifetime choices such as marriage and children.

There is no easy solution, especially not to winning womenomics and boosting Japan’s population simultaneously, but it would help if politicians and so-called “thought leaders” would understand the complexity of the problems, be humbler and open a more realistic discussion.

Based in Osaka, Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator, and former head of the Financial Times Asia coverage.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.