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Japan's 'womenomics' finally gets a face

Nation gets new role model for female empowerment but will it make a difference?

| Japan
Seiko Noda was appointed internal affairs and communications minister on Aug. 3.

Seiko Noda has long been a trailblazer in a nation that chronically overlooks the talents of women. Japan, after all, trails Ethiopia and Muslim-majority Malaysia in gender empowerment and Saudi Arabia in the number of women in politics. 

Nineteen years ago, Noda became the youngest postwar cabinet member. At the time, then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi famously dubbed the 37-year-old "the future candidate for female prime minister." In 2015, Noda indeed went on to challenge Shinzo Abe's premiership, arguing change is "hard" to exact "if only men are involved." Big structural reforms, she argued, "need the power of women" to gain broader credibility and traction.

Obviously, Noda failed to unseat Abe. But the pioneering lawmaker, now 56, is reentering the national conversation at a pivotal moment and in the ideal job. As part of a recent cabinet reshuffle, Abe gave Noda the internal affairs portfolio, which includes female-empowerment policies in need of a big rethink.

Credit where it is due: Abe has done more than his predecessors to better utilize the female workforce. The International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development long chided Tokyo for effectively tying one hand behind its back by sidelining half its population. As Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs estimates, Japan's gross domestic product would be 15% bigger if the female labor participation rate matched that of men (about 80%). For a nation looking to deepen the talent pool, boost productivity, catalyze innovation and offset an aging, shrinking population, empowering women is the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

Wisely, Abe made "womenomics" a centerpiece of his Abenomics policy drive. The push, however, has been more about public relations than substance. Efforts to prod companies to promote women to executive positions and board seats lack teeth. Quotas remain a third-rail issue. While more women are entering the labor market -- the participation rate is now 61% -- all too many are hired in "non-regular" capacities with less pay and fewer benefits. Ironically, women entering the labor force may be reducing average Japan Inc. wages, impeding efforts to generate 2% inflation. Another reality check: Before Abe's return to power in 2012, Tokyo ranked a dismal 98th in the World Economic Forum's gender-equality index. It has since deteriorated to 111th, putting Japan 12 spots behind China and 23 behind Indonesia.

Getting tough

Enter Noda, who is more linearly focused on gender disparities than any Abe minister to date (the prime minister's last gender affairs point person was a man). Along with gunning for the premiership -- she may challenge Abe again next year -- Noda is calling her Liberal Democratic Party on its milquetoast response to gender pay gaps, inflexible work schedules, inadequate access to affordable child care and antiquated views on maternity leave. Noda sparked a national debate about in vitro fertilization when she gave birth at 50. She also has enraged conservatives by pushing for women to be able to choose to keep maiden names after marriage.

Noda is making fresh headlines with a telecommuting initiative to help women balance work and home responsibilities. Tokyo has talked about such policies since 2015. Noda plans to use her place in Abe's direct orbit to get the cabinet, and the rest of the LDP, behind more flexible labor norms.

But Noda's most important contribution may be as role model. Abe's womenomics has suffered from tokenism. Just as no Nikkei 225 company is run by a Japanese woman, Abe has yet to entrust truly global portfolios to women -- not foreign affairs, finance or chief cabinet secretary. At the moment, Abe's cabinet features just two women out of 19 members.

When Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg visited Tokyo in 2013 to promote her best-selling book "Lean In," she lamented Japan's shallow bench of female exemplars. As she told me at the time, it was heartening to see Abe taking action. Four years on, though, progress has been slow. And in the space of two days in July, both opposition leader Renho and Tomomi Inada, Abe's most prominent female minister, resigned.

The good news is that Noda is on the case in ways that could revitalize Abenomics. Granted, GDP jumped annualized 4% last quarter amid healthy consumption. We have been here before, though. When Japan grew 5% during one quarter in 2015, Abe's team declared victory on structural upgrades and then GDP weakened anew. Steps to loosen labor markets and deregulate industry are needed to sustain today's growth. Few are more vital than altering patriarchal Japan's gender dynamics.

Noda is already rocking the boat. "It has been more than 70 years since women gained suffrage in Japan," she said on Aug. 8. "Still, women account for less than 10% of the lower house." Nearly five years into Abenomics, Noda concluded, "many still think politics are for men." To change that deflationary mindset, Noda is championing a bill to increase ratios between male and female Diet candidates.

Womenomics, in other words, is getting a reboot at a pivotal moment, with Noda as its face. Some allies might wonder what Abe is thinking, giving a rival a greater profile. The cynical view is that it is a keep-your-enemies-close strategy. More likely, Abe realizes he needs to get more serious about tapping the talents of fully one half of Japan's 127 million people. Either way, Abenomics may be about to lean in and give reform a makeover.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the world can learn from Japan's lost decades." He is a former columnist for Bloomberg.

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