Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front, C) and his cabinet members pose for a photo at his office in Tokyo on Aug 3, 2016. His Cabinet had three women at that time but now has just two. His latest efforts to promote gender parity have also been timid. Photo: AFP/ Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front, C) and his cabinet members pose for a photo at his office in Tokyo on Aug 3, 2016. His Cabinet had three women at that time but now has just two. His latest efforts to promote gender parity have also been timid. Photo: AFP/ Yomiuri Shimbun

Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is raising a finger toward the glass ceiling hanging over Japanese society that has long undermined the nation’s economy. And it’s about time.

The chronic underutilization of fully half of the population – to be clear, the female half – saps competitiveness, impedes innovation and stifles productivity. What’s more, discrimination may be contributing to the deflationary forces weighing on the world’s third-biggest economy.

More on that later. But first, a recap: On Wednesday, Japan’s parliament passed a bill prodding political parties and organizations to seek greater gender parity. At the moment, Japan actually trails Saudi Arabia in the number of women in leadership. Looked at through this lens, any high-level effort to level the gender playing field is progress.

A gentle request

Trouble is, this non-binding bill is a bit too voluntary and milquetoast. Here we are, nearly six years into Prime Minister Abe’s pledge to make “womenomics” a priority – to help women “shine” – and the government only now wants parties to “make efforts” to even the scales. Failure to achieve this vague goal doesn’t carry any penalties or consequences.

It seems a re-run of Abe’s corporate governance upgrades. Since 2012, his team prodded executives to increase returns on equity, shareholders to speak out and boards to name two outside directors. That, coupled with aggressive Bank of Japan easing, sent shares soaring. In just the last 12 months, the Nikkei Stock Average is up 17%.

Yet those largely voluntary directives haven’t incentivized companies to share swelling profits with workers. They haven’t encouraged Japan Inc’s giants to invest more at home, rather than in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Nor have they headed off a bull market in quality-control scandals.

Headline-grabbing controversies at Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials, Subaru Corp and others are slamming Japan’s global image. Regional lender Suruga Bank is now in the spotlight for allegedly doctoring documents related to property investments. Japan Inc still answers to nobody, least of all a government asking it to do better, rather than mandating better behavior.

Similarly, what does Tokyo think this gender bill will do? Granted, the energy behind the #MeToo movement disrupting discriminatory dynamics around the globe could work in Japan’s favor. But this legislation seems too little, too late.

Abe’s metrics on the subject are grim – though that isn’t what you often read in the international media. There, it’s all about Abe’s pro-woman revolution. On his watch, though, Japan plunged 16 levels in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender-empowerment index. When he started, Tokyo was 98th. Now, it’s an all-time worst of 114th, trailing Guinea, Mauritius and Nepal.

Who is to blame? Everyone

The depth of Japan’s patriarchal foundations gets much of the blame. Yet discredit must also go to Team Abe’s timidity. Japan Inc is still exceedingly top-down. Along with having no teeth, Abe’s ‘womenomics’ program doesn’t ask anything hard of corporate giants. No mandates! No quotas! No penalties! Nor is Abe going the other way, offering sizable tax perks to companies that promote women to top executive positions and board seats.

Abe should lead by example. He has yet to name a woman to a key cabinet role – finance, foreign affairs or chief secretary. Japan’s current finance minister, 77-year-old Taro Aso, seems to have missed the #MeToo zeitgeist. Last month, Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda was caught on audio tape asking to hug and fondle the breasts of a female reporter. Aso outraged feminists by dismissing the story and claiming his underling had been framed. (At least Fukuda did the right thing: he resigned.)

Abe has also refused to use his bully pulpit to name and shame corporate boards featuring the biggest testosterone gluts. Nor has he done the opposite: highlighting companies achieving gender parity and – say – offering them preferential treatment in bids for government contracts.

At the same time, the steady increase in female labor participation isn’t the win-win it seems. As the workforce ages and shrinks, companies are indeed recruiting more women. The female labor participation rate is approaching a record 70%, compared to more than 80% for men.

The problem: companies are utilizing Japan’s female talent the way, say, America uses migrant labor. Women now account for two-thirds of all “non-regular” workers, enjoying less pay, fewer benefits and little job security. That’s why women entering the workforce may be inadvertently depressing average wages, complicating Abenomics’ reflation efforts.

That’s worrisome as Japan’s longest expansion since the 1980s hits a snag. The 0.6% contraction in the first quarter – following just 0.6% growth in the fourth quarter of last year – is a wake-up call for Tokyo to accelerate long-promised reforms.

It’s great that lawmakers are addressing the glass ceiling and adding a legislative punctuation mark. But nothing Tokyo did this week will end the institutionalized sexism imperiling Japan’s future. Tokyo is still failing its female masses.