Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Time for gaijin to take a second look at Abe's Womenomics

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.


  1. Anonymous5:38 PM

    explanation of why womenomics will fail


    1. One rule of Japan-watching journalism is that anyone who thinks "herbivore men" are a bigger deal in Japan than in other countries doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

  2. Why keep using the word "gaijin"?

    1. To distinguish Western expats from A) Western Japan-watchers in the West, and B) non-Western expats. It's a slang convention.

    2. Of course, this is like the way Westerners have adopted words like "anime" and "otaku". To a Japanese person, "gaijin" just means "foreigner", and Japanese people in other countries refer to themselves as "gaijin".

    3. It takes a gaijin to know a gaijin, :-).


  3. Anonymous7:04 PM

    I think people are skeptical because he's been in office two years with little to show for it.

  4. Shinzo Abe ... want[s] Japan to stop obsessing about World War 2 and go back to being a strong military power.

    With North Korea governed by a clique that appears to be clinically insane, and China governed by a clique of kleptocrats intent on territorial expansion and global influence, a Japan that can effectively deter or, if need be, defeat aggression will make the world a better place.

  5. Anonymous8:49 PM

    Do you know how the internal debate (that is, by japanese writers, for japanese readers) on this topic pro and contra compares or differs with the western view ? I get that many outside observers may have mental shortcircuits when they have to reconcile the seeming disconnect between their categorisation of Abe as a revisionist/traditionalist/nationalist and his female economic empowerment program ("...huh, isn't that usually a leftwing/progressive talking point ? brrrzz...").

    I think what's important to undestand is something like this telling paragraph:
    " It is coming from the necessity of a globalized market, a shrinking population, and via the innovations of entrepreneurs and other change-makers."

    Keyword being "necessity". Abe and the elites approach this not because they've converted to the ideals of liberal western feminism with all its feelgood stuff about equality and you go girl! They care about cold hard facts like GDP, productivity, tax revenue, etc, and as much as they may wish for the "traditional" social relation of male breadwinner + housewife, they're realistic enough to know these good old days aren't coming back anytime soon (and it's not because the "social counsciousness" has meaningfully changed but because the business sector simply provides less and less good jobs that support such an arrangement). So they, some enthusiastically and some just begrudgingly, decide to "activate another dormant resource" for the national cause. Did anyone make a stretched association with female employment during the war effort, yet ? Or caricaturize all the elite backroom dealings that led to this programs as concluding with "... ugh well, at least it's a better idea than letting those filthy foreigners flood in, right ?"

    If I sound cynical about this, that may be because I am (Japan does this to you, if you want to keep your sanity), but being able to separate "motive" and "outcome", I'll wish them good luck on their endeavour and hope it gets the right traction.

  6. Anonymous9:45 PM

    I was thinking on those same lines. You nailed it. Especially since, at his core, Abe is an ardent nationalist. If you have to break some cultural norms to get more "real" Japanese people ( swing the birthrate back), there's no other choice. It's not like excessive paternalism has worked for crap in modern countries that have tried once women start working.

    Abe wants JAPAN to succeed. Anything it takes, he's going to do. ( even listen to fort Keynesian commies like Krugman to delay tax measures - okay, that was for the commie post, but I couldn't resist.)

    1. David J. Littleboy11:09 AM

      Japan is failing miserably on the birth rate bit, and, IMHO, Abenomics is going to drive the birth rate even lower here. Being a conservative, Abe's policies are to make the rich richer and the companies happier. If you do that, you make life harder for the working and middle classes, and they don't have as many kids. (There aren't very many people to have kids in the upper classes, obviously, so no matter how energetic about producing kids they feel, they can't make a difference.) The claim that the regressive consumption tax (which will go up again, but not immediately) will only be used for the elderly and aging society problems is, of course, BS: One of the first things Abe did was to reduce corporate taxes by the amount of the consumption tax. Money is fungible. (Just like in the US, state lotteries with proceeds all goign to education, never result in increased education spending: it all goes to tax releief.) The Japanese rich and powerful think they're overtaxed, and there are a lot of fairly nasty regressive aspects to the otherwise reasonably progressive Japanese tax system.

      So Abe's policies will help women get into the workforce and do more interesting things. But it won't budge the birth rate problem.

    2. Anonymous6:06 PM

      I agree, David Littleboy.

      The assumption that imposing the classic "double burden" even more deeply on women will help the birthrate is silly.

    3. Anonymous8:09 AM

      I think the whole point of "Womenomics" is to "recognize the reality faced by the working women" rather than to "encourage more women to work", as there are already 68% women working, there is not much room for improvement.

      The major obstacle faced by women in japan these days, is that there is NOT enough childcare support for working mom, so women HAVE to choose between "working" or "having a baby", and due to the worsening on economy, many FORCED to choose working instead. So by providing more support, more working women can plan to having a baby and not worrying about the income.

      Though it seems counter-intuitive, "Womenomics" may actually help boosting the birthrate.

    4. Anonymous9:59 AM

      Pretty offensive name, Mr. Littleboy. Ensures that your comments won't be read on a thread about Japan.

  7. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Cool theory. What would you say to the Japanese women who are skeptical about Abenomics? Big business has come out on the side of women? How so, exactly. Have opportunities for single women over 40 improved? Do those women themselves know that? I do see some results though. One major company has started a new section only for women, because women are creative and men can't be. Not sure if the pay and such will be equal, but by golly, it's progress I'm sure.

    Inside observer

    1. Anonymous10:03 PM

      Everyone's being dragged kicking and screaming. I fully expect as little progress as the entrenched interests can get away with. Having said that, at least they have to engage in accordance techniques instead of being lazily "morally correct."

    2. Anonymous10:23 PM

      ”avoidance techniques... ”

  8. One oddity in this that does provide some cover fodder for the gaijin critics is that part of Abe's nationalist historical revisionism regarding The Great Pacific War is the matter of dismissiing foreign accusations, particularly from both of the Koreas, regarding the use and abuse of "comfort women" by Japanese troops in the war, although this is also a bone that Abe probably throws to his most conservative backers, who have always been wanked up about this issue, denying it that is.

    Abe has shown some willingness not to push his uber nationalism too hard when necessary, most notably by not visiting Yakusni Shrine most recently, which appears to have helped in getting the most recent semi-thaw with China off the ground.

    In any case, it remains the case that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan is neither liberal nor democratic nor a party, to repeat the old takeoff on the Holy Roman Empire first coined by Voltaire that Mike Myers used to mock on SNL, :-).

    Barkley Rosser

  9. Conservatism means different things in different countries. I guess only in America, or partly in the UK as well, does 'conservative' mean religious revival, small state, pro-big business, pro-military/intervention. The internal contradictions between pro-military and a small state, or between the small state and state-sponsored religious revival are obvious, but that's what american conservatism needs to stay politically relevant.
    In Germany, our most conservative party, the CSU (the bavarian off-shoot of Merkel's party) is not only religiously conservative, but also populist, and that often means very keynesian. It also means combining a hostility against Islam with support of women's rights ("Reject Islam because it suppresses women"). While I am definitely no expert on Japan, I could imagine that Anglo-American observers of the Abe government, falsely assume that Abe, as a conservative, comes with the whole package of movement conservatism. They might be able to accept that Abenomics are necessary to help businesses (much like monetary policy is acceptable to mainstream conservatives while fiscal policy is not), but the pro-woman policies of Abe are one step too far.

  10. Uh, as economists our strength is in being data-driven. 女性の労働参加率を見ると、... well, I don't blog in Japanese (and now I can't even recruit enough students to teach a course on Japan), but if (i) you look at female labor force participation rates by age, you find very sharp changes, with rates for those age 25-29 rising from 40% in in 1975 to 80% today. That's still below the level of men of the same age, and has been accompanied by a drop in marriage rates and particularly fertility, but the female revolution has occurred. Then (ii) if you combine it with age-specific population projections, and assume (iii) that young women don't drop out of the labor force (which indeed appears to be happening), then what is the impact? Basically (iv) nothing because there just aren't enough young women: it moves the LF decline only a tad.

    Daycare remains an issue, because informal work hours remain long. I've seen no change in that in 40 years of studying Japan. (My son is actually working at a private nursery school / kindergarten in rural Kyushu; there's little traffic in their area, which helps, but early/late hour work just doesn't, uh, work -- their hours are at max 8 am to 6 pm.) It's not easy in the US (I thought I was going to spend last summer doing research, but instead spent it caring for a granddaughter then still too young for daycare), but it's particularly hard in Japan.

    Abe has done nothing in this area, and even if he did, it's 30 years to late. The negative demographic dividends are -- rising dependency ratios and falling household savings -- are locked into place. Yes there's a visible increase in immigration (total immigration rates are small but most immigrants are still young and in the labor force, supplemented by "students" who are effectively full-time workers). However the arithmetic suggests that's also inadequate to changing the overall trajectory. And if you have a fallling population, then it becomes much harder to make the case for business investment.

    For graphs on female LF participation and the like: https://newjapanforum.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/114/

    1. Michael. Completely agree. But I am confounded again and again by how many intelligent people don't understand this simple logic. Back in Japan briefly and meeting up with old ex-colleagues and friends from the financial world, a large chunk of which still believe in the potential for demographics to turn around. But as you say, even a stunning change in birth rate will hardly move the demographic needle: the baby boom echo cohort have exited the child-bearning years leaving thin ranks of potential child bearers behind. Without a massive increase in immigration, accelerating demographic decline is baked into the cake. The numbers are so basic.

      To me, this is why Shirokawa was so right and Kuroda so wrong. Japan's problem is not one of a large output gap that can't be filled due to the zero bound on interest rates but one of potential output capped by ageing demographics.

  11. Noah write: it is different because of Shinzo Abe.

    Why? Because he is the new Samurai, or Sakyamuni, or new Yakuza leader! Bigger and better than all previous one! Now bow to him! He is going to change the Japanese who only became pacified by force (two bombs and other sanctions instigated in the new constitution imposed from outside).

    Almost all changes by Abe's government are insignificantly incremental. Japan needs sweeping changes.

  12. Anonymous10:49 AM

    Abe and Smith are doing it backwards. Japanese society is still massively dependent on women's unpaid or underpaid labor to provide social services, domestic reproduction, and profits/risk management in the small business supply chain. Japan would first need drastic increases and changes in the structure of their welfare state to really liberate all Japanese women (and men).

    These policies will simply create a two tiered brutal society, with a few elite women given the opportunity to rise and equalize, while the vast majority of women and dependent sectors will see their lives get physically and psychologically horrific. Stress and internal competition and dissension will get worse for everybody.

    In other words, straight out neo-liberal rationalization and exploitation of the majority to the benefit of the one percent. Japan should look more toward Denmark but instead is emulating the United States and Great Britain.A tragedy.

    Bob McManus

    1. But Noah's infatuation with Japan will not let him come to the terms with reality. I am surprised he has not deleted your post.

    2. Anonymous3:41 PM

      Recommended Reading

      Welfare and Capitalism in Post-War Japan, Margarita Estevez-Abe, 2008
      Janet Hunter, ed. Japanese Women Working, 1993
      Kenneth Pomeranz, "Women’s work, family, and Economic development in
      Europe and East Asia" in Resurgence of East Asia, Arrighi ed
      Takie Sugiyama Lebra on Women Executives in Japan, in several books
      Alice Lam, Beverly Bishop (Globalisation), Elyssa Faison, Jean Renshaw

      Bob McManus

    3. Ping pong! Exactly.

  13. Yes, Pesek's bait-and-switch (match&pump?) was pretty pathetic. But as a Japanese citizen and resident with family, I do wish that Abe would pay similar attention to the other targets of his third arrow.

  14. Jenkins4:59 PM

    I got nothing to say about the post, but here's an interesting piece of trivia about Japan 2014. The Japanese Yen's real effective exchange rate is at its weakest since 1982:


    Actually, the Bloomberg article is from two months ago and since then the yen has weakened even further. If my calculations are right, the REER is now weaker than it has ever been since 1973, when Japan decided to float its currency. How's that for quantitative easing?

  15. Anonymous4:32 AM

    HBD people are going to rape with being right about this. Diversity taxes don't bring net economic gain and whatnot