GENEVA - Women are the solution to Japan's expected labor shortage and economic difficulties stemming from a decline in its population, the head of a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations recently told Kyodo News.
"There is a big potential in Japan to grow the economy with the participation of women in this growth, by putting women in the economy," Arancha Gonzalez, executive director of the International Trade Center said.
The institution is dedicated to supporting the internationalization of small and medium-sized companies, paying special attention to the role of women entrepreneurs.
"I think the position by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to direct one of his 'arrows' towards more participation of women in society and economy is the right one," Gonzalez said, referring to the government's "Abenomics" economic and fiscal policy mix.
In addition to fiscal stimulus and monetary easing -- the first two arrows -- "Abenomics" implies structural reforms. Female empowerment is one component of this third arrow, Abe having announced in September 2013 at the U.N. General Assembly his intention to create "a society in which women shine."
The Abe administration has for example set a goal of raising the proportion of women in leading corporate positions to 30 percent by 2020.
"Since 2003, Japan has lost eight million people in the age bracket between 18 and 65. But it has increased the participation of employees in this age bracket, and this is because women have participated more into the job market," Gonzalez said.
Japan's fertility rate is one of the lowest among industrialized countries, standing at 1.42 in 2014, compared with 1.86 for the United States, 1.98 for France and 1.37 for Italy, according to the Japanese government's Declining Birthrate White Paper.
Japan still faces many challenges in terms of female empowerment, however.
"We have not done enough in ensuring that women are a greater part of our economy. And this is very clearly the case in Japan, where the participation of women in the workforce is well below that of men and where the pay gap between men and women is huge," Gonzalez said.
Japan is constantly ranked low by international reports on female empowerment.
The 2016 edition of the Global Gender Gap Report, compiled by the World Economic Forum, ranked Japan 111th out of a total of 144 countries because of the huge disparity between men and women in terms of political empowerment and economic participation.
"The issue of women empowerment is to a large extent, especially for a country like Japan, about changing mentalities. And in order to change mentalities, the best way is to first have a dialogue," Gonzalez said.
A Cabinet Office survey released in late October found that 54.2 percent of the respondents approved of the idea that women should continue to work after having a baby, up 9.4 percentage points from the previous poll in 2014.
Still, some 8.4 percent said women should leave the job market after having their first child, while 4.7 percent said they should do so after they get married and 3.3 percent responded that women should never work.
Gonzalez will participate in the World Assembly of Women on Dec. 13 and 14 in Tokyo, a conference organized by the Abe administration to promote female empowerment.
"I think this kind of conference is very effective because it is about discussing, conveying, in order to prepare a change in mentalities," Gonzalez said.