“Womenomics” in Japan or the lack of a comprehensive approach on Women’s discriminations

NEWS - As Japan faces a tremendous demographic challenge, with a declining and ageing population, Prime Minster Abe emphasized economically the need for a more inclusive approach of Women in the labour force. “Womenomics” were born in 2013 and after two years the results are mild and demonstrate a very limited approach towards women’s role in the Japanese society.


Japan’s economic slow-down since the end of the 1980s has pushed the third most powerful economy in the world, after United States and China, to rethink its economic strategy. After taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in need to find margins of growth for a stagnating and even abruptly recessing economy in 2011 . Indeed, Japan faces a constant economic stagnation for more than a decade. Moreover, Japan’s population is ageing rapidly and the country’s birth rate worries the government’s economic forecasts (pension funds, elderly care…) . Many countries would compensate this lack of workforce by increasing the settlement of attractive foreign talents, but Japan is historically reluctant to use immigration as an economic tool as it envisions its nation through blood-descent. And as a matter of fact, Abe’s only last available “room of manoeuvre” were Japanese women. According to Kathi Matsui, a Goldman Sachs Japan strategist, the inclusion of women in Japan’s workforce, up to the same level as Japanese men’s, would potentially generate 15 percentage points of gross domestic product . Conscious of this potential, Abe decided that empowering women professionally was a priority of his mandate.

Japan’s wide gender-gap

But Shinzo Abe was probably not measuring that women are not simply an economic parameter but an essential component of the Japanese society suffering from a longstanding sexist image. The status of women in Japan is not only an issue for Tokyo, it also mirrors a global situation in Asia were women are facing deeply rooted patriarchal societies and highly hierarchal societal models. Japan’s low rate of women in its labour force illustrates this asymmetry of treatment when only 65.4% of them are working, while employment concerns 82.3% of Japanese men . Japanese women labour force ranks among the lowest in OECD developed economies . Still, we have to acknowledge the positive impact of “Womenomics” as this rate increased by 3 points in 5 years.

Women’s rigid role in Japanese society

However, the heaviness of tradition and culture are continuously affecting women’s dignity and opportunities in Japan. “From the cradle to the grave”, Japanese society relies on its women to take care of the children, the elderly and assume domestic tasks. Working mothers are so negatively pictured by a manly made society that they commonly suffer from mistreatment by their own bosses or colleagues. A Japanese word has even been dedicated to this situation of maternity harassment: “matahara” . Not only women are facing alone caring for their family and accomplishing domestic duties but (even more) the State does not provide a favourable environment for women’s professional and human development. James Simms explains in Forbes Asia that in 2014, more than 24 000 children were waiting for a placement in a Japanese nursery . Furthermore, the Confucian concept of “kō”, filial piety , implying one’s moral duty to honour and care for his parents, remains a very important task mainly assigned to women in the Japanese society. Finally, the political arena and Japanese companies display a particularly low representation of women in high responsible positions. Currently, only 9.5% of deputies at the Japanese parliament, are women…

Shinzo Abe’s plan for women: “Womenomics”

Even though Shinzo Abe might genuinely desire to make women “shine”, he mainly adopted a pragmatic answer to an economic problem and deluded any courageous deconstruction of the rigid gender patterns affecting women in Japan. Reducing such a wide gender gap would require to mobilize a global understanding and use comprehensive answers. Instead, Abe’s approach is mainly economically pragmatic. We notice that he uses quotas, numbers and rates to address a situation requiring more complex socioeconomic, cultural and political tools. Women are “the most underutilized economic resource” of Japan  according to him and their advancement is needed to help Japan find a push for its blatant economic growth. Abe’s administration announced its will to “increase the participation of women between the ages of 25 and 44 in the workforce to 73% by 2020” and “to encourage the private sector to promote more women by increasing the percentage of women in leadership positions from 10% to 30% by 2020” .

The difference between equality of treatment and a substantive equality

After two years since the start of Abe’s policies for women, the results are mild and disappointing. Abe’s assessment of the problem is too narrow to allow for a sustainable improvement of women’s rights in Japan. The United Nations’ 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Women’s Convention) clarifies this situation . Indeed, Abe’s policies only consider instating an equality of treatment between men and women (same rates), while missing the real need to advocate for a substantive equality between men and woman in Japan, including all gender-related issues directly or indirectly affecting women. Such an inclusive strategy needs to integrate the fight against stereotypes culturally impacting women (school textbooks, media awareness).

The need for a more comprehensive plan against women’s discriminations

Several policies, applied in other developed nations (Denmark, Belgium or France), empowering women could be proposed such as lowering daily working hours for both men and women, opening free kindergartens, implementing a compulsory paternity leave, opening state-funded retirement homes, establishing a quota of women for political parties’ candidates at the Diet etc. Women are not just an economic parameter, they are submitted to societal discriminations just for being women in Japan. As such, Abe’s first political steps have positively created a rising public awareness of women’s discriminations. Nonetheless, Japan needs a stronger political will, not only from the government but even more from the civil society to allow for a fairer approach towards Japanese women. Abe’s appointment of a (very) few women as ministers is a good start to demonstrate women’s essential role and capacities to develop Japan but needs to be considered more seriously by offering to more women positions at the most respected governmental offices.

Jean-Baptiste Allegrini - Research Assistant at the CIPADH.

1 Trading Economics (2015). http://www.tradingeconomics.com/japan/gdp-growth
2 Data World Bank (2015). http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN
3 Pesek, William (24/11/2015). “Asia’s $89 billion sexism issue”, The Japan Times, Tokyo. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/11/24/commentary/japan-commentary/asias-89-billion-sexism-issue/#.VlxEMi-FOUk
4 Ibid.
5 Eskenazi, Daniel (30/11/2015). “Les Japonaises, alibi démographique”, Le Temps, Lausanne. http://www.letemps.ch/culture/2015/11/29/japonaises-alibi-demographique
6 Yamaguchi, Mari (29/10/2015). “Womenomics’ achieves baby steps but social forces limit progress”, The Japan Times, Tokyo. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/29/national/social-issues/womenomics-achieves-baby-steps-social-forces-limit-progress/#.VlxEDS-FOUk
7 Simms, James (03/2014). “Asia's Power Businesswomen, 2014: Noriko Nakamura Discusses Japan's Child Care Shortage”, Forbes Asia. http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesasia/2014/02/26/asias-power-businesswomen-2014-noriko-nakamura-discusses-japans-child-care-shortage/
8 Encyclopaedia Britannica (2015). “Xiao – Confucianism”. http://www.britannica.com/topic/xiao-Confucianism

9 Inter-Parliamentary Union (2015). “Women in National Parliaments”. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
10 Abe, Shinzo (25/09/2013). “Shinzo Abe: Unleashing the Power of 'Womenomics'”, The Wall Street Journal, New York. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303759604579091680931293404
11 Chanlett-Avery, Emma and Nelson, Rebecca M. (2014). “Womenomics” in Japan: In Brief”, Congressional research Service, Washington. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43668.pdf
12 Westendorp, Ingrid (2009). “The Women’s Convention Turned 30” (Intersentia: Maastricht).