TOKYO — This was supposed to be the era when Japan finally stepped beyond its centuries of patriarchal dominance and empowered women in the workplace. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the country’s prosperity depended on it and promised policies to help women “shine.” He even gave the push a name: womenomics.
Sayaka Hojo has yet to see the fruits of those pledges.
Hojo, 32, the mother of a young daughter, has had three different employers during the nearly eight-year tenure of Abe, who said late last month that he was leaving office. In all of those jobs, Hojo worked mostly with women but was overseen by men — a still-common situation in Japan that belies Abe’s promise to significantly increase the share of women in management roles.
And Hojo, like many women in Japan, cannot accept a full-time job even after Abe pushed through a law intended to ease Japan’s brutal work culture. Because she shoulders the bulk of housework and child care, the hours at work would be too demanding.
“If there are talented, competent women who get married or have children, their career paths are derailed,” Hojo said. Of Abe’s flowery rhetoric about elevating women, she added: “I saw a huge gap between what he said and what was really happening.”
As Abe ends a record-long run in office, one of the more consequential entries on his list of unfulfilled aspirations is his goal of promoting women in the workforce to address dire demographic problems like a declining and aging population.
None of the three lawmakers vying to replace him as Japan moves toward picking a new leader Monday — including the front-runner, Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary — are seen as likely to drastically change the environment for women, even as the picture remains grim.
Women hold less than 12 percent of corporate management jobs, well below Abe’s original 30 percent target, according to government data. And while the percentage of women in the workforce rose during his prime ministership to an all-time high of 52.2 percent, more than half of them work in part-time or contract jobs that offer few benefits or paths to career advancement. Those workers have also suffered the most during the pandemic, losing income and working hours.
Although many women are getting back into the workforce, it’s often for “an odd job to put a little extra money into the household pocket,” said Nobuko Kobayashi, a partner at EY Japan, a consulting firm.
“So do we really call that womenomics in the sense that it’s augmenting the status of women in society?” she said. “No.”
Abe did shift the tone from previous leaders who had declared that a woman’s rightful place was in the home. And in one area, at least, women have made noticeable progress: By 2020, more than a third of hires for management-track jobs in central government ministries were women, up from less than a quarter in 2012.
But many women still struggle to find adequate child care, even after Abe promised to eliminate waiting lists for public day-care centers by 2020. As of earlier this year, there were still nearly 12,500 children on waiting lists, even as the number of babies born in Japan fell to the lowest level in close to 1 1/2 centuries.
Among single mothers, the poverty rate has worsened under Abe. More than half fell below the poverty line in 2019, up from nearly 45% when Abe became prime minister in 2012, according to the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a think tank.
To many women, Abe showed his true colors on two cultural issues: his repeated demurral on a growing push to change a 19th-century law dictating that married couples use one surname, and his emphasis on the “importance of the male succession” as a majority of the Japanese public supports allowing a woman to become emperor.
“Even though we knew he was from a conservative background, he was pretending he was supporting women’s active participation in society,” said Tomomi Yamaguchi, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Montana State University who researches Japanese feminism.
Women’s halting progress in society is in part a product of their deep-rooted underrepresentation in politics.
All three of the lawmakers vying to replace Abe as prime minister are men. Two women initially indicated they would be interested in running but quickly dropped out after failing to gain support.
Women represent less than 15 percent of lawmakers in Japan’s parliament. Of the 102 current parliamentary members who are women, fewer than half are in Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Just three members of his Cabinet of 20 are women.
“The main reason for Japan’s shockingly low numbers of women politicians is the LDP’s failure to recruit and nominate women,” said Gill Steel, a professor of political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto and the editor of “Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan.”
“Abe presided over this situation and did nothing to change it,” she said.
A group of 10 Liberal Democratic women in parliament wrote a letter to the three candidates for prime minister urging them to support a minimum threshold of 30 percent female representation among national lawmakers.
Yayoi Kimura, a Liberal Democratic member of the House of Representatives who endorsed the letter, said that when she co-sponsored a bill to provide a tax break for unmarried parents, some of her male colleagues argued that most single mothers were either mistresses of rich men or hyperambitious career women who did not need government assistance.
The measure passed, Kimura said, because women of all parties banded together to vote it through.
Some women hope that Suga would be slightly more in tune with their needs. Unlike most Japanese lawmakers, he does not come from a wealthy political family. In Yokohama, where he served on the City Council, he worked to reduce long day care waiting lists.
Still, like so many other men in Japanese politics, Suga has made public comments that reflect traditional views about a woman’s role in society.
When a popular actor, Masaharu Fukuyama, married actress Kazue Fukiishi in 2015, Suga predicted on television that their marriage would prompt “Mama-sans” around the country to “want to have babies alongside the new couple and contribute to the country.”
And when Suga and the other two men running for prime minister, Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, were asked in a debate what kinds of fathers they were, all acknowledged having rarely spent time at home while their children were growing up. Kishida was roundly attacked on Twitter recently after posting a picture of his wife serving him dinner while she stood in the doorway looking more like a waitress than a partner.
Megumi Mikawa, 40, said she did not see how her life had improved under the Abe administration. In July, she quit her clerical job in Nishinomiya, a city in western Japan, because she was unable to perform her duties from home during the pandemic.
Because she left the part-time job voluntarily, she was not eligible for unemployment benefits or government subsidies for parents who took time off to care for children while schools were closed because of the coronavirus.
In a Zoom interview from her kitchen on a day when her 7-year-old daughter’s school was closed because of an approaching typhoon, Mikawa, whose husband is currently posted in Tokyo, said that simply increasing the number of women in parliament could foster more women-friendly policies.
“The fundamental ideas of the country are controlled by men,” she said. “That’s why we don’t have any policies to really cater to ordinary people.”
Hojo, the accountant, said she viewed her destiny as extending beyond motherhood.
“I still have ambition,” she said.
When she returned to work after staying home with her newborn daughter for two years, she took a part-time job at the medical clinic where she had previously worked full time. Since her husband worked 100-hour weeks as a delivery service driver, she accepted a reduction in her hours because the clinic required staff members to stay until 8 p.m. — too late to pick up her daughter from day care.
She said she wanted the next prime minister to use his bully pulpit to promote gender equality.
Invoking an idiomatic expression — nagai mono ni makareru — on people’s tendency to follow authority, she said: “If the government, which is in the strongest position, demonstrates” the importance of giving women more opportunities in the workplace, “private companies would follow suit.”
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