Essay: Women and Japan’s growth strategies

As soon as Shinzo Abe came into power in December 2012 to lead Japan for the second time, he lost no time in announcing his three-pronged strategies he believed would revitalize Japan.  The first strategy was a monetary policy of quantitative easing with a massive amount of money pumped into the economy, pushing down the value of the yen, which is to improve Japanese exports, which in turn could pull the country out of stagnation.  The second one was a flexible fiscal policy, under which a huge stimulus package amounting \10.6 trillion (or about $116 billion) was announced(The Economist, June 15th 2013, p.25).  Then in mid June, Abe announced the “Nippon Saikou Senryaku(the Strategy for Rebuilding Japan):  Japan is Back”, perhaps the most important of the three-pronged strategies, the success of which would determine the overall outcome of “Abenomics”.

This strategy paper encompasses a host of issues that the country needs to address if Japan is to improve its industrial competitiveness and revitalize itself against the backdrop of declining birth rate and workforce.  The active and extensive participation of the private sector is stressed as being essential for its success.

Under the growth strategy, three “action plans” are proposed, one of which is the “Japanese industry’s revitalization plan”.  It is broken down to major topics, such as the “emergency structural reform programme”, the “reform in employment practice and strengthening human resources”, the “promotion of scientific technology and innovation”, the “realization of world’s top-class IT society”, etc.  Then, these topics are further elaborated into sub-topics.

My interest is drawn especially to one of the sub-topics, namely, “promoting active roles of women”, under the topic of “reform in employment practice and strengthening human resources”.  Here, women’s skills are recognized as something that Japan has failed to fully utilize thus far.  In view of the shrinking workforce, it was essential that employment practice be reformed to make it easier for them to enter and stay in the labour market and to help them develop their full potential.  Securing their skills in support of new growth areas is stressed as vital for the country.

The paper also expects that women’s increased share not just in the workforce but also in managerial positions would bring in more diverse ideas and values into the economy, leading to the development of new goods and services to revitalize Japan.  A family would enjoy double incomes and increased purchasing power, which would trigger a positive economic cycle and a real feeling of affluence among people.

In support of working couples with children, it is proposed that the number of child-care facilities be increased to help parents rear their children with ease while both continuing work.  The strategy aims at drastically increasing women’s share in the workforce by supporting their return to work after maternity leave and to encourage their career advancement through various measures, including actively appointing them to higher positions.  In fact, soon after mid June, Abe appointed a senior woman official as the administrative vice-minister for the Ministry of Health and Labour as from 02 July, but if more women to be appointed to top positions in future remains to be seen.

For achieving the above, the strategy paper has set specific targets.  For example, in 2010 only 38% of women workers continued working after having the first child.  Abe wishes to raise this to 55% and the overall labour participation rate of women between the ages of 25 and 44 from 68% in 2012 to 73% by 2020.  This is to be achieved by creating child care facilities that can accept up to 400,000 additional children by 2017 and by raising the rate of paternity leave takers from a mere 2.63% in 2011 to 13% by 2020.  Furthermore, the proportion of women occupying leadership positions in the country is to be increased to about 30% also by 2020.

In view of the hard reality of gender equality in Japan today, however, the above targets seem too ambitious to achieve, particularly with regard to the proportion of women in leadership positions and the rate of paternity leave takers.  The latest figures in the 2013 Danjo Kyoudou Sankaku Hakusho (the White Paper on collaborative work of men and women in society), released in June by the Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office, show that women in Japan comprise 42.3% of the total workforce, but only 11.1% of them hold managerial positions.  In other industrialized countries, women make up just under 50% of the workforce (e.g. 47.5% in France, 47.2% in Sweden, 47.2% in the US, 46.1% in Germany, etc.) but their share in managerial positions is much higher than that in Japan (e.g. 38.7% in France, 31.2% in Sweden, 43% in the US, 29.9% in Germany, etc.).

With regard to the private sector in Japan, women’s shares among section heads and general managers in 2012 were 7.9% and 4.9% respectively.  On the other hand, among national civil servants employed in various ministries’ head offices in Tokyo, only 2.6% among section heads and directors were women.  Even this was an improvement from 0.6% in 1986 (a year after the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law), 1% in 1996 and 2.5% in the previous year.  In 2012, 24.4% of the new recruits among national civil servants in Category I (those who can advance to top positions) were women and most ministries now have a target of increasing it to about 30%, and even as high as to 40% in the case of the foreign ministry, by 2015(see the paper on the recruitment of women national civil servants, 2012).  This may not be too difficult a target to achieve in near future, but raising the proportion of women in senior positions even to 5% in a foreseeable future seems quite ambitious in view of the progress made in the last two decades.

As for paternity leave, only 2.63% of men in the private sector and 2.02% among national civil servants were reported to have taken in 2011.  Abe wishes to raise it to 13% by 2020, but I wonder what kind of a magic wand he has to achieve it.  In fact, the latest figure released on July 04 by the Ministry of Health and Labour shows the rate having declined by 0.74% from last year to 1.89% in 2012 in the private sector, (  It was perhaps an indication of economic hardship felt by many workers, which prevented them from enjoying the right they had acquired.

In addition to the above data, what I found surprising was the latest results of the opinion poll on “collaborative work of men and women in society”  conducted last year by the Cabinet Office.  With regard to the question on women and work, 47.5% of the respondents thought it was better for women to stay employed even after having children, as opposed to 49.8% who expressed certain reservations about women working.  For example, 3.4% felt they should not work at all; 5.6% thought it all right for them to work till they get married; 10% support the idea of them working till they have a child; and 30.8% thought they should not work while raising children, though it was acceptable for them to return to work afterwards.

The survey report also presented the results of the seven previous ones conducted since 1992 for the purpose of comparison.  Indeed, the proportion of those who had positive attitude toward women staying employed throughout life increased steadily since 1992.  However, I found it surprising and even sad to learn that nearly three decades after the enactment of the Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985, the group who supports the idea of workingwomen wholeheartedly is still a minority.

As for the difference in attitude between men and women on the above question, 48.3% of women respondents thought they should be able to stay employed irrespective of marital and family status as opposed to 46.6% of men.

The attitudinal difference by age group was also interesting to note.  In each of the 30-39, 40-49, 50-59 and 50-59 age groups, a majority was supportive of working women, but only 39.1% of the 20-29 age group shared the same attitude.  This made me wonder what young people in Japan had been taught during the last decade concerning human rights and gender equality.  As for the age group of 70 and above, understandably only 37.4% felt the same attitude on women and employment.

Social value and people’s attitude are slow to change.  In view of the above, Abe will face a tough uphill battle in meeting the target he has set for raising the proportion of women in leadership/managerial positions to revitalize Japan.  He would also have to overhaul education drastically to help younger generations become more open-minded to be at par with the value on gender equality widely accepted globally.  But for the time being, he would have to come up with a second magic wand to achieve his target, unless he already has a secret measure yet to be announced to tackle the current situation.

This entry was posted in Economic development, Japan, Labour issues, National wealth, occupation, skills training, Women & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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