Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Japan's stagnation 'men's fault'

Experts see 'womenomics' as key to getting country back on track

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Imagine our current discussions about women and the workplace -- Can women have it all? How do women lean in? -- taking place in a country with one of the worst gender-equality ratios in the world.

This is Japan.

And women, it turns out, could be key to jolting the nation out of its economic coma.

Japan's population is shrinking faster than anywhere else in the world. Its government estimates the population will fall by roughly 15 per cent, or 20 million people, by 2040. With this steep drop, the tax base and labour force will plummet, all while state spending on the elderly rises, creating a long-term economic crisis.

One solution? More babies. In 2007, the country's health minister referred to Japanese women as "birth-giving machines" and implored them "to do their best per head." This year, one female parliamentarian, Noda Seiko, proposed that abortions be banned to boost population numbers.

Others point to the boardroom, citing economic arguments that bringing women into the labour force would be more immediately helpful to the nation's fortunes.

Even the prime minister is leaning into this bedroom-versus-boardroom debate.

Shinzo Abe has promoted women's workforce potential as part of his broader plan for economic revival. His challenge is great: Japan has fallen into recession three times since 2008, and government debt (at more than 200 per cent of GDP) is the highest on the planet.

"It's possible that Japan's stagnation is essentially men's fault," Abe said in a recent speech. "The period in which men with uniform ways of thinking dominated Japan's business community was too long... The mission that I have imposed upon myself is to thoroughly liberate the power that women possess."

Kathy Matsui, the chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, has published reports for more than a decade on "womenomics" in Japan. Her research estimates that Japan could add 8.2 million people to its labour force and lift GDP by up to 15 per cent by closing the gender gap in its workforce. The employment rate is currently 60 per cent for women, compared to 80 per cent for men.

"If Japan wants to revive its economy, it's all about empowering women," Brad Glosserman says. He has studied the country for more than 25 years and serves as executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, the Asia policy arm of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Right now, however, women don't seem to be very empowered in the bedroom or the boardroom. The average Japanese woman has 1.3 children, one of the lowest numbers across the globe. She is also far less likely than her male counterparts to work full time. According to Goldman Sachs's research, 70 per cent of Japanese women quit their jobs after having a child.

"In this country, we have never had a real radical feminist movement like many countries have," says Kuniko Inoguchi, Japan's former gender minister and now one of its upper-house parliamentarians. "Lacking that, I think we have not been able to make a dramatic change in mindset."

So instead what has happened is a much quieter resistance to the culture's male-dominated social norms. More women are defying the expectation to start families, even as career opportunities are still scarce.

The result is both low birth rates and low workforce participation.

What do Japan's young women think? Natsuko Yamada, 22, is the youngest in her family and left her hometown of Nagano to study sociology and gender at Waseda University in Tokyo. "We have to change the society," she says. "It's our generation's duty, I think."

Yoko Ishikura, a professor of business strategy at Keio University in Tokyo, is more blunt.

"We are sort of wasting half the population. If I were a 15-year-old girl in Japan, I would get out of the country."


-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 D6

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