In 2013 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled Womenomics, one of several social reforms to boost Japan’s stagnant economy. Womenomics is the concept that increasing the number of women in the workplace will improve nationwide economic growth. 2020 was to be the year when all the quotas set for female representation were achieved. However, Womenomics has failed to achieve its aims because it was not woman-led, it set unattainable goals with no real mechanisms for enforcement, and it was not supported by government leaders.
Womenomics consisted of several goals, but most notably, the goal to increase the percentage of women in management positions in all fields from 10% to 30% by 2020. While this quota was originally established by the Japanese government in 2003, it was highlighted as an ambitious end goal in Womenomics. Under different circumstances and a more reform-minded coalition government, these goals may have been achievable. But it was not to be. In 2015 these targets were greatly reduced, and separate, lower percentage targets (in the 5-15% range) were set for the public and private spheres. As of 2020, these targets have been pushed back to 2030. This all but negates any promised policy goals set by the Abe administration.
Female workplace participation has been promoted by the Japanese government for years, but always for demographic and economic purposes and never for the sake of women. While the ruling LDP coalition is theoretically promoting gender equality, their commitment to it is questionable. In 2007, the Minister of Health referred to women as “baby-making machines,” and LDP is still made up of conservative, older men. Even in Abe’s cabinet, only 2 out of 21 cabinet ministers are women, a far cry from the proposed 30% female representation quota. The most notable female politician in Japan is Yuriko Koike, the current Governor of Tokyo. But while she may be a notable figure, one conservative female politician is hardly proof of a serious commitment to gender equality.
The two most successful elements of Womenomics have been a major increase in childcare facilities and higher overall female employment rates. However, these two achievements are problematic for several reasons. While the increases in childcare facilities are useful, they are not specifically focused on gender equality. Rather, they reinforce the expectation that women are the main caretakers, rather than putting responsibility on fathers to care for their children. It also exemplifies the government’s desire to boost the long-term decline of the birth rate in Japan, currently at a fertility rate of 1.42, as it prioritizes women having children over all other desires.
Instituting a feminist foreign policy would be a progressive move for Japan, but it is currently at odds with the status of women within the country.
Despite nominal increases in access to childcare facilities and employment, women’s positions in Japan remain as insecure as ever. Furthermore, these advances have been swept away by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women make up the majority of the service sector, and the majority of employed women hold part-time, contract, and temporary jobs, the most hard-hit areas by the pandemic. Out of the 970,000 non-regular jobs lost in April, around 710,000 were held by women. While Japan has managed to stave off the worst of the pandemic, with a national unemployment rate of 2.6% as of June, women remain the most expendable workers. Even for women with full-time employment, they face difficult choices. Many schools and childcare centers are operating virtually if at all, and the duty of childcare falls largely to women.
While the term Womenomics was coined by economist Kathy Matsui, the project has always been run by men. The last major Japanese gender policy with significant feminist input was the 1999 “Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society,” in which grassroots feminists worked alongside the government to craft the legislation. However, in the early 2000s there was major conservative backlash against feminists spearheaded by Shinzo Abe which led to the disbandment of many feminist groups and ended feminist cooperation with government. Still, there are grassroots initiatives that have had some success, such as the #KuToo Movement (which addresses unequal workplace dress codes) and MataHara (which combats harassment of mothers and pregnant workers). In 2019, legislation addressing workplace harassment passed, although it lacked the punitive measures needed to punish violators. But despite these successes, however, no real action has been taken by leading government figures to include feminist activists in policy discussions.
Sweden, Canada, and Mexico have instituted Feminist Foreign Policies. These policies are focused on promoting gender-equality based measures such as ensuring parity in male and female employment and focusing international aid on projects that empower women. Instituting a feminist foreign policy would be a progressive move for Japan, but it is currently at odds with the status of women within the country. A more accessible means of applying gender equality to government initiatives could follow the state of Hawaii’s feminist economic recovery plan from COVID-19. The plan focuses on supporting disrupted sectors of the economy, which tend to be female-dominated, in the short-term, but also includes proposals to promote workplace equity, expand social infrastructure that supports women, and address gendered income inequalities such as increasing pay and benefits for part-time workers. With a modified version of this recovery plan, Japan could highlight the vulnerable position of female workers and offer long-term solutions to gender inequality in the midst of the workplace upheavals caused by the Coronavirus.
Japan has the capacity to decrease gender inequality. There is a well-established Gender Equality Bureau, and there are sufficient laws in place such that Japan is a gender-equal society on paper. Yet the current reality is that Japan does little to enforce existing legislation and quotas; both women and men are restricted by strict workplace and social expectations. Womenomics cannot invigorate the economic sector without social change. If those in charge of establishing government policy work to undermine (or fail to work towards) the very policies they have imposed, the policy is doomed to fail. The Japanese government is attempting to commercialize women without resolving underlying societal inequalities, and thus, no sustained change can possibly occur.
Monica Weller is a Policy Research Fellow for the Reischauer Center of East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, where she analyzes political trends in Northeast Asia. Monica graduated with Honors from Knox College with a BA in International Relations and minors in Japanese and Gender & Women’s Studies.