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Japan’s Womenomics: A Half-Step in the Right Direction

By Jana Hopkins | May 10, 2017

For years, Japan’s economy has been plagued with the 3 D’s: debt, demographics, and deflation. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012, he proposed three arrows to combat the 3 D’s: an aggressive monetary policy, an expansionary fiscal policy, and a growth strategy. One of the components, or “feathers,” to the growth strategy arrow has been the role of women in the workforce. The Abe administration calls the initiative “womenomics,” and it intends to have women “shine” in the workplace.

However, progress has been slow. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, Japan ranks number 111 out of 144 countries, one of the lowest of any developed country. Under Abe, the female workforce participation has increased from 60% to 63%, but that does not give the economy that boost that the Abe administration sought. Already some womenomics initiatives have been reduced, for example the initial goal of increasing total women in local public and private management to 30% by 2020 is now revised to only 15%.

Aside from the bureaucratic lag, Japan’s workplace culture is also highly structured. Most Japanese companies follow the traditional promotion by seniority, and many women miss the window of opportunity after taking maternity leave. Known as the M-curve, there is a high drop-off of women who to leave the workplace around ages 30-39, and then come back to work in the 40s. When these women come back to the workforce, they are unable to promoted, and maybe even demoted depending on the sector.

In other cases, women change their careers to more part-time work, so they are still able to take care of their children. According to OECD’s Closing the Gender Gap report, the average pay gap increases with age, with full-time Japanese mothers earning as high as 61% less than the median Japanese full-time male worker.

This productivity loss and large motherhood penalty shows tradeoffs between being a mother and being a full workforce participant. Despite many young women earning tertiary degrees, they aim for more stable jobs and sectors that are more flexible for mothers. In turn, women are underrepresented in various sectors in Japan. According to a 2017 Elsevier report, “Gender in the Global Research Landscape”, Japan has around 15% female representation in STEM fields; one of the lowest of the 12 surveyed countries.

To combat these structural foundations, there need to be short-term and long-term goals to achieving higher and more productive workforce participation. First, services such as daycare facilities either nearby or on-site would impact working women directly and allow women to still work. Japan’s shortage of daycare facilities have made it costly for women, as they are faced with high costs and time commitments.

Furthermore, there needs to be more advocacy to develop understanding of gender discrimination within companies. Small steps have been taken, such as the Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace in 2016, which mandates companies to publicly disclose plans to increase women in management. However, there needs to be demonstrated enforcement of the plans, and this is difficult with older companies that have been rooted in this institutional mindset. This can be done by giving managers training, or surveying the company environment to make sure the workplace is a suitable environment for mothers.

Lastly, the education of young adults should be tailored to understand how to navigate through a work-life balance. For girls who want to pursue a promotional job, some may seek to never marry or go abroad where there may be better opportunities for women. This brain drain could cause even greater negative impacts in Japan’s economy. Therefore, having programs to cultivate the ambition of young women could see an increase in qualified candidates in the future.

The arrows of Womenomics will have short-term impacts, but there also needs to be long-term initiatives to engage future women to participate in the workforce at high level jobs. Japan can take the reins and be a leading force in global gender equality. For example, the Abe administration’s creation of the World Assembly of Women annual conferences to invite women over the world to share their experiences. Japan can take advantage as an international power to promote its women to take it to the global stage where they can really shine.



Jana Hopkins is a second year Master’s student focusing on Public Policy and International Management. Her interests are in labor and education policy. Prior to GPS, she lived in rural Japan for two years as an English teacher. She is also Publication Director of the latest edition of the Journal of International Policy Solutions.


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