Japan’s Summer of Women

Japan’s Summer of Women

A generation ago, many people would have scoffed at the notion that a half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese woman — going by her Chinese-sounding first name “Renho” — could become the leader of Japan’s main opposition party. Japanese society, after all, is famously male-dominated and highly homogeneous, and it prizes Japanese blood. But in September, Renho Murata became the first woman and the first person with partial foreign ancestry to lead the Democratic Party, winning the election in a landslide.

Murata had a distinguished broadcast journalism career before entering politics, then winning widespread admiration as a bureaucrat-bashing cabinet minister. “Where did that 4 billion yen go?” she asked one squirming bureaucrat in a televised broadcast on public waste. “What’s wrong with being No. 2?” she told officials seeking funding for the world’s No. 1 supercomputer. Her triumph caps a remarkable two months in which Japan has seen the election of Tokyo’s first female governor and the appointment of a female defense minister, only the second woman to hold that position.

This summer was also a landmark for the growing ranks of mixed-ancestry Japanese — known by the rather fraught term “haafu,” meaning “half.” In September, Priyanka Yoshikawa, of partial Indian descent, was crowned Miss Japan, one year after a woman of mixed Japanese and African-American heritage, Ariana Miyamoto, was chosen to represent Japan in the Miss Universe contest. Such firsts indicate that many Japanese are now willing to embrace the idea that these women can be the face of Japan.

The past 20 years in Japan, a period of economic stagnation often mourned as the “lost decades,” may in fact have turned out to be a productive period of quiet social change, in which Japanese were forced to re-evaluate notions of ethnicity, gender, and hierarchy.

The triumvirate successes of female politicians offer a glimmer of hope in a country which flunks in almost all measures of gender equality. Japanese women hold 10 percent of seats in the nation’s parliament and just 2.1 percent of board of directors seats; in France, women hold 30 percent of board of directors seats, and 20 percent in Canada and the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Japan’s gender wage gap — about 27 percent at median earnings — discourages women from building careers after marriage. And although Murata sends a strong signal on the virtues of a more ethnically diverse Japan, the numbers show slow progress here as well: Foreigners represent less than 2 percent of the Japanese workforce, compared with a European average of 10 percent and 16 percent in the United States.

Yet Japan desperately needs higher economic participation of women and immigrants to reignite its stagnant economy and overcome a demographic crisis of rapid aging and sagging birthrates. For 20 years, Japan has grappled with a three-headed economic monster of corrosive deflation, standstill growth, and the world’s highest public debt, an estimated $7.6 trillion, or the equivalent of 16 years of tax intake.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s radical policies of quantitative easing and structural reform, dubbed “Abenomics,” have failed to make a dent in any of the three problems. Meanwhile, the combination of a dismal fertility rate (1.4 births per woman) and the world’s highest life expectancy, 83.7 years, means Japan is sitting on a demographic time bomb. Fewer working-age adults exist to contribute to the economy but must also support a growing number of the elderly.

That means getting more women into the workforce is urgent. Only 38 percent of women remain in their jobs after having a baby, according to the OECD, due to heavy social expectations placed on mothers and a dearth of child-care centers. It’s a problem intertwined with a reluctance to let outsiders into the country. Labor costs are high in Japan, making child care and nannies far beyond the economic reach of many families. Japan has only recently begun relaxing rules on allowing in domestic workers from countries like the Philippines, who could help provide lower-cost child care as they do in Singapore and Hong Kong. Murata managed to climb the political ladder as a working mother of twins. But for millions of Japanese women, she may seem more a glamorous daydream than a true role model — somebody one admires but can never hope to emulate.

Still, the gender and ethnic breakthroughs that Japan witnessed this summer are evidence of real, if modest, social evolution — wrought in part, perhaps ironically, from Japan’s economic woes. Japan’s “lost decades” can also be read in some ways as “gained decades” of quiet social maturation, a period in which Japan shed the arrogance of its giddy economic ascent and became more globally aware and racially tolerant and far less beholden to patriarchal norms. Young people experienced greater freedom in choosing partners, instead of accepting arranged marriages, and in vocational choice. In the high-flying 1980s, for example, it was still taken for granted that young Japanese would take over the family business. It was after the 1990s collapse, as many family firms began to go bust, that these expectations rapidly eroded, leaving young people fewer assurances but greater flexibility to pursue new options.

After the bubble collapsed, a new class arose of young Japanese known as “freeters” — who, deprived of the promise of a guaranteed job after college, staked out in bold and creative ways to build identities outside the rigidities of “salaryman” and “office lady” culture. In his book Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, former Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling gives this colorful description of a Japanese freeter, a 20-something wearing the hats of social scientist and IT start-up founder: “[H]e was … like the androgynous creation of a manga comic, a dashing, slightly effete young wizard.”

These changes have helped pave the way for ethnic and gender acceptance. Japan simply feels like a better, hipper, more tolerant — even more self-assured — country than during the wild 1980s, when high-octane arrogance was a mask for deep insecurity regarding the outside world. Back then, the haafu were either put on a pedestal — the eternal “new kid in town,” to borrow from an Eagles classic — or bullied mercilessly. These days, mixed-race children are treated much more like ordinary Japanese, often blending seamlessly into social situations rather than sticking out.

That greater degree of acceptance likely saved Murata’s candidacy after controversy broke out over her citizenship. Japan’s right-wing press revealed that Murata had kept her Taiwanese passport — in contravention of Japanese law — despite public statements that she had relinquished it at age 17 when she gained Japanese citizenship. But according to a Kyodo News poll, 66.5 percent of respondents viewed the nationality issue as “no problem.” The vast majority of Japanese remain uncertain about immigration, but the scales are shifting toward more openness: A recent WIN/Gallup poll showed that Japanese who favor immigration outnumber those against it — 22 percent to 15 percent — with 63 percent saying they were unsure.

“Social changes have been quite dramatic,” said Koichi Nakano, a leading Japanese political scientist in an interview with Foreign Policy. “Negative attitudes toward women or Japanese of mixed ancestry are much less pronounced.” Last year, according to the Justice Ministry, foreign permanent residents reached a record 2.23 million. That’s hardly impressive in a nation of 127 million. But the figure represented a 72 percent increase from 1995. Similarly, although Abe’s “womenomics” campaign to increase female economic participation may be faltering, even relatively modest measures such as creating more nurseries have borne fruit: A program to add roughly 700,000 child-care facilities contributed to a 4 percent rise in female employment since late 2012, according to the OECD.

“The changes are not happening overnight, but I can see the changes happening,” said Gerhard Fasol, the CEO of Eurotechnology Japan, a Tokyo-based mergers and acquisitions advisory firm. Fasol was appointed to the board of a Japanese technology company after the government issued guidelines in 2015 for corporations to name independent directors. There are still only about 250 foreign board directors like Fasol, but the appointment of even a few foreigners to police Japan’s clubby and opaque corporate leadership is something of a revolution. “In a rapidly globalizing world, these companies are in need of internationalization and diversity,” Fasol said. “This means global input from many different nationalities and more women at board level.” It’s a welcome sentiment, and clearly there’s great room for improvement.

Murata, new Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada are only three additions to a government and society still run overwhelmingly by men. A thicket of factors — including political factionalism, entrenched vested interests, and a shrinking population — conspires against sudden revolutionary change. But these leaders aren’t just window dressing. They represent Japan’s steady, progressive, and profound change that may surprise the world by laying the groundwork for a bright, inclusive future — even in an aging economic power.

Image credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images