How many years must we wait until Japan becomes an ordinary country?

Last week, a Cabinet Office panel decided to abandon the government’s target of having 30 percent of leadership positions held by women by 2020. In a draft report released July 21 that was compiled for the Fifth Basic Policy for Gender Equality to be adopted later this year, the panel wrote that the government “will implement policies to achieve the 30 percent target at an earliest possible time in the 2020s.”

The target had been championed by the government since it was approved in 2003. The goal was also widely perceived as an international pledge because it was included in the speech Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in 2014. The sheer fact that the government failed to meet the target after 17 years of calling for women’s empowerment is deeply regrettable.

Also disappointing is the fact that only a few major media outlets in Japan have covered the news. When such a long-held government target is revised, the public should be well informed so it can question why the government found it so difficult to meet the goal.

The world has many female heads of state, including New Zealand, Taiwan and Finland, to name just three. In advanced economies such as Britain, France and Germany, women occupy 30 to 40 percent of the seats in parliament. However, in Japan, female politicians only occupy 9.9 percent of the House of Representatives seats as of June.

Meanwhile, the percentage of female managers in Japanese companies hovers around a mere 10 percent.

The 30 Percent Club, founded in Britain, has helped boost female representation on company boards in FTSE100 firms in the London Stock Exchange from 5.9 percent in 2010 to 30.6 percent in 2018. Its members include top corporate executives and investors, and they pressure companies to have more women on their boards.

According to The 30 Percent Club Japan, the percentage of female board members at Japan’s TOPIX100 companies rose from 5.8 percent in 2016 to more than 10 percent in 2019. The pace of increase, however, is much slower than in Britain.

A law was enacted in 2016 that requires companies to create concrete plans and publicly document their efforts to promote women in the workplace. Another law was introduced in 2018 to promote women’s participation in politics. It urged political parties to make efforts to field an equal number of male and female candidates. However, the 2016 law carries no penalties and the 2018 law is not legally binding and only urges parties to make voluntary efforts.

Kaori Sasaki, CEO of consultancy ewomen Inc. and a well-known diversity expert, said it is valuable for a prime minister to set a target, but questions whether the government was truly committed to achieving the goal.

“If the government set a goal and adopted an action plan, it should also examine the implementation process. Not doing that shows it wasn’t serious,” she said. “Whether the target was met or not should not be the main focus of discussion. The right way to approach it is to thoroughly examine why the government failed to meet the target.”

It is time to seriously think about introducing binding measures, such as a quota system, which has been adopted in many countries for fielding candidates in elections. If there aren’t enough women to be promoted to board members, companies should consider bringing in female external directors as a way to begin introducing diversity in male-dominated corporate boards.

The media could also play a key role in changing people’s mindsets toward gender equality. During the “stay home” period of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Japanese watched South Korean dramas. The one that captured most attention was the romantic melodrama “Crash Landing on You.”

What made this drama special was not only that it was a forbidden love story between a South Korean business woman and a North Korean army captain, but that it featured modern gender roles. In the drama, the handsome army captain not only protects the business woman, but also shops and cooks for her. She was blown into North Korea by a storm while paragliding, and is the CEO of an internationally successful fashion brand.

The media can help make people aware of the value of gender equality, and they in turn can monitor the government’s actions and urge it make greater efforts to empower women. We must not allow the 2020s to become another lost decade.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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