Japanese women celebrate victory in a rugby event in Hong Kong. 'Qualified but unrecognized' may sum up the status of women in politics and business in their paternalistic society. Photo: HK Rugby Union
Japanese women celebrate victory in a rugby event in Hong Kong. 'Qualified but unrecognized' may sum up the status of women in politics and business in their paternalistic society. Photo: HK Rugby Union

The feminist wave emanating from misconduct allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, President Donald Trump and other powerful men rolled right past Japan. Asia’s No. 2 economy is anything but a sexual-harassment-free utopia. Yet cultural mores against speaking out, and a pervasive fear of public shame, have largely kept the gender justice reckoning at water’s edge.

That could say more about why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reflation scheme isn’t gaining more traction than meets the eye. Even though Japan is experiencing its second-longest expansion since World War II, real wages fell 0.2% in 2017. And hints are that a strong yen and trade-war threats from Trump’s White House aren’t putting Japan Inc. in a giving mood.

As Tokyo mulls ways to reboot Abenomics, it is looking anew at better utilizing the female workforce. The latest plan involves recommending that companies welcome more women into the executive suite. Surveys from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that companies that promote women are more innovative, productive and profitable. The same goes for entire economies.

As IMF head Christine Lagarde puts it: “The bottom line is this: women are the solution to many of the problems confronting countries around the world today. They can be an economic game changer. So the obvious question is: how do we get more women to participate in the economy?”

Sadly, Japan is slow-walking efforts to find an answer. The problem with Tokyo’s latest proposal is the gaping escape clause rendering it nearly useless. Companies that don’t put more women in the boardroom merely need to explain why. It’s the same get-out-of-jail-free card that watered-down Abe’s corporate governance upgrades. Companies that don’t hire enough outside directors can just write a memo and return to business as usual.

Just two women in Abe’s Cabinet

The irony is that female empowerment is thought to be a key Abenomics success. The data shows something very different. The World Economic Forum’s annual gender-empowerment report now ranks Japan an all-time low 114th (it was 98th when Abe took power in 2012). Tokyo, it’s worth noting, still ranks behind Saudi Arabia in the number of women in politics. Nor has Abe governed by example. Just two of his 20 cabinet members are women. Abe has yet to entrust a key portfolio to a woman – foreign affairs, finance or cabinet chief.

A paternalistic ethos continues to infect the broader  “womenomics” push Abe’s team loves to tout. Female executives account for a dismal 3.7% of listed companies, compared with more than 23% in the United Kingdom. True, Japan’s female labor participation is at all-time highs. Trouble is, the rate is eerily similar to women’s share of “non-regular” workers, who are paid less, enjoy fewer benefits and are easier to fire. Oddly, the increase in female workers may be depressing wages.

Japan needs a “lean in” moment, in the Sheryl Sandberg sense. In a visit to Tokyo in 2013 to promote her best-selling book about women demanding change, the Facebook bigwig also talked of the need for female role models. In top-down Japan, though, big cultural shifts often come from the government. And when the Abe government says one thing – we want women to “shine” – and does another – sticking with milquetoast policies that haven’t worked – it’s not surprising Japan’s female masses remain relatively quiet.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announce the name of her new political party at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Japan, Sept. 25, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announces the name of her new political party in September last year. Few women hold prominent positions in Japanese politics. Photo: Reuters

For all womenomics histrionics, the empowerment zeitgeist is still more rhetorical than operational. It’s a complicated issue, of course, one that delves into touchy debates about putting group harmony over individual suffering. Japan is different, too, because of the parallel corporate worlds that long divided male and female labor. It’s hardly a system that encourages women to declare “Me Too!”

Abe has the power to pull Japan into the global conversation. A few bold speeches on a topic he has largely ignored could encourage grassroots activism. The same goes for policies to tighten gender protections, level playing fields and even promote women into cabinet positions of real power and visibility. Japan’s absence from the harassment dialogue really does say as much about culture as the state of the economy.