Japan did everything except what many economists argue might actually work: empowering women.
The question of how Japan can raise its game has just taken on renewed relevance. Less than a year into a remarkably unpopular stint as leader, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bowed to reality and announced on Sept. 3 that he will not seek reelection.
Suga’s sudden departure is casting a spotlight on the women who might angle to replace him. There are a number of highly qualified candidates mulling runs to become Japan’s first female leader.
When it comes to Japan’s biggest economic challenges, Noda checks many of the experience boxes for voters. She has been a bold and consistent voice for the need for highly indebted Japan to address its declining birthrate and fast-aging population, which imperil Tokyo’s credit rating. And she has focused on making it easier for women to balance work and life as a means of raising the national birthrate — which fell to a record low last year — and pulling more women into politics.
In the covid era, Koike outshone Shinzo Abe, who left office in September 2020, and Suga. Both men read from the Donald Trump playbook, prioritizing the health of the stock market over that of the public. Koike, in sharp contrast, advocated stricter lockdowns and travel curbs. Though she was dismissed as a worrywart, her more cautious approach looks wise in retrospect.
A female leader — and the signal that such a choice would send to Japanese women — could accelerate Japan’s push for equity and prosperity. Japan has long been starved for female role models in senior positions; a female leader could be a powerful catalyst for change. Economists at Goldman Sachs argue that Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15 percent boost if female labor participation rates — about 70 percent — equaled the roughly 86 percent rate of men.
The International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and others have long argued that countries and companies that best utilize female workers are the most innovative, productive and competitive. Few economies have more to gain from greater gender parity than Japan.
Unfortunately, a succession of governments barely broached the issue. Suga’s predecessor Abe, prime minister from 2012 to 2020, came to power having internalized the research of then-Goldman Sachs Tokyo bigwig Kathy Matsui. He pledged to create an environment where the female half of Japan’s 126 million people could “shine.”
Yet, on his watch, Tokyo’s ranking in World Economic Forum’s gender equality index fell 19 places to 120. Trailing Angola, Guinea and Sri Lanka is not where a Group of Seven nation wants to be. The next worst G-7 member? Italy in 63rd place. Japan trails even Saudi Arabia in the proportion of seats held by women in parliament.
Of course, a female prime minister alone will not solve Japan’s issues with gender equality. Among those Abe is believed to be throwing his support behind is ultraconservative lawmaker Sanae Takaichi, 60, whose feminist bona fides are questionable at best. She is opposed even to allowing married couples to keep separate surnames, a flash point for women’s rights advocates.
Shaking things up in Japan should mean trying something different. Abe, whose “womenomics” campaign was largely spin, might not be the best judge of progressive candidates on gender. After all, Abe’s party produced former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who headed the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. This is, until he had to resign in February for saying women talk too much at meetings.
Japan’s women aren’t just keen to talk. They want to lead a nation that has forgotten how to reinvent itself. The graybeards had their chance. It is time a woman grabbed the baton.