Japan’s “Womenomics”

Shinzo Abe pledged to create a Japan in which “all women can shine.” But behind the glitter is a program that has little to offer working-class women.

Illustration by Viktor Hachmang

For the past decade, Japan has been shrinking.Last year alone, its population fell by 400,000 as births failed to keep up with deaths.

Total fertility rates offer some good news: they have increased to 1.44 from a rock-bottom low of 1.26 in 2005. (To put the trend into perspective, it was 4.54 in 1947.) But the uptick still isn’t enough to buoy the country into growth after years of population loss. If the trends continue, the population is set to drop from 125 million to 88 million over the next fifty years. The predictions make the government’s goal to stabilize the figure at 100 million appear quixotic.

It comes as little surprise that even a conservative nationalist like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would look into support programs for women. Yet his proposals represent a remarkable deviation from conventional right-wing approaches. These have ranged from the wartime maternalist slogan of “Give birth, increase [the population]!” [umeyō, fuyaseyō], to a celebration of the “professional homemaker” [sengyō shufu], who keeps the home fires burning and the children on track at school as the male breadwinner pursues the middle-class dream.

Even the tax and insurance systems are rigged to encourage these ends. As long as second incomes within a household remain below a threshold matching, roughly, the amount gained from part-time jobs, taxes are low and insurance benefits can be generous. For the most part, the strategy of government and business has been to encourage women to stay out of the labor force — or at least its fully employed, generously protected professional track.

The result is that women, despite graduating from universities at higher rates than men, are channeled into clerical rather than managerial jobs. Those who marry are frequently pressured to quit, and those who stay are often compelled out upon pregnancy, or else face matahara (maternity harassment). Indeed, nearly 70 percent of women leave full-time employment at this point, which reinforces employers’ claims that women belong in clerical-track jobs in the first place.

The gendered division of labor stacks the odds against those who wish to pursue professional careers. The rise of precarious employment with few benefits has also hit women much harder than men. Where the proportion of men in temporary work is now 25 percent, its equivalent for women tops 60 percent.

In this context, Abe’s proposals for childcare reform appear almost progressive. Among the goals was an increase in day-care facilities, which were groaning under high demand with tens of thousands of working parents on waiting lists for spaces that never opened up. Abe promised to create 400,000 new day-care slots for children within four years and to abolish the waiting lists completely. On top came generous financial support. As a part of a whopping ¥2 trillion ($18 billion) spending package to support the young, the government pledged to subsidize care in licensed facilities for children between three and five years old, rendering it effectively free. The aid would be extended to children under two years in low-income households as well.

By 2017, the government had achieved the initial goal of childcare provision, but not the promise to abolish the waiting lists. The 2008 financial crisis pushed ever more women into the workforce, causing demand to outstrip supply. By 2018, 500,000 new slots had been created, but 50,000 families were still biding their time until one opened up.

In this situation of little choice, those who can afford it put their children into unlicensed care facilities, but at a cost of up to five times that of licensed operators. Three out of four deaths at day-care centers take place at unlicensed ones. Other parents do what they can to raise their rank on the list, even if it means divorce. To determine a family’s need profile, points are awarded based on an array of factors including employment type, health issues, and marital status, leaving some parents to split up as a strategy to secure care for their children.

Trickle-down Feminism

Still, 500,000 new childcare places is a remarkable accomplishment in five years. But has it liberated mothers from the drudgery of care work so that they can pursue careers and other goals?

The history of public childcare in Japan suggests that the transformation should be assessed with caution. Its recent story has been one of steady privatization. Originally established after World War II to address the needs of orphans, the childcare system was from the start integrated into general social welfare provisions. It was the municipalities that were responsible for supplying day-care facilities to the public. However, the stagnating economy of the 1990s and early 2000s put the system under pressure as more women took up work outside the home and the government began slashing welfare provisions.

The most consequential moves came under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, known for his bouffant hair, bromance with George W. Bush, and neoliberal proclivities. He aimed to remove the waiting lists for day care while cutting government support. First, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare deregulated day-care center management and allowed for-profit companies to enter the field, then the Diet revised the Children Welfare Act in 2001 to push municipalities into privatizing or outsourcing their existent care facilities.

Within a few years, the central government ratcheted up the changes, transforming what were once monetary transfers sent to municipalities and earmarked for public childcare support into general fiscal transfers of an ever-shrinking amount. While subsidies to local governments were slashed, those to the private sector continued, as Tokyo picked up as much as 75 percent of the cost of starting a facility and 80 percent of the cost to run it. As a result, the squeezed municipalities began outsourcing, and by 2015 over 60 percent of day-care centers were private.

The election of the Blarite Democratic Party Japan (DPJ) in 2009 — the first time the opposition party was elected to government since 1955 — did little to stem the trend. While waving the banner of childcare reform, the DPJ simply adapted an old Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposal for integrating day-care centers and kindergartens. The result was a bureaucratic tangle in which three different ministries oversaw ten different types of institutions, all held to different standards.

The DPJ did little to unbalance the conservative gender ideologies embedded in the system. Child allowances still went to the primary earner only, and the tax and insurance systems, coupled with the gendered division of employment, continued to encourage women to remain economically dependent on male breadwinners.

Once it regained power, the conservative LDP, now under Shinzo Abe, continued with the privatization program forged under Koizumi. A new grant scheme encouraged more for-profit companies to construct day-care facilities, while services were increasingly deregulated. All of this was proffered as part of the “third arrow” of Abenomics, a concoction of monetary stimulus, fiscal easing, and structural reforms meant to jolt Japan out of more than two decades of stagnation.

The Bank of Japan went on a buying spree, accumulating assets worth around 75 percent of GDP, while the national debt grew to a stratospheric 250 percent of GDP. The result has been good for export giants, which welcomed the decline in the yen, but families have been hit hard: an increase in sales tax has not been matched by an increase in salaries and real incomes have gone down. The economy totters on, posting growth rates of 0.5 percent in a good quarter, while the holy grail of 2 percent inflation remains in the distance and interest rates have ventured into negative territory.

Generating economic growth from a shrinking population is a challenge, especially in a country like japan that has long kept its borders relatively closed. It’s enough to make even an arch-conservative like Abe consider the economic potential of the second sex. The result was a pink version of his economic program, dressed up as “womenomics.” “We will create a society where excellent workers will be able to play active roles that will boost the productivity of the whole society,” Abe proclaimed. “I believe [that the utilization of women] should be the core strategy for growth.”

The concept could have been cut and pasted from a Goldman Sachs policy paper, where Kathy Matsui, the company’s chief Japan strategist, has been advocating for years for an increase in working women. “Many regard childcare and family support measures as a cost, but rather than costs, they should be viewed as investments,” she has stated. According to Matsui, increasing female employment to 80 percent would boost the GDP by 15 percent. For a prime minister dead set on jump-starting the economy, supporting women insofar as they can prop up growth seemed like the perfect fix.

Abe pledged to create a Japan in which “all women can shine,” but behind the glitter is a program that differs little from the neoliberal ideology of gender equality seen elsewhere. The approach to women’s issues is highly selective: it’s the mothers and the upwardly mobile who are set to benefit directly while the rest, one imagines, get the runoff of “trickle down” feminism. Among his promises was to see women in 30 percent of leadership positions in both government and business by 2020. But this recycled policy goal was quickly revised down to a mere 7 percent in government and 5 percent in business. The figures are so low that one would think they could hardly be targets, except that only 3 percent of women in the civil service serve in leadership positions, and only 3 percent of corporate board members are women.

Meanwhile, childcare workers themselves, predominantly women, have seen their employment conditions fail to keep up with changing times. Day-care workers at licensed facilities are not only paid much less than other professionals — typically one-third of the industry average — they also have difficulty cutting back overtime and taking days off when sick, let alone maternity leave, which many centers say they cannot afford.

In February 2018, a story went viral about a day-care worker who was forced to apologize to her employer for getting pregnant before her more senior coworkers did. Under such conditions, it’s not surprising that turnover is high and over 750,000 licensed day-care workers have chosen to do something else with their lives.

Abe’s reforms do nothing to address this situation. Nor do they attempt to dislodge the male breadwinner model as the foundation of postwar Japanese capitalism. The gendered dual-track system of hiring employees remains untouched, the dependency-bias of the tax and insurance systems continues as in the past, and nothing addresses the rise of precarious work. Less than 3 percent of men take paternity leave, though it is equally available to them, yet this too has remained off the table in the discussion. Women wishing to pursue a career are instead told to, effectively, “lean in.” Japan is still far from a gender-neutral, universal caregiving regime, let alone a serious consideration of the well-being of the children at the core of the debates.

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Kristin Surak is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and an associate professor of Japanese politics at SOAS, University of London.

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