Japan PM's policy proposals for foreigners, women in doubt

By Tomoyuki Tachikawa, Kyodo

Posted at Jun 25 2014 09:27 AM | Updated as of Jun 25 2014 05:27 PM

TOKYO - Doubts are growing about whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can move forward policy proposals for foreigners and women that he laid out in his government's revamped economic growth strategy.

In the strategy finalized Tuesday, the government pledged to boost the number of foreign and female employees as anxiety is growing that a shrinking population will exacerbate a shortage of workers and stifle economic growth.

But "conservative attitudes" toward foreigners and women persist in Japan, which would prevent Abe's administration from accelerating efforts to help them work in fair conditions and with better status, experts say.

In its longer-term economic and fiscal policy blueprint released along with the growth strategy, the government promised to drastically expand the budget for tackling the low birthrate and keep Japan's population at around 100 million 50 years from now.

Abe set such a goal for the first time since he took office in December 2012.

As a step to bolster the number of foreign workers, the government decided to allow people from other nations to work in Japan for up to five years under an on-the-job training program, extending the current maximum period of three years.

Some analysts, however, warn this measure may not function well, given deep-rooted fears that an increase in foreigners would rob Japanese of employment and that stability at home could deteriorate if the number of people with different cultures and background rises.

Under the circumstances, expanding the training program may be criticized by other countries as leading to "slavery," under which foreigners are employed with salaries below minimum wage, said Kenji Yumoto, vice chairman of the Japan Research Institute.

Yumoto's concern has become reality as the United States condemned the Japanese government in a report released Friday, saying the program for foreign trainees has been used in an inappropriate manner and resulted in forced labor.

"The Government of Japan has not, through practices or policy, ended the use of forced labor within the TTIP (Technical Intern Training Program), a government-run program that was originally designed to foster basic industrial skills and techniques among foreign workers, but has instead become a guest worker program," the U.S. State Department said in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2014.

In the report, Washington urged Japan to "establish a third, neutral, non-government entity to conduct a management audit of the TTIP" and "establish an oversight mechanism to promote accountability in the TTIP to hold perpetrators of forced labor responsible for their crimes."

As for Abe's attempt to improve the working situation of women, skepticism is also growing about whether Japan can really achieve it following the recent sexist heckling of a woman member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

Ayaka Shiomura, a 35-year-old Your Party assemblywoman, was heckled last Wednesday while asking questions about maternity support measures during a plenary session.

Five days later on Monday, Akihiro Suzuki, 51, a male assembly member who belongs to Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, admitted heckling Shiomura saying "You should get married first."

Suzuki apologized to Shuimura, but the incident has prompted international media to lambast gender insensitivity in Japan. Reuters reported it "illustrates deep-seated conservative attitudes in Japan, where many men still believe that a woman's place is in the home."

Criticism has been mounting even within the ruling party, with Seiko Noda, chairwoman of the LDP General Council, saying Suzuki's remarks "almost denied the prime minister's growth strategy."

Mariko Mitsui, a researcher in the field of women's policy and a former Tokyo Metropolitan assemblywoman, said such sexist attitudes are a "big problem that seek to stifle women's voices," adding Abe's challenge to enhance empowerment of women would "end up in failure."

Yumi Matsuyama, an associate professor at Shigakkan University, said, "If Japan is considered a society biased against women, the growth strategy being implemented by such a country would not gain international credibility."

"The same is true of views against foreigners. The most important policy the government should incorporate in the growth strategy is to change the mentality of Japanese," Matsuyama added.

Political commentator Norio Toyoshima said Japanese-style "omotenashi" hospitality should be polished, referring to the word used in a presentation for Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games and selected as one of the nation's top buzzwords last year.

In the growth strategy, the "third arrow" of the "Abenomics" policy mix along with aggressive monetary easing and massive fiscal spending, the government set a goal of raising the proportion of women in leading corporate positions to 30 percent by 2020, calling policy proposals for female workers "womenomics."