Will the bedroom or boardroom save Japan?


A bride and groom at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine, on June 16, 2013 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Imagine our current discussions about women and the workplace—Can women have it all? How do women lean in?—taking place in a country with one of the worst gender-equality ratios in the world.

This is Japan.

And women, it turns out, could be key to jolting the nation out of its economic coma.

Japan’s population is shrinking faster than anywhere else in the world. Its government estimates the population will fall by roughly 15 percent, or 20 million people, by 2040. With this steep drop, the tax base and labor force will plummet, all while state spending on the elderly rises, creating a long-term economic crisis.

One solution? More babies. In 2007, the country’s health minister referred to Japanese women as “birth-giving machines” and implored them “to do their best per head.” Even this year, one female parliamentarian, Noda Seiko, proposed that abortions be banned to boost population numbers.

Others point to the boardroom, citing economic arguments that bringing women into the labor force would be more immediately helpful to the nation’s fortunes.

Even the prime minister is leaning into this bedroom-versus-boardroom debate.

Shinzo Abe has promoted women’s workforce potential as part of his broader plan for economic revival. His challenge is great: Japan has fallen into recession three times since 2008, and government debt (at more than 200 percent of GDP) is the highest on the planet.

“It’s possible that Japan’s stagnation is essentially men’s fault,” Abe said in a recent speech. “The period in which men with uniform ways of thinking dominated Japan’s business community was too long. . . . The mission that I have imposed upon myself is to thoroughly liberate the power that women possess.”


(Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post)

Kathy Matsui, the chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, has published reports for more than a decade on “womenomics” in Japan. Her research estimates that Japan could add 8.2 million people to its labor force and lift GDP by up to 15 percent by closing the gender gap in its workforce. The employment rate is currently 60 percent for women, compared to 80 percent for men.

Organizations and firms from the World Economic Forum to McKinsey & Company have released similar findings showing that women’s increased participation would be the single most effective way to improve Japan’s growth prospects.

“If Japan wants to revive its economy, it’s all about empowering women,” Brad Glosserman says. He has studied the country for more than 25 years and serves as executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, the Asia policy arm of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Right now, however, women don’t seem to be very empowered in the bedroom or the boardroom. The average Japanese woman has 1.3 children, one of the lowest numbers across the globe. She is also far less likely than her male counterparts to work full time. According to Goldman Sachs’s research, 70 percent of Japanese women quit their jobs after having a child.

“In this country, we have never had a real radical feminist movement like many countries have,” says Kuniko Inoguchi, Japan’s former gender minister and now one of its upper-house parliamentarians. “Lacking that, I think we have not been able to make a dramatic change in mindset.”

So instead what has happened is a much quieter resistance to the culture’s male-dominated social norms. More women are defying the expectation to start families, even as career opportunities are still scarce.

The result is both low birthrates and low workforce participation.

In an effort to enhance the number of, and prospects for, women in Japanese corporations, Inoguchi developed a gender target. Though not enforceable, the government’s mandate is for the country’s firms to have women comprise 30 percent of senior management.

The U.S. business community in Japan has chimed in as well. The American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo has organized events and published white papers on the issue. Gender equity has likewise been a focus for Susie Roos, wife of outgoing U.S. ambassador John Roos, who drew on her work as a labor lawyer on discrimination and sexual harassment issues. Now the Obama administration wants to send a woman in — a first for the post — by nominating Caroline Kennedy as its next ambassador to Japan.

What do Japan’s young women think? Natsuko Yamada, 22, is the youngest in her family and left her hometown of Nagano to study sociology and gender at Waseda University in Tokyo. “We have to change the society,” she says. “It’s our generation’s duty, I think.”


(Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post)

Yet there are still many cultural and structural barriers to remove before Japan can truly liberate, as Abe said, this economic power that women possess. To begin, the typical Japanese company is not structured to help women advance through the ranks. Strict labor laws make it hard to lay off workers, particularly the male executives who have spent their careers benefiting from the cultural tradition of lifetime employment at a single company.

“It’s like a marriage,” says Kazuyuki Kinbara of Japan’s business federation, Keidanren.

Kinbara, who represents the interests of many in-country business leaders, is wary of some of the initiatives aimed at boosting women’s involvement. He sees the government’s 30 percent target for women in management, for example, as “a kind of affirmative action on companies” that’s “wrong for the government to impose.”

Day care is another issue. Most facilities are government operated, and tight regulation hinders private companies from entering the market to fill the high demand. Japanese entrepreneur William Saito, for example, has looked into starting a day-care business and says he has so far needed to obtain approvals from 11 ministries.

The dearth of centers and long wait lists leave many women choosing to either have fewer children or not return to work. A study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 74 percent of college-educated women in Japan “off-ramp,” more than double the U.S. figure.

In addition, groups including the American Chamber of Commerce have suggested that Japan needs a more robust program to provide visas to foreigners who could work as nannies.

Such proposals are meeting some cultural pushback, however, as Japan has traditionally been a highly homogenous country with a reluctance to diversify through immigration.

“We are sort of wasting half the population,” says Yoko Ishikura, a professor of business strategy at Keio University in Tokyo. “If I were a 15-year-old girl in Japan, I would get out of the country.”

Cunningham reported from Japan through her participation in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship. @lily_cunningham

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What will Abe do?

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Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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