Essay: Ageing female prisoners in Japan

According to the 2013 edition of World Population Ageing, a UN report, Japan was most aged society in the world with 32% of its population being 60 years or over. Italy and Germany came second and third, both with nearly 27% of their populations in the same age bracket.

In Japan, however, usually only those who are 65 years or over are considered as “old”. They are then broken down into two groups: (1) between 65 and 74 years old, who are simply labeled as “old”; and (2) 75 years or over, who are referred to as “old people in the advanced age bracket.” The latest White Paper on ageing of population (2012 data), released in 2013 by the Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan, shows the former group comprising 12.2% of the total population and the latter, 11.9%. This means that 24.1% of the Japanese population is made up of those who are 65 or over. As Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, the ageing of the society may no longer be reversed, unless drastic measures are taken.

In relation to the ageing of population, I came across a sad article on female prisoners in Japan (“Hikari-o sagashite (In search of light)” by Miki Morimoto in Asahi Digital, May 23, 2014). Back in 1993, apparently only 26 women of 65 years or older were serving their sentences. By 2012, this figure increased by 11 times to 285. On the other hand, men prisoners in the same age bracket increased five-fold, from 368 to 1,907 in the same period. So the rate of increase was higher among women than men. Eighty percent of “old” women incarcerated are said to be serving for minor offenses, such as shoplifting and theft, while about half of them are recidivists.

Ageing among prisoners is simply a reflection of the society as a whole. Therefore, many inmates are reported to visit prison clinic frequently for their medical problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cataract, knee and leg pains, lumbago, as well as dementia. The scene of prisoners walking slowly from the dining hall to their cells with canes and walkers is said to increasingly appear like that in any home for old people.

The author of the article had interviewed some women prisoners, and I was saddened to read certain situations mentioned as possible reasons behind their committing crimes as well as repeating them. They included stress from not having been well accepted by parents-in-law in the past, the psychological wound from which still remained unresolved for some women to date; increased daily stress from having to deal with the husband alone after children had left home; loneliness from grown-up children drifting away from home; the feeling of not having their own place at home in the backdrop of husband’s violent behavior; and financial difficulties and uncertainties for the future (for both married women as well as those living alone). In effect, many of them seem to commit crime out of the feeling of insecurity and for not having their own place of comfort at home. They become recidivists in search of comradeship among fellow inmates. How sad it is, though, for anyone to feel that peace and comfort can be obtained in prison in the twilight of life.

In order to help such women to feel secure after their release so that they would not return there, some correctional institutions now provide counselling service for them. Many such women are said to have had poor communication skills, which had led them to isolation in community, which, in turn, resulted in their committing crime. So they are helped to build up communication skills through group therapy, where they discuss in detail and openly the problems they had had and the actual crimes they committed. The counselling service also provides information as to how and where they can seek financial help to prevent them from going back to shoplifting again after their release.

In the past when most people lived in an extended-family set-up, ageing mothers used to be looked after by their grown-up sons. This is no longer so, especially in large cities, throughout Japan. Therefore, women must also learn to grow out of being emotionally dependent on their children. They must nurture to have independent minds with clear wishes and dreams in life of their own, however small they might be. When they find their own purpose or meaning of life, they will be more forward-looking in life. So, I believe that arming them with better communication skills will go a long way for themselves as well as for the society as a whole.

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Posted in Economic development, Happiness, Japan, Multicultural, Philosophy, skills training, Women & Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essay: A big “No” to the re-start of nuclear reactors

Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant following the powerful earthquake and the tsunami of March 11, 2011, there were 54 nuclear reactors operating throughout Japan. They used to supply about 30% of the energy in the country. After the disaster, the reactors went offline one by one for maintenance and safety checks, and since September 2013, all reactors have been idle. Japan is now managing without nuclear power, though the cost of oil and gas imported to offset the energy shortage has gone up considerably. But no black outs, due to all nuclear reactors being idle, have been reported so far.

Despite the continued suffering of the victims of the disaster in Fukushima, and despite its not yet being contained, the Japanese government still wants to rely on nuclear energy as an important energy source. That’s why Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, plans to have reactors back in operation as soon as they pass the new safety stress tests being conducted by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Whenever questioned on this issue in parliamentary sessions, Abe emphasizes the NRA’s bench marks as being “the most stringent standards in the world.” He believes the reactors that meet such tests will be perfectly safe. But what does he mean by the “most stringent nuclear safety standards in the world”?

Until 2011, many Japanese had been made to believe that our nuclear technology was at the highest class in the world and that our nuclear reactors were able to withstand any natural disasters common to Japan. This turned out to be a myth, which easily crumbled and dissipated after a tsunami the kind of which we had never experienced before.

Last September, Abe proudly declared in Buenos Aires, where the IOC awarded the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics games to Tokyo, that the problem of radiation-contaminated water leakage from the Fukushima plant was “under control.” However, not only does that particular leak still torment the workers on the plant as well as the residents in nearby communities, but also leaks in other spots have been detected and reported since then. The reality is that no one knows for sure when and how the problem will really be resolved. Under such circumstances, how trustworthy are the “most stringent nuclear safety health standards in the world” that Abe refers to?

Japan is a small, densely-populated, earthquake-prone island country where active faults run everywhere. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is the most risky country in the world to operate nuclear reactors. When Abe stresses our new standards being world’s most stringent, I wonder which countries he is comparing ours to. If our risk is much more serious than that of the second most risky country in the world, whichever that may be, even the “most stringent safety standards” in the world will not give us any assurance of safety.

People around the world are now experiencing the kinds of natural disaster they have never experienced before. Nature’s destructive force is beyond our imagination. Our political and economic leaders still think it’s cheaper to rely on nuclear energy than imported oil and gas when we don’t know yet what the total and eventual cost of the disaster in Fukushima will be. Besides, we still don’t know how and where to dispose of the dangerous nuclear waste materials that we have already accumulated from the 54 reactors. Today, investment in renewable energy is increasing rapidly, too. Considering all these factors, do we still wish to see our nuclear reactors re-starting? I say “NO” clearly and loudly.

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Essay : My thought on Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

As expected, both China and South Korea reacted furiously to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013.  Diplomatic relations between Japan and these countries, which had already been strained, worsened further with no hope in sight of improvement.  This time, however, Taiwan, Russia, the EU and the United States joined these neighboring countries in expressing their dismay at his insensitivities to the feelings of the peoples of Asia.

Abe and his advisors seemed flustered by this negative reaction from Washington.  The US government had never officially expressed its view on this issue when Juninchiro Koizumi or some of the earlier PMs paid visits to the shrine in the past, each time triggering the anger of neighboring countries.  According to a press report, Abe decided against V.P. Biden’s advice to not visit given during their telephone conversation earlier that month.  Abe went ahead anyway and acted according to his own conviction.  That was why Washington expressed its anger contained in the word “disappointment”, especially when it is trying to bring all the countries into cooperation to effectively cope with the common threat posed by North Korea.  According to reports, Foreign Minister Kishida immediately contacted Ms. Caroline Kennedy, the new US Ambassador to Tokyo, explaining Abe’s position, but the latter responded coolly and said that she would simply convey his message to Washington.

In response to all the negative reactions reported, Abe released a statement that he had had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.  But he knew perfectly well how those countries would react, which was why he did not visit the shrine during his first tenure as PM back in 2006-07.  He defended his visit, asserting that he had prayed the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves for the nation rest in peace, and vowed that never again would people suffer miseries of war.  He also stressed that such a gesture was common for all national leaders and that he would continue to make efforts so that the people of other countries could understand his position.

The Chinese and Korean peoples who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military might understand the PM of Japan praying for the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves in the war, including Japanese foot soldiers who committed atrocities at the order of their superiors.  Hundreds of thousands of such soldiers were civilians forced into fighting by Japan’s reckless military policies of that period, and were also themselves victims who suffered immensely.

The serious problem, however, of Abe or of some of the earlier PMs visiting the Yasukuni shrine is that so-called “A-class war criminals”, or those who were responsible for the Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific, have been enshrined along with the ordinary soldiers since 1978.  Although Abe says he has no intention of hurting the feelings of those in neighboring countries, his words sound empty and insincere, even for a Japanese citizen like myself.  Just imagine the German government engraving the names of Hitler and his close associates on war memorials commemorating those who died in the previous war!  How would the people in Europe feel about that even if the government has sought and maintained peaceful relations with its neighbors since 1945?  The difference between the German and Japanese governments regarding their reflections on and apology for WWII is that the former has maintained a firm position, while the latter keeps vacillating, depending on who heads the government.  I am afraid that no matter how hard Abe tries, decent leaders in other countries will not show understanding toward his position.  The sooner he realizes this, the better; swift action would minimize the damage already done to Japan’s national interests in the diplomatic world.

Abe and his supporters claim that the so-called “A-class war criminals” were judged based on trials conducted by the winners of the war.  That was to be expected, as Japan surrendered unconditionally, but if they seriously doubted the outcome of the trials, why didn’t Japan ever officially conduct its own review and thorough investigation of what had gone wrong and who had been responsible for recklessly leading the country to war and the verge of annihilation?  This should have been done when Japan regained its independence with the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952.

It has already been 69 years since Japan’s defeat in the last war, and if Abe is serious about our country never again engaging in war or subjecting people to those same miseries, he can propose for Japan to, at last, officially conduct comprehensive reviews relating to WWII.  The outcome would surely help Japan to maintain peace with its neighbors and the world.  It is not too late.

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Essay: The Enigma of Gender Gap in Japan

In March this year, I posted on my blog an essay titled “Japan: The worst developed country for women?”  I mentioned in it that Japan came in 101st in the “global gender gap index” in 2012 out of 135 countries examined in the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  The index tries to “capture the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities”.  It is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries, rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.”  It is calculated in such a way to make it “independent from the countries’ levels of development”.  It “evaluates countries based on outcomes, rather than inputs” and the evaluation is carried out in the areas of (1) economic participation and opportunities, (2) educational attainment, (3) health and survival, and (4) political empowerment.

The WEF published recently the 2013 edition of the Report with the latest global gender gap index.  As it had been the previous year, Iceland came in top, followed, also as last year, by Finland, Norway and Sweden.  This year, however, the Philippines came in fifth.  The highest ranking Asian country, it improved its position from eighth last year.  Seven European countries are in the top ten, but none from the G7 or G20 is in the top ten.  To my great disappointment, Japan’s ranking worsened from 101st last year to 105th among 136 countries this year.  But I was curious why the Japanese women have not been able to narrow the gender gap for decades despite the country making great economic progress after the total destruction in WWII.

Japanese women’s ranking in health and survival is among the top in the world.  Their average life expectancy, which was 86.4 years in 2012, has remained the longest since the mid. 1980s, except in 2011 when it was slightly surpassed by that of Hong Kong women due to tsunami.  In the area of educational attainment, too, Japanese women have done as well as their fellow women in Norway and Sweden in attaining secondary education.  The gender parity index (GPI=the ratio of female-to-male values of a given indicator) was 1.00 in these countries.  It was 1.02 in Iceland and 1.01 in Finland (Global Education Digest 2012, UNESCO).

With regard to tertiary education, however, I understand why Scandinavian women are at the top in the global gender gap index.  The GPIs regarding first-degree graduation for Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden were 2.28, 1.83, 1.79 and 2.05 respectively, as opposed to 0.82 for Japan.  Among major Western countries, Germany, ranked 14th, had a GPI of 1.32.  For Britain, no. 18, it was 1.38.  For the USA, no. 23, it was 1.42.  And for France, no. 45, it was 1.27.  No figures were given for the Philippines.

Japanese women being ranked so low in the global gender gap index is mainly due to their low economic and political participation.  For example, it is reported that even today more than half of Japanese people still cling to the traditional values that expect men to go out and work and women to stay home and look after the family.  That is why only 9% of managerial positions in Japan are occupied by women as opposed to 33% in Iceland.  As for politicians, women hold only 8% of the seats in the lower house of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, as opposed to 40% in the unicameral system of the Icelandic national assembly (“Danjo-byoudou” Nippon wa 105i, Nande? Kako saiteini”, digital Asashi., Oct 27, 2013).  I had expected the Republic of Korea to have placed higher in the global gender gap index this year, as the country now has its first woman president.  However, for some reason, its ranking also worsened to 111th this year from 108th last year.

I worked and lived abroad for three decades until I returned to my home country last year, so I sometimes forget how far women in Japan still have to go to attain gender equality.  Recently, when I attended a friend and former colleague’s wedding here in Tokyo, I glimpsed the hard reality of the gender gap here.  The Japanese bride and the non-Japanese groom, who are both based in Geneva, decided to have a traditional Japanese wedding in the Shinto style.  In the reception following the solemn ceremony, all the guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner where one beautifully presented dish after another was served.  The dinner-reception itself was far from traditional, however, where the bride and the groom danced to the tunes of Latin music while still wearing the traditional Japanese wedding costumes!

During this dinner, some of the prominent invitees were asked to say a few words.  Among them was the bride’s former boss, who is now retired and flew all the way from Malaysia to celebrate the occasion.  Since she and the groom did not speak Japanese, English interpretation was provided for them throughout.  At the end of her short speech, she was about to propose a toast to the couple, but was abruptly stopped doing so by the master of ceremony.

Suddenly, there was a moment of confusion.  I had no idea why she had not been allowed to present her toast.  She also looked bewildered and embarrassed.  So I asked a friend of mine sitting next to me at the table if she understood the situation.  That Japanese woman, who has also worked and lived abroad for many years, had no idea, either.  Some prominent men sitting at our table, having heard my question, said:  “Women are not supposed to propose a toast.”  They did not elaborate on this, but it seemed that at occasions such as that, only the last person to speak –always a man– would formally propose a toast for the occasion.

This called to mind an incident Margaret Thatcher experienced during her official visit to Japan after becoming the first woman prime minister of the UK, which I remember reading about in the paper long ago.  At that time, the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world connecting the two main islands in Japan, was being built.  Meanwhile, France and the UK were considering building the Channel Tunnel connecting their two countries.  Thatcher would have liked to visit the worksite in the tunnel to see the new technology being employed for the construction.  However, the men working there adamantly refused to receive her simply because she was a woman.  Apparently, they believed that having a woman in the tunnel worksite would bring bad luck.  I wondered if they knew that many women, mostly wives of minors, had indeed toiled in Japanese coal mines, often deep under the sea, in the past.

The incident at the wedding reception and the experience of Margaret Thatcher may not be the ideal analogy, but I feel that even today too many men still accept old traditions that restrict women’s roles in society without questioning those traditions’ validity in modern age.  They simply say that “it has always been done so.”  At the same time, too many women also seem to accept old ways without challenging them or questioning why it has to be so.  Unless this situation changes, the gender gap in Japan, I’m afraid, will not narrow too much in the future.

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Essay : Seeing is believing ?

Recently, I met up with an old friend for afternoon tea in a hotel in central Tokyo.  She arrived at our usual meeting point with a shopping bag.  She had just been to a department store nearby where she had bought certain types of French cheese available in Japan which she missed.  She apparently made frequent visits there, although they cost much more in Tokyo than in Geneva.  We both used to work there, where all kinds of European cheeses were available for reasonable prices.   As most Japanese people had never seen or eaten cheese before the end of WWII and it has become popular here only in the last few decades, I asked her if she had loved it all her life.  She said she had developed a taste for European cheese while living in Switzerland.

I also love cheese now, especially the creamy ones, but I used to hold a negative image of it as a child growing up in the post war Japan.  I first learned the word “cheese” in our national language textbook in my fifth year in the elementary school.  I guessed from the context that it was something to be eaten, but had no idea what it was.  So I raised my hand and asked our teacher what it was.  His explanation, which I still remember vividly, was that it was “something like a bar of soap”.  Hearing his answer, I could not understand why anyone would want to put such a thing into the mouth.  I had heard that rats would sometimes gnaw on soap, but surely not human beings!  My teacher might have seen a photo of a piece of cheese, but probably had never smelled it or tasted it prior to answering my question.

Later as a student in America, I was introduced to cheese in sandwiches, burgers, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, etc.  Despite my preconceived notion of what “cheese” might be, I had no problem of enjoying those dishes.  The kinds of cheeses I used to taste in the United States did not bother my sense of smell at all.  I remember, however, the Europeans I used to know in university saying that what they found in America was not the “real cheese”.

In that sense, I came to know the real thing for the first time in my life while staying in Europe in mid 1970s.  One day I joined an excursion to Strassburg in Alsace, France, organized by the University of Heidelberg, where I was following a language course for several months.  During our visits to many historical buildings in the charming city, we had some free time to roam around on our own.  A classmate of mine I was with wanted to stop at a fromagerie, a cheese shop, so I went with her.  Inside, there were other customers being waited on, so I looked around and saw cheeses in different colors in all shapes and sizes.  Some on the shelves looked as big as car tires.  I was astonished and impressed by so many variety, but the smell there was too much for me to bear, so I said to my friend that I would wait for her outside.

My first stay in Europe could have been the golden opportunity for me to learn to appreciate the “real cheese”.  But, the powerful odor in the shop discouraged me to even try tasting some of them.  So I stayed away from any smelly European cheese while in Heidelberg.  My attitude toward it began to change, however, after my second arrival in Europe, this time in Geneva in the early 1980s.  Different kinds of cheeses on a big platter were always served during the course of French dinner, just before the sweet dessert at the end.  In the beginning, certain cheeses still put me off, but seeing how other people enjoy eating it, I began to start tasting a small piece of different kinds.  By doing so, I slowly came to appreciate European cheese, and I now really love some of them.

The Japanese cuisine has now become quite popular around the world.  But I have heard that many non-Japanese people who have lived here for a number of years still have a problem with natto, as I had with cheese in Europe.  Natto, cooked and fermented soybean, is popularly eaten with hot steamed rice for breakfast.  It is inexpensive, readily available in any grocery store and offers excellent nutritional values.  But those who are unable to or refuse to eat it complain about its sliminess and unpleasant odor.  My advice to them is that a common saying of “seeing is believing” does not apply to food and they should not even go by their sense of smell.  As I had experienced, that aspect can be overcome if they recognize the item’s nutritional values and be courageous enough to start tasting it.

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Essay: Men and parasols

These few months in Japan with record-breaking temperatures have almost been unbearable to me as I endure my first summer here since 1981.  For me, the summer already started in late May with the air getting sticky, and by June I felt like escaping to the North Pole.

When going out on hot days, I made sure to put on a white hat with a brim large enough to give me shade over my face.  However, I soon realized that even a hat like that could not keep me comfortable on sweltering days.  I got my hair, face, neck and the rest of my body all sweaty after walking only for a few minutes in high humidity under the scorching sun.

Health-related programs on TV often gave some tips as to how viewers would be able to avoid getting a heat stroke outdoors.  One of the suggestions was to use a parasol under the sun.  It was supposed to keep the temperature under it a few degrees lower than when one is directly exposed to the sun.  So I purchased a parasol for the first time in my life and always carried it with me whenever I went out.  I immediately noticed the advantage of using it rather than wearing a hat as my hair and face stayed decently fresh and dry under it.  The only disadvantage was that I had one hand always occupied holding it.  I had both hands free when wearing a hat.  Nevertheless, the comfort of using a parasol far outweighed the minor inconvenience.  I can definitely say that buying it has been the wisest thing I have done this summer as I have made good use of it since early June.

One day, however, I realized that I had never seen any man walking with a parasol although they must suffer from heat and humidity as much as women do.  Obviously, those who work outdoors cannot be holding parasols to be productive.  But even office workers who are in sales and marketing, for example, do need to step out of office for appointments.  They don’t seem to carry parasols, however, even when busily rushing to and fro on scorching pavement under the glaring sun.

I then came across a newspaper article on a discussion between a philosopher and a fashion designer on the subject of men and parasols.  The philosopher reported to the designer of having finally bought one designed for men, in view of the unbearable heat.  He appreciated it very much, for it provided the comfort and coolness over his shoulders that a hat had never given him.  He nevertheless admitted feeling uncomfortable sometimes and even embarrassed going out with it.  He realized that it had something to do with the social notion of masculinity.

When observing his own hesitation of using a parasol, he realized he held a common macho notion of how men should appear.  He thought society expected them to be tough, and being able to endure physical work under hot and sweaty conditions was one of the qualities required of being considered tough and masculine.  He thought men with such endurance were also portrayed as “fighters”, another characteristic of manliness, while those who went out with a parasol would be judged weak.  He noted within himself a desire to not appear as someone frail, which made him hesitate a bit to walk with a parasol.

Most men and women in any society not only try to seek approval for their appearance from people around them but also attempt to present themselves as masculine or as feminine as they can be in accordance to the norm of their societies.  However, I sometimes find men’s behavior based on what they consider “cool” or acceptable for themselves comical, to say the least, which, they should know, can be harmful to their health.  In extreme temperatures, even a tough guy can fall victim to heat exhaustion, but a parasol might prevent him from getting sick.  So why don’t they use them openly without feeling small and ashamed?

Men have, as much as women, the right to be comfortable in everyday life.  But they often appear to be constraining themselves by the norms and restrictions they have been responsible for setting for themselves.  They must free themselves from their own spell.  For their own sake, I hope they will soon come to a realization that using a parasol is wise and practical in summer in Japan irrespective of one’s sex and be courageous enough to go out in the sun with a parasol with their heads high.

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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, (http://digital.asahi.com/articles/TKY201307040464.html).  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.

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