GENDER equality is usually treated as a human rights issue, but Japan has also recognised it as an economic matter. Falling fertility rates, a shrinking labour pool and an ageing population have forced the government to take stock and recognise that women are an untapped and underutilised resource.

“Bringing women in Japan to full participation would mean a 9% bigger GDP, in other words, a richer Japan,” said World Bank chief executive officer Kristalina Georgieva in her keynote speech at the fourth World Assembly for Women (WAW) in Tokyo recently.

The women’s empowerment conference is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s womenomics policy which seeks to “create a world where women can shine”. The meeting was centred on the theme “WAW! in Changing World”; participants discussed the challenges and opportunities for women even as globalisation and technology change people’s way of life.

Although Japan has made strides in improving women’s participation at work in recent years, it was clear there was still much that it had to do to achieve gender equality. Japan fell three places to 114th in the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF)’s global gender equality rankings, due to the low representation of women in politics. Its ranking is the worst standing among the Group of Seven major economies.

The WEF survey, covering 144 countries, measures gender equality by analysing women’s participation rates and gaps between men and women in the categories of politics, the economy, education and health.

The report, which was released during WAW, said that at the current rate of progress, it will take a full century on average to achieve overall gender equality.

The estimated time needed to ensure full equality in the workplace meanwhile has jumped from 80 years in 2014 to 170 years last year to 217 years now, according to the report.

Therefore, Japan’s efforts to push its gender equality agenda was lauded by UN Women.

“I salute Prime Minister Abe, our HeForShe champion, who has led this transformative enterprise, and in his newest incarnation, I urge him to push new frontiers and quicken the pace of change,” said UN Women deputy executive director Lakshmi Puri.

Ivanka Trump, the daughter and assistant to US President Donald Trump, delivers a speech at the World Assembly for Women (WAW) in Tokyo. – AFP

Advisor to the US President, Ivanka Trump, also commended Japan’s womenomics policy.

“Womenomics recognises the centrality of women, who represent roughly half of our global population, in achieving true economic growth. Women who are empowered to work, to thrive, and to lead bring immense creativity, fresh perspective, and success to our economy – and to the world,” she said in her WAW address.

Family over career

According to the WEF gender equality report, Japan’s rating improved in educational attainment because more women were enrolled in higher education. In economic participation and opportunity, it rose to 114th from 118th due to a narrower income gap.

Between 1986 and 2016, the female employment rate (15 to 64 years of age) increased from 53.1% to 66%. The majority of that increase occurred over the last decade, and particularly over the last four years.

The challenge for Japan lies in retaining women in the workplace.

Japanese women are on par with men in education, but many find that they have to choose between pursuing a career and caring for their family. Rigid working conditions, limited access to childcare and traditional caregiving expectations at home are among the factors that hamper women’s full participation in the workforce.

In Japan, women take up to a year’s leave after childbirth. About half of new mothers do not return to work, mainly because they could not get their children into childcare facilities as there are long waiting lists. Babysitting services and hiring maids are not common in Japan.

“From our survey, we know that there are about three million women who want to return to work, but cannot.

“The family model of the previous generation where the father works and the mother stays at home to look after two children is not possible or harder for this generation,” said Dr Machiko Osawa, who heads the Research Institute for Women and Careers at Japan’s Women University.

Many Japanese women take up to a year’s leave after childbirth and some can’t return to work because they can’t find childcare. — Blomberg

“Women want to come back to work for economic reasons – there’s a higher inflation rate and wage growth is not as rapid as before. Education costs have also gone up, and mothers want to earn so that they can send their children for cramming schools,” she said.

Even when women return to work after childbirth and childrearing, they often re-enter the workforce as non-regular employees, a situation which offers less pay, benefits and security.

Japan’s rigid corporate hierarchy also makes re-entering the workforce difficult for women.

“The solution is to create an environment where women can have a career and raise children,” says Osawa who lists policies that promote better work-life balance, improving productivity within shorter working hours and leveraging on technology to change working styles as some of the measures needed to enable more women to work.

Workplace reforms

When Yokohama mayor Fumiko Hayashi started work over 30 years ago, women were expected to come in an hour earlier than their male colleagues to clean up and make tea.

“One of my tasks was to buy cigarettes for my boss. When I asked him what brand to buy, he asked me why I didn’t check the cigarette butts in the ashtray,” recalled Hayashi, to illustrate the unequal workplace culture in Japan.

She overcame the challenges and rose to lead BMW Tokyo Corp, and The Daiei, Inc and Nissan Motor Co Ltd during her corporate career, and then scaled new heights as the first mayor of Yokohama in 2009.

Hayashi is intent on empowering women, and has put in place policies to create the “most supportive and motivating city for working women in Japan”.

“We want to abolish the waiting list for childcare in Yokohama. We recognise that women want to work but cannot because of limited access to childcare,” said Hayashi, who had eliminated the waiting list for nursery schools in Yokohama by April 2013.

At WAW, she was most passionate about the need to encourage women to be more ambitious at work, to aim for managerial positions. Some of the obstacles she had identified are the lack of mentors and role models, lack of confidence and networking opportunities.

She also recognised that workplace reforms are crucial in levelling the working field for women. Yokohama gives subsidies to companies that introduce steps to support the continued employment of women and promote work-life balance.

Reducing working hours is one of Prime Minister Abe’s key policies in promoting work-life balance, to enable women and men to have time for their families.

It’s particularly challenging to implement in a country whose post-war economic miracle was built on employees’ intense devotion to work. The ideal employee is someone who puts work above everything else, and there is even a Japanese term for death from overwork, karoshi. Japan Broadcasting Corp recently acknowledged that one of its female reporters died from karoshi after logging in more than 150 hours of overtime in a month.

Such incidents have added impetus to the government’s push for shorter working hours, which includes regulating overtime and imposing penalties for violations.

The Labour Ministry limits overtime to 45 hours per month and 360 hours a year, but that restriction can be sidestepped by adding special provisions to labour-management agreements.

Itochu Corporation provides free breakfast for employees who work before 8am to encourage them to start early so that they could go home earlier to be with their family. – IVY SOON/The Star

Itochu Corporation, one of Japan’s top conglomerates, initiated a morning-focused working system in October 2013 to reduce working hours.

Under this ruling, employees are encouraged to do overtime in the morning instead of in the evening. It pays 50% extra for overtime up to 9am and provides free breakfast for workers who start work before 8am. Special permission has to be obtained to work after 8pm, and overtime after 10pm is prohibited.

“We found that two hours of morning overtime is equivalent to three hours of overtime in the evening. There are fewer distractions such as phone calls in the morning, which means higher productivity and efficiency. With the morning-focused system, we have reduced working hours by 15%,” said Hiroto Misawa from Itochu’s Human Resource and General Affairs Division.

By reducing working hours, the Government is hoping women employees will be able to continue working.

Japan Airlines is also stepping up its efforts to retain its women workforce. Its initiatives range from encouraging women to continue working after childbirth to mentoring programmes to increase the number of women in top managerial positions. It has also introduced workplace innovations that enable employees to work flexible hours and from home.

Many other Japanese companies are also actively implementing initiatives with targets for recruiting, retaining and promoting women, and putting in place support systems for women’s career progression. Extended maternity provisions and shorter hours for working mothers are indicative of Japan’s growing acceptance that women is a crucial economic resource.

Changing men’s mindset

There is also growing recognition that men need to be part of the change for women to gain more equity at work.

Although Osawa does not have data to show men’s changing attitude towards gender roles, she is convinced younger men are more involved in child-rearing based on anecdotal examples.

“I took three months’ paternity leave when my wife gave birth to our daughter two years ago. I wanted to be involved in caring for our child,” said 32-year-old Noriyuki Ito from the General Affairs Division for Gender Equality Bureau, of the Government of Japan’s Cabinet Office. He grew up in a traditional Japanese household where his mother did all the housework.

But Ito does his share at home because “it is only natural that I support my working wife”. Ito’s wife took a year’s maternity leave, and is now back at work in the private sector.

He says more of his peers are taking paternity leave and getting involved in raising children.

“There is now support for men taking paternity leave. When my male colleague took paternity leave recently, I supported him,” added Ito.