A lot of Japan’s women-related issues cannot be solved by legal frameworks or systems alone; they need social and cultural reformation.

In August 2015, at the World Assembly for Women (WAW) in Tokyo, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe reasserted that “Abenomics is Womenomics.” After resuming power for his second term in 2012, Abe – in keeping with his election promise, which was undoubtedly the main reason for the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) landslide victory – started to implement his policy of ‘Abenomics’. Abenomics was composed of three “arrows” – expansionary monetary policies, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms – and the third arrow of structural reform was to focus on ‘Womenomics’. The principle of ‘Womenomics’ was to boost economic growth through reforms and policies that would encourage the participation and advancement of women in the Japanese workforce, thus closing Japan’s large gender gap and growing demographic deficit. But five years on, is Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ working?


Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ strategy has included establishing new targets for the participation and advancement of women in the workforce; increasing the availability of daycare and after-school care; encouraging the private sector to promote more women and provide data on the advancement of women; recruiting and promoting women in government; expanding child care leave benefits; a proposal to allow foreign housekeepers in special economic zones; and reviewing the tax and social security system.

In order to enhance women’s participation and advancement, Abe pledged to provide a working environment conducive to women with children. Although more than 2 million children are enrolled in childcare centers in Japan, more than 23,000 are on waiting lists. The government has pledged a “zero childcare waiting-list project” and between 2013 and 2017, childcare places for half a million children are being added in order to eliminate waiting lists, together with after-school care places for 300,000 school-age children. The Japanese government has also urged companies to boost childcare leave benefits from 50 percent to 67 percent of salary for the first six months, and 50 percent for the subsequent six months. These measures have contributed to a 4 percent rise in the female employment rate since late 2012.

In order to improve the business environment to enhance female career advancement at workplaces, Abe had targeted 30 percent female representation in leadership positions in Japan by 2020. However, that target was later revised to 7 percent of section-chief positions in the national government, and 10 percent for similar positions in the private sector. Abe’s cabinet has also developed strategies to create a work environment favorable to women – the most recent being a government-sponsored bill that requires companies with over 300 employees (including central and local governments) to set numerical targets for the employment and promotion of women. Finally, though Japan is known for its stringent immigration laws, the government is pursuing a set of experimental policies to permit immigrant housekeepers in Osaka and Kanagawa, with the aim of expanding the policy nationwide.

On global platforms, Abe continued to push this policy. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in September 2013, Abe argued for the potential economic gains that could be realized by tapping Japan’s most “underutilized resource — Japanese women.” Abe also focused on the need to incorporate women in Japan’s workforce during speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013 and the World Economic Forum in January 2014. Further, in the quest to make the twenty-first century one where “women shine,” Japan continued its efforts as it took up the G-7 presidency in 2016. At this point, the government noted that the labor participation rate for women had risen sharply in less than three years to a record high of 66 percent, surpassing that of the U.S., and the number of working women in Japan had also risen by 1 million.

Challenges and Prospects

Yet, there are a number of challenges that remain and reflect on Abe’s ‘Womenomics’. Firstly, Japan’s economy is still suffering from stunted growth. Abenomics is yet to achieve its goal of raising inflation to 2 percent; there remain numerous concerns over ballooning debt, and many structural reforms have languished.

Many economists believe that closing the gender gap, by promoting ‘Womenomics’ would also revitalize the economy. In May 2014, it was estimated that closing the gender employment gap, such that the female employment rate matched the male employment rate, could boost Japan’s GDP by nearly 13 percent. Economist Kathy Matsui predicts that this figure could go up to 15 percent, and that getting more Japanese mothers to stay in work or go back to work should be a “national priority”. Further, a 2017 Economic Survey of Japan released by the OECD has projected that if the female participation rate were to converge to that of men by 2060, the labor force would be 10 percent larger than if participation rates were unchanged, thus helping to sustain per capita income levels.

Secondly, Japan is facing an alarming demographic challenge. Japan’s population (excluding foreign residents) continued to fall at the fastest pace last year, according to the Japan Times, and it did so for the eighth straight year in a row; it is further projected to fall from 127 million to 87 million by 2060. More alarming is the very visibly weak fertility rate that has now fallen to 1.25, far below the 2.1-mark that is necessary to sustain population size. Depressed birth rates have meant that there are fewer young people who are able to join the workforce, while an ageing population indicates that there are more people leaving the workforce and then living for longer periods of time. This has created a top-heavy demographic bulge in the country, which is one of the factors stunting Japan’s growth.

While the demographic challenge is a long-term one, economists believe that closing the gender gap could address it. Japanese society tends to follow strictly defined gender roles. Demographic surveys suggest that many women are not satisfied with living the life of a housewife and often choose to postpone marriage. Women who choose to work professionally tend to forgo marriage, due to the difficulty involved in balancing a family life with professional work. This remains a strong reason for why marriage rates and birth rates have fallen. The mean age of marriage in Japan is 29 years, yet almost a third of women who are in their early thirties are not married, and this trend is particularly pronounced in larger urban cities such as Tokyo.

Additionally, some economists argue that higher participation of women in the workforce could actually increase fertility rates in Japan. In a 2013 report, the BBC highlighted evidence from Europe and America, and suggested that helping women stay at work could increase the birth rate. In countries like Sweden, Denmark and the U.S., where female employment rates are high, birth rates are also higher. In countries where female employment is low, like Italy, South Korea and Japan, birth rates are also low. Though men are entitled to paternity leave by law, according to the Health and Welfare Ministry, only 2.63 percent of men actually use it, mainly due to the fear of losing a promotion. Thus, closing the gender gap while simultaneously creating policies that help women balance family and careers more successfully, some argue, could make marriage and children more attractive to women, and subsequently boost fertility rates, which would lead in turn to positive economic benefits.

Thirdly, in the 70 years since women in Japan gained suffrage at the national level, politics has remained male-centric. Women continue to account for only a small portion of seats in the Diet, trailing behind much of the rest of the world. Female lawmakers currently occupy 45 seats, which is a mere 9.5 percent of the Lower House. This figure is bleak if one compares it to the fact that 39 women won Lower House seats in the first post-World War II election in April 1946 and accounted for 8.4 percent of the total. The male dominance in political life is more than just numbers; many observers point to open hostility toward women in leadership. There have been numerous instances of discrimination towards women: in June 2014, several male lawmakers in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly hurled misogynistic jibes as a female Assembly member made a presentation on maternity leave and infertility. Such incidents have been detrimental to Abe’s ‘Womenomics’, and demonstrate the prevalent mindset among many men in Japanese politics.

Despite being a democracy, Japanese politics has largely been dominated by just one party: the LDP. The LDP stepped down once in 1993, only to quickly reassert its dominant position, and in 2009, it was defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for a brief three years. Though often labelled hawkish and conservative, Abe has done what none of his conservative predecessors in either the LDP or the DPJ governments have been able or willing to do – push forward a progressive agenda of gender equality, putting women at the forefront of both election campaigns and economic activity.

Yet, women have not had it easy in Japanese politics over the years, and in many instances, they have been labelled “pawns” or “window dressing”. In 1989, the ‘Madonna Boom’ saw the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) endorse dozens of female candidates to gain a majority in the Upper House. However, the Madonna Boom soon fizzled out, as it became apparent that many of the newly elected female politicians were unprepared for the task. Another notable boom emerged with ‘Koizumi’s Children’ in 2005, when the then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Diet for a snap election centered on postal privatization. Of the 83 ‘Koizumi Children’ elected, 15 were women, of which only 10 went on to survive the Lower House election of 2009. Finally, there came the ‘Ozawa Girls’ in 2009. Handpicked to run for their seats by Ichiro Ozawa – the veteran behind Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s win in the 2009 election which swept the DPJ to power – the ‘Ozawa Girls’ largely faded away into the background within the first eight months of the DPJ government.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government deserves credit for striving to improve the status of women in a number of areas, primarily the labor force. However, it is clear that Japan is yet to shed its male-centric political landscape, and the private sector and Abe’s LDP would have to push harder to achieve this. In this regard, Yuriko Koike’s landslide victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections earlier this month is a breath of fresh air. A former Defence Minister, she became the first woman to be elected Governor of Tokyo, thoroughly defeating Abe’s LDP to achieve this feat. The last prominent female leader that Japan produced was Takako Doi who served as chairperson of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) from 1986 to 1991. Additionally, this Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election also saw a record 36 women elected, 18 of which came from Koike’s party, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites first), which definitely signals a growing acceptance of female politicians. This is a big lesson for the LDP and Abe’s ‘Womenomics’, as Abe’s 2017 Cabinet lineup had only three women, which is now down to two, given the recent resignation of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

However, it is also important to note that a lot of the issues cannot be solved by legal frameworks or systems alone; they need social and cultural reformation. In that regard, clear commitment and strong leadership by the leaders are crucial. What has yet to be done is to address issues related not only to women, but to all people. This includes reforming Japan’s long work hours, and finding appropriate ways to reframe Japanese expectations of gender roles. As noted by Naoko Ogawa, Senior Manager for Women’s Empowerment at Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) in an interview, “Japan will reach its goal only when ‘Womenomics’ becomes ‘Humanomics’ that everybody considers as his or her own business.” Thus, five years on, though ‘Womenomics’ has seen some progress, it still has a long way to go before it can make considerable impact on the country.

Vindu Mai Chotani is a Research Student at the Department of Law and Politics, The University of Tokyo, Japan, and Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, India.