If you follow Japan news, you know about Shinzo Abe's "Womenomics" program/meme. You also know that much of the Western press - especially the Japan-based Western ("gaijin") press - is startlingly vitriolic about the program.
Why? It's not that gaijin want to keep Japanese women in the kitchen - far from it. In fact, Westerners have been writing editorials about how Japan needs to be less sexist for many many years. So why are they so hostile now that Abe is actually trying to do what they've been urging Japanese leaders to do since forever?
Well, first some background. Shinzo Abe is a conservative - and not just a conservative, but a nationalist conservative, one of an outspoken minority of Japanese politicians who want Japan to stop obsessing about World War 2 and go back to being a strong military power. To some gaijin, this implicitly associates Abe with the pre-1945 fascist regime, and also with Japan's xenophobic feudal government back in the 1800s. They instinctively see Abe as part of a long Japanese tradition of anti-Westernism. Their greatest fear is that Abe is the leading edge of a wholesale revival of that tradition. They see Japan as a pendulum that swings back and forth between openness and xenophobia, and Abe's popularity seems like a sign that the pendulum is swinging back. If that happens, their very livelihoods are in trouble, and they could face social and/or official discrimination.
So if Abenomics succeeds, the thinking goes, Abe might be able to push Japan in a xenophobic direction. But that doesn't explain the particular venom many gaijin writers have toward the Womenomics part of the program. I have a hypothesis to explain this: Abe stole their issue.
You see this all the time in politics. Democrats gave Bush little to no credit for the Medicare expansion. Republicans gave Clinton little to no credit for scaling back welfare. And so on. When a leader of the Enemy Party does something you've long been calling for, the instinctual response is to A) discount it as tokenism, and then B) deride the Enemy Leader for engaging in tokenism.
A lot of Westerners went to Japan in the 1990s and 2000s, lured mostly by the explosion of Japanese pop culture. They have been banging the drum for women's equality for years and years, and seen Japanese feminists stonewalled by a seemingly impenetrable wall of conservative LDP politicians. Now along comes one of the most conservative LDP politicians of all, and suddenly he's talking up feminism? It must be a trick! And a dirty, cruel trick at that, designed to subvert the gender equality movement and give it false hope, etc. etc.
I see this kind of thinking a fair amount.
But here's the thing: gaijin/Westerners are not a unified bloc. Many disagree totally with the kind of thinking I've described. And these dissenters, who generally bear no particular love but also no particular animus toward the LDP, have started to realize that Womenomics, no matter what concrete policy changes come out of it, has fundamentally changed the game in Japan.
For example, here's Anthony Fensom in The Diplomat, quoting the excellent Devin Stewart:
Abe has announced a series of reforms to boost Womenomics, including ensuring sufficient childcare centers for 300,000 children by March 2020; requiring listed companies to disclose the number of female executives by March 2015; and reviewing the tax and social security system to ensure its neutrality toward women workers.
“Together with other measures to facilitate women-friendly work places such as disseminating good practices and promoting disclosure of company information on female participation, the government aims to raise the employment rate of women (aged 25-44) from 68 percent (in 2012) to 73 percent in 2020 and to increase women occupying leading positions to 30 percent in 2020,” the government said in its growth strategy prepared for November’s G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.
The strategy also announced plans for the next Diet session to introduce “a new working hour system to break the link between wages and the length of time spent at work, while protecting workers’ health and achieving a better work-life balance,” as well as reviewing international best practice concerning labor disputes...
[S]igns of progress have been seen in the corporate sector, with brokerage Nomura appointing this year its first woman trust bank head since 1945, and female directors now on the boards of the nation’s three megabanks. Women delivery drivers and construction workers are no longer a rare sight as Japan utilizes its formerly neglected labor resource, in preference to broad-scale immigration.
Importantly, the government has flagged plans to abolish the current spousal tax deduction system, which offers tax deductions providing the low-income spouse’s salary does not exceed around 1 million yen a year. The system has been blamed for encouraging married women to stay out of the workforce, but according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the reform will offer tax deductions to the spouse with the higher annual income, with no upper limit placed on their spouse’s income...
Devin Stewart, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council, told The Diplomat after a recent Japan visit that progress was apparent, including proposed moves by business lobby Keidanren pushing companies to publish action plans on women employment, immigration policies allowing more nannies, the deregulation of part-time workers beyond the three-year limit, and an increase in childcare leave benefits from 50 percent to 67 percent of initial salaries for both parents.
“More women are working in the bureaucracy, and they are bringing about reform to the way Kasumigaseki [Japan’s government district] operates. A group of women who were selected to be trained for management training have created a network for change in Tokyo’s central government. In their spare time (often in pre-dawn hours), these women have put together a proposal for change titled, ‘Towards Sustainable Work Style: Proposals from Female Officials Working in the Japanese Central Government.’ Each ministry is now considering how to adopt their suggestions, such as reducing work hours and allowing workers to telecommute,” he said.
“In the courts, there has been some progress for the protection of women workers. This fall, the Japanese Supreme Court overturned a Hiroshima court ruling about maternity harassment (also known as pregnancy discrimination) in violation of the equal employment act. The Supreme Court has ordered a re-trial– a victory for the plaintiff. It means Japan may start enforcing laws that protect women’s rights like this one, which has been in place since 1986.”
Despite concerns over the planned female executive target – one analyst described it as potentially creating a small elite of “platinum kimonos” due to the lack of trained talent – Stewart said attitudes were changing.
“We are witnessing a gradual, nascent feminization of the workplace in Japan, and this is a good change. It is coming from the necessity of a globalized market, a shrinking population, and via the innovations of entrepreneurs and other change-makers. Abe’s rhetoric in the past two years has helped to give this change some momentum,” he said...
While critics suggest Womenomics will end with Abe’s departure, Stewart said a generational change by 2020 would ensure women’s empowerment “becomes the norm rather than a political buzzword.”Even if Abe is a lone feminist figure in a party of sexist conservative old men, his rhetoric and his policies have changed something. For the first time, the Japanese establishment - the bureaucracy, big business, and the media - are on the side of women in the struggle for gender equality.
So the gaijin and Western writers who still see Womenomics as tokenism should wake up and realize that Something Is Different In Japan. And like it or not, it is different because of Shinzo Abe.