Update (May 2015): This post was featured in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Monthly Broadcast – April 2015: http://eepurl.com/bmfdaD
by Dessy Sukendar
Like many East Asian countries, Japan has had its fair share of so-called “family-policy”-related issues, including aging population and low birth rates. The role and the environment in which Japanese women exist in the public and private sphere is a recurring theme throughout our discussions on Japan’s shrinking demography during the student-run 5th Japan Trip at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Most importantly, the advent of Abenomics specifically signified the intention to transform the environment for women spurred robust debates. The initiative aims to provide the social policy infrastructure necessary to provide space for women to participate actively in its economy, both to boost productivity of the workforce, as well as potentially counter the demographic issue. This initiative is based on sound so-called “womenomics”: a study by Goldman Sachs (2014) claims that increasing opportunities for women may increase GDP by nearly 15% in Japan. Moreover, Japan has a significant potential in improving its gender diversity, as it lags behind in global gender rankings relative to other developed countries, reaching only 104th out of 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2014,” (2013: 105th place out of 136 countries). The WEF report points to two areas of improvement: Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity (Figure 1). Based on our cursory interactions with different groups within the Japanese society, during our Japan trip, I concur with this assessment.
Women in Public Sector
We were lucky to have met MP Karen Makishima during our trip, who travelled to see our delegation to deliver a moving message about the significance of Girl’s Day and its resonance during the 3/11 anniversary. Unfortunately, just as I had observed during our visit to the National Diet (Japanese National Parliament) earlier that day, MP Makishima remains the minority amongst her peers. Japan’s underrepresentation of women in public life is the most obvious glass ceiling to break. In our conversation after her speech, Karen cites the challenges of changing societal perception of women by the “grandfather’s generation”, who are often sceptical of women in prominent positions in the public sphere. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Japan 144th out of 189 countries in terms of its ratio of female MPs (Lower House: 9.5% and Upper House: 15.7%), well below its neighbours South Korea or Singapore, a record that is consistent in local chambers, where more than 40% have no female members at all. Without significant representation at the decision-making powers, Japan is missing out from other potential benefits of sustained female engagement in leadership positions.
Business Case for Gender Diversity
McKinsey’s 2013 iteration of Women Matters study found that women remain underrepresented at just 1% of corporate board in Japan, the lowest out of developed countries (PDF). Yuriko Keiko writes:
“Women currently hold an estimated 9% of senior management positions in Japan, compared to 40% in the Philippines, 24% in France, and 22% in the United States. Although the employment rate of women in Japan reached 69.5% in 2013, more than 65.1% of women leave the workplace prematurely, mostly owing to childbirth” (Project Syndicate)
This pattern results from institutional impediments to achieving a viable work-family balance combined with societal pressures. One discussion regarding solutions to reverse demographic challenges brought up the issues such as high cost of daycare, the double-burden, and corporate culture dominated by male executives that are expected to be present at all times, all of which are counterintuitive to the “double-burden” issue. Devin Stewart pointed to several cases in his piece on the uphill battle of working mothers, depicted in this viral video released last year:
Catalyst’s study in 2014 (PDF) found that Japanese women are expected to be primary caregivers to children, reflected in the sharp drop in the workforce during child-bearing age, while Japanese men not having that same burden during the same period. Moreover, the issue in the “leak in the pipeline”, a drop of women’s participation in the economy due to child-rearing responsibilities, contributes to the lack of women in managerial levels. The dearth of female role models in prominent private sector positions matter, as efforts to change the perception could ring hollow without any visible presence of role models. Otherwise, women are still expected to be both the primary caregiver while also acting as the engines of growth in the new Japanese economy, without any significant rebalancing of responsibilities in the household.
Throughout our trip, I encountered striking stereotypes perpetuated in the media and society-for instance, differing sizes of souvenir mugs for women, questionable portrayal of women and girls in the media and advertisement- that can, of course, also be found in other societies. This is not new, many Asian societies have a skewed conception of women due to hundreds of years of tradition. However, I also encountered the large role of both women in the rural families and within disaster reconstruction areas. Their contribution as productive participants in recovery efforts and livelihood in the villages are visibly no less than men. This grassroots reality have not translated to higher-level engagement of women in public and private sphere, and in fact gets less prominent as we get closer to business districts and parliamentary chambers. What is missing here?
Two of Bridging GAP members and Prof. Suzaina Kadir, Associate Dean (Admissions & Academic Programmes) chatted with MP Karen Makishima (MP of Kangawa 17th District) at the annual Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Japan Trip
Photo by: Daisuke Asano
Japan’s current predicament provides the glimpse of the future of Asia, and makes the case that we have to continue to work hard to overcome the perception and stereotypes even after countries have become “first world” or developed in gender parity indicators such as education and health. During International Women’s Day, Facebook recognized initiatives like the all-Obachan Party and their efforts to engage more women to join as representatives in public sphere. Devin Stewart have also described many progressive changes regarding the portrayal of working mothers, aided by civil society organizations. There is a developing conversation about how to provide better opportunities for women’s entry into more prominent roles. Sufficient international pressure is also present, for instance WEF recently surveyed hundreds of Japanese women to highlight the desired measures (PDF).
I hope the government in earnest seeks to increase women’s participation beyond its economic utility. Societal change, including how women are perceived at both the public and private sphere are very much informed with traditions prevalent in different forms even in Southeast Asia. The success of Japan to drive change in gender equality will be a significant milestone not only for itself but for Asia, as our societies start to put action to the notion that not only are women an underutilized resource, but women are in fact partners in development. I am moved by the bold statement from the government of Japan in gender diversity and will continue to be cautiously optimistic such deep mindset changes can occur solely for the sake of the economy and demographic changes. The case for women’s role in Japan will continue to be a cause that must be pursued for its own sake and Japan’s success in this initiative will be a model for what’s to come in other Asian societies.
Stewart, Devin. “Abenomics Meets Womenomics.” Foreign Affairs. January 29, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2015.
Catalyst. The Case for Gender Diversity in Japan. New York: Catalyst, May 21, 2014.
McKinsey, Women Matter 2013: Moving corporate culture, moving boundaries.
Matsui, Kathy, Hiromi Suzuki, Kazunori Tatebe, Tsumugi Akiba, “Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk” Goldman Sachs, May 2014
Yuriko Koike, “Abenomics’ Women Problem”, Project Syndicate, http://po.st/fciWx1
Tuminez, Astrid. “Rising to the top? : A Report on Women’s Leadership in Asia” Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 2012.
Dessy Sukendar is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Any thoughts are welcome at @dessyS.