So much for Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’. Japan Inc still has no place for women

Kevin Rafferty says the gender gap remains wide in Japan, despite Abe’s pledge to uplift women. The country is controlled by conservative men who keep women out of medical schools, boardrooms, and the line of succession to the throne

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 2:34pm

Shinzo Abe has just been re-elected as president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which gives him a chance to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. With Japan all set to host the Rugby World Cup next year and the Summer Olympic Games in 2020, Abe’s star also seems set to shine brightly.

But appearances can be deceptive, and Abe has a bad habit of being stronger on slogans than performance: think Abenomics and womenomics, both of which caught the popular imagination, but have yielded less. Abe won huge election victories but failed to bring about real changes, especially with regard to the plight of women.

This failure became glaring last month, with shocked headlines announcing that Tokyo Medical University cheated young women out of their chance to train as doctors by deducting points from their entrance examination scores to favour men.

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This should not be that surprising though. It is only the tip of the iceberg of Japan’s institutionalised discrimination against women throughout life. Japan Inc is tightly controlled by a closed, and frequently closed-minded, group of men, despite the fine promises of the constitution.

Japan’s constitution outlaws discrimination against women and guarantees equality between the sexes in education. However, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report last year, Japan ranked 114th among 144 countries.

From the cradle to the high school graduation, Japanese girls have reached parity with boys. In the report, Japan came in first in equality in literacy, as well as enrolment in primary and secondary education. It also ranked first in healthy life expectancy.

In between, Japanese women have a rough time though. They are paid a third less than men for similar work, and their estimated earned income is 52 per cent of men’s. Only 20 per cent of doctors in Japan are women, lower than the average of 46 per cent for developed countries. In Japan, female representation in boardrooms of publicly traded companies is 3.4 per cent, according to the World Economic Forum. Only 12.4 per cent of the country’s legislators, senior officials and managers are women.

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Since Abe took office for his second term in 2012, two million more women have entered the workforce, in response to a labour shortage. But most of the increase has been in part-time or contract work.

The Japanese office is still a male bastion, with collaborative ways of doing business that are alien to individualistic cultures. It goes far beyond nemawashi – literally root-binding, or reaching decisions through careful consensus – to long hours of working together, drinking and maybe holidaying together, such that the company feels more like an executive’s family than his wife or children.

Meanwhile, the population is falling and expected to drop from 126 million today to below 100 million by the mid-century. Women are marrying later and having fewer children, 1.44 on average.

Economists think a shortage of affordable childcare facilities is to blame for women’s reluctance to produce more babies. But there are complex factors at work.

Discussions about Japan’s imperial succession demonstrate Japan Inc’s antipathy to women. In past centuries, Japan had female rulers. But the restoration of the Meiji emperor 150 years ago led to a new rule that only men could sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne. This was backed up with Shinto mumbo-jumbo about sacred places women must not defile, including sumo rings.

Today, Japan’s emperor is a symbol of the state. A shortage of male heirs led to proposals to allow a woman to ascend the throne, and as many as 82 per cent of Japanese approved of such a change. But not the right-wing men who are key players in Japanese politics. After a son was born to the crown prince’s younger brother, the idea of female succession was shelved. Even so, Emperor Akihito, who will abdicate next year, has just four male heirs, aged 58, 52, 12, and 82.

The infusion of female ideas, sensibility and energy could rejuvenate Japan’s economy, where debt is 250 per cent of gross domestic product. But it is hard to see the men who run Japan Inc welcoming women into the boys’ club.

Kevin Rafferty has covered Asia for 50 years. He is author of Inside Japan’s Powerhouses, a study of the pillars of Japan Inc