Asia Program

Japan: Where Leaning In Isn’t Enough

Mar 20, 2014

At first blush, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the kind of boss women dream about.

Abe publicly recognizes their potential and he points out they are being under-utilized. He says all the right things about female empowerment. It helps that he has panache, with a sense of style that is all too lacking in most Japanese politicians, male or female.

The Japanese premier may look and sound the part of a strong advocate for working women. However, Abe, who hails from a very rich family, doesn’t really understand the changing needs of family life today, and the scramble that both men and women face in balancing their personal and professional lives.

With the most rapidly aging society in the world, where women on average have just one child, a major overhaul in national attitude toward women is essential for Japan.

Better than others

To his credit, Abe has already done more than any other Japanese prime minister to put the issue of women in the workplace high on the public agenda. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in late September 2013, the prime minister wrote, “unleashing the potential of womenomics is an absolute must if Japan’s growth is to continue.”

At the United Nations General Assembly several days later, he reiterated that view, stating that “the more the advance of women in society is promoted, the higher the growth rate becomes.”

Clearly, Abe knows what’s at stake if the world’s third-largest economy continues business as usual, and continues to treat women as second-rate workers. It’s not just a political embarrassment to see Japan ranked in 105th place, right below Cambodia, according to the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report.

In that latest 2013 report, the United States is in 23rd place while Germany places at 14th place. China, meanwhile, comes in at 69, while South Korea, at 111th place, falls below Japan. The poor performance of both Japan and South Korea is a reflection of poor policies that prevent a healthy work-life balance.

Innovation and open-mindedness

While the traditional view may have been that long hours at work, with unwavering corporate loyalty were key to revving up the economic engine, that kind of approach to work is clearly no longer working.

Making higher-quality goods more cheaply and efficiently is no longer the winning formula for success in innovation-based economies that thrive on diversity, flexibility and open-mindedness.

That requires not just more women in the workforce at all levels. More importantly, employees at all levels must have the ability to change jobs, take time off, and generally have more leeway in defining career trajectories.

In short, it’s not enough to think about how to get more women back to work after having children, and to increase the number of female executives.

It requires a shift in values as well as identity. And despite nearly two decades of glacial growth, there is really no sign of a social revolution in Japan. Take, for example, the case of “Hanzawa Naoki,” which was a Japanese television series that was broadcast last autumn.

The cliché still holds

The story of a banker who challenges the rigid hierarchy was a runaway success. It’s already one of the most viewed television shows of all time. Yet, for all its celebration of a Japanese salary man gone rogue, the premise remains distinctly 20th century: the hero, Naoki, remains with the bank he joined straight out of college, while his college-educated wife stays at home with the children.

Indeed, according to a Health and Labor Ministry poll (日本語) conducted in September, one in three young Japanese women want to get married and be a full-time housewife. So while the government may push more women to go to work, many women quite simply don’t want to because it seems like too much hard work.

They believe that once married and with kids, they would have to bear the bulk of the household burden and wouldn’t be able to juggle work commitments on top of that.

Too few role models

There are far too few role models for ambitious young men and women to aspire to in building a life together. There also are precious few “power couples” who are celebrated in Japan, either in real life or in fiction, of the Alan Greenspan-Andrea Mitchell or Bill and Hilary Clinton type of couples.

Japan does not – and should not – simply follow the U.S. model of power couples. But real examples of influential men pairing with equally successful women could do much to make dual income family life more aspirational rather than drudgery.

Of course, public policy alone cannot change public perception. It is clear too that simply building more daycare centers, boosting childcare subsidies, and setting optional quotas for female executives isn’t enough to change the national psyche, without which Japan’s future will be bleak.

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

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