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Japan after Abe

Suga inherits Abe's broken promise: to empower Japan's women

Government yet to address pandemic's lopsided impact on female workers

New employees attend a welcome ceremony of ANA Holdings at the company's hanger in Tokyo. Will Suga be able to make meaningful progress on women's empowerment in society?   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Two -- that is how many women new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed to his 20-member cabinet. 

The paltry number is emblematic of the challenges Japan faces as it tries to climb up from the near bottom of global women's empowerment rankings. Atop the mountain of challenges are access to day care and increased training for jobs that will define Japan going forward.

His predecessor Shinzo Abe announced his vision for women's advancement with great fanfare, but progress has been limited. Though Suga has pledged to stay the course on Abe's economic policy, he so far has provided no concrete vision on how he plans to bring more women into the workforce. 

Suga's new cabinet "seemed to shut the door on one of [Abe's signature policies]: a pledge -- though a largely unfulfilled one -- to empower women," The New York Times wrote after the roster was announced.

Adding to the challenges, the coronavirus pandemic has pummeled sectors that traditionally hire women, threatening the modest progress made under Abe.

During Abe's tenure, Japan's work force increased by roughly 4 million -- 3.3 million of whom were women. But the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a major blow particularly to those working in food service. The number of women in part-time or temporary positions dropped by 880,000 from March to July, according to a government survey.

More than 40% of the boost in female employment under Abe came in the form of part-time or temporary positions, which come without the opportunities and stability enjoyed by full-time, permanent workers. Critics say Abe did little to empower women in meaningful ways.

The new government has not provided any guidance on how to address the pandemic's lopsided impact on women's employment.

"We need leaders to take action, so their words don't end up being empty promises," said Kokugakuin University sociology professor Kiriu Minashita, who researches gender issues. 

Some companies are moving ahead. Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance is urging roughly 2,500 female contract workers to consider full-time status, which comes with an up to 20% pay bump and opportunities for advancement. The company hopes to entrust them with greater responsibilities, given that many of their current tasks like processing handwritten documents are expected to disappear with increased digitization.

The trend toward digital operations, which has only accelerated amid the coronavirus pandemic, will eliminate many positions currently held by women in non-full-time positions. It will be crucial to train them in digital skills so they can take over more advanced responsibilities when they are displaced -- which in turn could help bolster Japan's shrinking working population.

"In addition to a more diverse approach to working, including technology-driven solutions like teleworking, the government needs to take leadership in enacting drastic and widespread changes, like in societal attitudes toward the free labor women do in terms of chores and raising children," Minashita said.

Japan ranks last out of the advanced Group of Seven economies in the percentage of women in management, according to the International Labor Organization. Meanwhile in the U.S., Citigroup became the country's first major bank to appoint a woman as CEO, Jane Fraser, and Kamala Harris is running to become the country's first female vice president.

Women workers at Orix attend a seminar on parental leave. Addressing the shortage of child care options is imperative for the Suga government. (Photo courtesy of Orix)

Japan's shrinking and aging population poses another major challenge for Suga. Births hit a record low of 860,000 last year. The new prime minister has proposed covering fertility treatments by national insurance in a drastic attempt to lift birthrates.

The move will significantly reduce the financial burden for those going through fertility treatments, given that one round of in vitro fertilization can cost thousands of dollars. But national insurance is ultimately funded by premiums and taxes paid by the public. It is unclear how the government plans to determine whether covering these treatments has a big enough effect to justify costs.

The previous administration also left unsolved problems regarding helping families balance work and child care.

A 38-year-old woman who works at the leasing company Orix who had a child in June attended a seminar held by the company last week for employees on parental leave. "I'm worried that I won't be able to access day care," she said.

About 12,000 children are now on waiting lists for day care facilities, despite a seven-year effort by the Abe administration to reduce the figure to zero. This goal cannot be achieved by just maintaining the government's current policies.

And measures to encourage men to contribute more around the house have only just gotten underway.

In September 2018, homebuilder Sekisui House began strongly encouraging male employees to take a month of paternity leave after the birth of a new child. "We've been able to rethink unnecessary work during the handover process" when workers go on leave, President Yoshihiro Nakai said. "Productivity is up."

The government will need policies that enable men to take on more housework and child care responsibilities, particularly by allowing for more flexible work styles -- a trend that has received an unexpected boost from the coronavirus crisis.

Creating an environment in which women can work without worry while raising children is vital to overcoming both Japan's chronic labor shortage and the falling birthrate. The new administration will need to have the ambition to not simply carry on the Abe administration's work, but to outdo it.

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