Commentary / Japan

Womenomics: Mend the gap

by Richard Solomon

Contributing Writer

Shortly after becoming minister in charge of promoting “dynamic engagement of all citizens” in the Abe administration, Katsunobu Kato was asked if Japan could expect a woman to ascend the Imperial throne anytime soon. Kato, whose job in the Cabinet at that time also included promoting women’s roles in society, quashed the idea by replying he was against ending current rules of male-only hereditary succession.

Japan, an isolated country steeped in tradition, faces the challenge to grow its economy against the tide of mild deflation, a shrinking workforce and an aging population. More women are now working due to womenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to stimulate the economy. Many, however, still professionally underachieve.

In the worst cases women face outright discrimination, as exemplified by the recent entrance exam-fixing scandal at Tokyo Medical University. More often family, friends and neighbors apply pressure to conform to societal norms of work, marriage and daily life. Yet lifestyles suited to older generations are less fitting to today’s generation of younger women, many who will assume multiple roles beyond that of homemaker over the course of much longer, multistage lives.

In traditional Japan, men remain the primary breadwinners with women playing more limited supportive roles. “If you grew up only living in Japan, you would never know what the outside world looks like,” says Hiromi Murakami, founder of the Japan Institute for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (JSIE). Through her non-profit institute, Murakami aims to awaken women so they can achieve their full potential. “By the time women make important life decisions, like getting married or choosing school or work, they think they have so many limits,” even though they are free to do many things, she says.

Murakami drew on her own career experiences in overcoming Japan’s gender gap to start JSIE. After university, she trained at a big Japanese communications company, but soon got bored sitting in front of a computer all day. The firm sent many male colleagues on MBA courses, so she asked her bosses, “Can I go too?” They replied, “Well, I’m not sure …”

She didn’t know their real thinking, but they seemed to imply, “Why should we invest in a woman? Women marry, quit and have kids.” Instead, they offered to send her to international conferences and on business trips. “You can go anywhere,” they promised.

After four frustrating years, Murakami decided to sponsor her own education. She successfully applied to several business schools, then told the company, “I’m quitting.” Her stunned bosses asked, “Why? Did we do something wrong?” She replied, “You said you are not going to give me the chance to get a graduate degree.” They backtracked. “Oh, which school are you going to? We might reconsider …”

Murakami politely rejected all offers and promptly left Japan for Moraga, California to study business at St. Mary’s College. She had earlier experienced life in the United States, when she was 13, after her father transferred to Huntsville Alabama for a two-year stint. On arrival, she spoke no English. Her seventh-grade experience at a U.S. junior high school was an eye-opening crash course in the language and in American culture.

How different the U.S. was! In Japan, students are told not to speak up in class. In the U.S., however, she had to speak up. “That was a big culture shock,” she remembers.

St. Mary’s gave her the opportunity to study business at an exchange program in Rennes, France. She jumped at it. After graduating, Murakami worked in Cologne at the headquarters of a German firm. Her day job was to report on Japanese and South Korean markets. In the mornings she also studied German.

However, practicing international business did not satisfy her completely. As a social, global and intellectually curious person, she thought international relations might better fit her long-term interests. So she successfully applied to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), moved to Washington and earned her master’s degree. While studying international relations, Murakami interned for Zbigniew Brzezinski, former counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson and national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. After graduation, she worked at a Washington-based think tank.

I say no more about Murakami’s marked career. My point is there are plenty of professional possibilities for women who look beyond their immediate horizons.

Alas, Japan ranks 114th out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Women earn 25.7 percent less in wages than do men, compared with 14.3 percent average less in other OECD nations. Here, women are discouraged from getting advanced degrees. The percentage in doctoral programs is the lowest in the OECD. By the same measure, Japan also ranks lowest in women undergraduates studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And only 3 percent of women hold senior management jobs in central government, compared with a 32 percent OECD average. The statistics quantify Japan’s glass ceiling.

Adding depth to the numbers, Murakami recalls one bright and career-minded colleague who entered the same company as she after university. When her friend had a baby, the company accommodated her request for shorter working hours. However, the change limited her career prospects. Even though she did excellent work, she was never promoted. The firm told her, “If you’re working short hours, we can’t promote you.” Eventually the friend quit to become a housewife.

In practice, Japanese companies still prefer to hire men over women. An executive recruiter once told Murakami their firm hires two women for every 10 newly employed workers, even though nine out of top 10 applicants are women. “Perhaps they hire a couple of women, but the rest are always men,” the executive recruiter said. Another friend resigned herself to living a traditional life. She got into both Sophia University and University of Tokyo but chose to go to the less prestigious Sophia, to increase her marital possibilities.

Murakami eventually tired of writing policy reports. “What’s the point?” she told this author. “If you give a policy recommendation that nobody reads — why not just target individuals instead?” In 2015 she started JSIE, funded by a group of successful global Japanese women in Washington. JSIE organizes the Washington Women’s Dialogue, a forum comprised of talented women who share life experiences. JSIE also organizes a summer social entrepreneurship workshop program in Japan.

The workshops are conducted in English. “If you put Japanese people into a Japanese speaking environment, they immediately start working in a hierarchical order according to age,” she cautions. “English flattens the hierarchy to create an equal environment in which participants can disagree,” she adds. Japanese English speakers are also closest to benefiting from the workshops. So long as participants can communicate in English, even if it’s broken English, “That’s OK,” she says.

Her goal is to give women and minorities who want to step beyond a non-traditional lifestyle the self-confidence to do so. “There are many smart, capable and talented people who don’t have confidence,” says Murakami. Many simply don’t see the opportunities which exist. “We want to bring opportunities to these women and to the younger generation,” she says.

Richard Solomon is an author, publisher and spokesman on contemporary Japan. He posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net.