Shiori Ito, a Japanese freelance journalist, at a news conference after the Tokyo District Court ordered senior TV journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi to pay 3.3 million yen ($30,000) in damages to Ito, who accused him of rape. Photo: AFP

Shiori Ito is many things to women in Japan, a bold whistleblower, feminist icon and the face of the nation’s #MeToo movement.

But is she also an encouraging economic indicator heading into 2020?

Asia’s second-biggest economy has had an eerily silent #MeToo movement. While the sexual harassment cases against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein helped catalyze women across the globe, it made barely a ripple in patriarchal Japan. That is, until Ito’s big win last week.

On December 18, Ito, a freelance reporter, prevailed in her three-and-a-half-year civil case against a prominent journalist she accused of rape. She claims Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a one-time Washington bureau chief for the TBS network, attacked her in a Tokyo hotel room.

It was a wildly rare win for women in a nation where rape – and more generally, sexual harassment – is chronically unreported and seldom prosecuted. Will Ito’s victory encourage a domino effect of women previously cowed by societal pressures to demand justice?

Only time will tell. What’s not debatable is that 2020 must be the year of empowering Japanese women – for economic, as well as moral reasons.

Institutionalized sexism

As global headwinds and recession risks mount, no issue is more pressing than increasing innovation, productivity and competitiveness. Addressing Japan Inc’s institutionalized sexism is arguably the fastest way to raise Tokyo’s game.

Research – from the World Economic Forum to the International Monetary Fund to Goldman Sachs – holds nations that best utilize the female labor force are the most efficient and prosperous. In 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power pledging to create a “Japan in which women can shine.”

Instead, their economic prospects dimmed on his watch.

Within 24 hours of Ito’s court victory, the World Economic Forum sharply slashed Tokyo’s gender-equality grade. It now ranks 121st, 11 places below 2019. Japan may be a G7 power, but gender-wise it trails the United Arab Emirates, Benin and Timor-Leste.

And in the region, it is 15 places behind China and fully 105 behind the Philippines.

The main reason for the latest decline is a paucity of women in politics. One problem is when Abe does name women to his Cabinet, it’s in lesser roles. Never the top jobs – foreign affairs, finance or chief secretary. Another problem is Japan ranks 56 places behind Saudi Arabia in female representation in parliament.

Yet, oddly, Abe’s “womenomics” push to empower Japan’s other half is often viewed as a bright spot of broader reflation efforts.

Gender pay gap

True, the proportion of women in the workforce has increased markedly, though this dynamic was already afoot when Abe took the premiership. It’s a response to a shrinking labor force, not some political edict.

On Abe’s watch, Tokyo fell 20 rungs on the WEF’s league tables. Nor has the gender pay gap narrowed appreciably since then. In fact, there’s an argument that Japan has moved backward parity-wise.

In 2012, Abe was teeing off research from Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs, arguing that Japanese gross domestic product would be 15% bigger if female labor participation rivaled that of men, or about 80%. Women are now about 70%.

Yet the female labor participation rate mirrors the proportion of “irregular” jobs held by women – just over two-thirds of them. These gigs pay less, offer fewer benefits and less security than formal ones.

That they’re overwhelmingly going to women belies the spin about Japan’s other half getting ahead.

For all of Abe’s successes in strengthening corporate governance, Japan Inc has yet to embrace the meritocratic mores that drive hiring decisions in the West. Seniority-based promotions are still the norm. The same goes for salary increases, where they exist in disinflationary Japan.

Women are too-often afterthoughts in corporate and political circles. One big problem, as Goldman’s Matsui points out, is a dearth of female role models. Not a single Nikkei 225 Index company is run by a Japanese woman. It hardly helps that Abe’s deputy, 79-year-old Taro Aso, is a fountain of sexist remarks.

When it comes to gender dynamics among G7 peers, says sociologist Chizuko Ueno, one of Japan’s most prominent feminists, modern globalization has seen governments not just pulling more women into the labor force, but trying to level the playing field.

Yet the power of the patriarchy, Ueno says, had warped Japan’s economic evolution. “What has happened,” she says, “is that gender has become something functionally equivalent to race or class in other societies.”

Dearth of policies

Japan is a uniquely homogenous nation, one that, even as 2020 approaches, is resistant to markedly increased immigration. So, corporate Japan treats women the way, say, American CEOs do labor from Latin America, or the UK does from Eastern Europe.

A dearth of policies, meantime, to help women balance work and family is backfiring on Tokyo.

Japan’s fertility rate is only 1.42 babies per woman. But the first seven months of 2019 saw the sharpest decline in births in 30 years. That 5.9% plunge comes as Tokyo’s debt burden, already two-a-half-times the size of annual output, swells apace.

Ueno calls the policy disconnect “a human disaster.” To keep it from becoming an economic one, too, Abe must make 2020 the year of empowering women. One priority is raising the government’s ambitions substantially.

In 2013, Abe pledged that 30% of leadership roles would be held by women. By 2015, that goal had been cut to 7% by 2021. In top-down Japan, that’s taken the pressure off CEOs and government agencies to diversify the executive mix.

Tokyo should be implementing quotas at this point, and threatening repercussions. Those could come in the form of tax penalties, naming and shaming laggards – or both. Or, the government could go the other way and give tax perks for corporate boards that champion and promote female talent.

Abe also could lead by example. With Aso, his gaffe-prone No 2 and finance minister, turning 80 in 2020, why not replace him with a woman? Why not also use the bully pulpit to generate a groundswell of support for toppling a patriarchy holding back the economy?

The year ahead, after all, offers no more obvious fix to waning competitiveness. The trade war isn’t likely to disappear as China plays hardball with US President Donald Trump. The “phase one” trade deal between Trump and China’s Xi Jinping treats the symptoms of the discord, not the causes.

Abe, meantime, is bracing for Japan’s own “phase two” negotiations. Miffed that his recent deal with Abe impressed no one, Trump will be back for another helping. Trump might even pull the trigger on threats of 25% taxes on cars and auto parts he’s been aiming Tokyo’s way.

Already, Japan’s export engine is sputtering as China slows and Trump’s tariffs boomerang on American consumers.

To win momentum, he has favored increased stimulus and a weaker yen rather than taking on vested interests. An easier reform lever to pull in 2020 would be making better use of Japan’s female masses.

It’s no longer just an issue of fairness or social justice – for which Ito’s victory is Exhibit A – but basic economic logic. Until now, Japan has tried to thrive with one hand effectively tied behind its back.

Yet in top-down Japan, pressures must come from the ground up, too. That, essentially, was the argument of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 best-seller Lean In. Hence, the power of Ito’s #MeToo win.

Granted, even in victory, Ito, 30, reminded us why 2019 was a year Japanese women won’t soon miss. The journalist was awarded only 3.3 million yen, or about US$30,000, for her troubles.

On the same day as the Tokyo court ruling, the accused held a well-attended press conference to announce he’s appealing the verdict. Local media framed it as a he-said-she-said drama.

As America saw with the Weinstein episode, courageous stances against the establishment can catalyze sweeping change. With a well-timed assist, Tokyo could morph 2020 into the year of womenomics – and regain the reformist momentum.

Abe’s government knows what Japan needs to do to make the broader economy “shine.” No time like the year ahead to act.

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