The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a particular setback for Japanese women, having unraveled many gains from Abe Shinzo’s Womenomics initiative. Yet, this should not be a surprise given that the policy depended on placing women into the Japanese economy’s most precarious positions, itself an extension of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s tendency of placing gender equality concerns within the broader context of Japan’s population decline and economic stagnation, rather than treating it as a social good unto itself, with consistently poor results. Though Suga Yoshihide has promised an almost blanket continuation of his predecessor’s economic policies, this is unfortunate because this should be a moment for reflection and reevaluation as COVID-19 has laid bare the weaknesses of Womenomics policies that feminist scholars and critics have consistently noted.
Borrowing the term from Goldman Sachs Chief Japan Strategist Kathy Matsui, Abe first trumpeted “Womenomics” at the UN General Assembly in 2013 as a means to both boost the Japanese economy while addressing the pressing labor shortage as well as bolstering Japan’s international reputation on gender equality. Despite his leadership over the backlash movement against gender equality and “gender-free education” in the Diet in the early 2000s, in his second term Abe made other efforts to appear, at least on the surface, as a champion of women’s empowerment by hosting events such as the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo and increasing the proportion of new female hires within the Japanese bureaucracy to 30 percent – though these new additions will take years to see women trickle up the bureaucratic hierarchy and very few women currently occupy senior positions.
Yet Abe’s resignation may not matter. Very few policies under Womenomics were unique to the Abe administration with 30 percent leadership targets by 2020 first set by the Koizumi administration in 2003 and the elimination of child-care waiting lists first launched by the Hashimoto administration in 1998. Even the idea of adopting women’s “active participation” in the labor market to revive Japan’s economy was included in a Democratic Party of Japan policy document during their time in office in 2012 titled “Operation Working Nadeshiko”. Almost 20 years of activity among LDP and DPJ politicians alike has still seen Japan land at a record-low 121st place on the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report with an especially poor record of women’s economic empowerment. The government unwittingly acknowledged this when it recently announced its stated target of 30 percent of women in leadership positions would be delayed until 2030.
Abe’s resignation may not matter for Womenomics since so few of the initiatives were actually his own
The gains that could be pointed to were often unsustainable or even undesirable. Prior to COVID-19, the female labor force participation rate, often used as an indicator of the success of Womenomics, had reached a 72.6 percent high in 2019 which was well above the OECD average. Yet this statistic consistently glossed over the fact that much of these gains were in non-regular employment such as part-time and contract jobs which lacked stability, promotional opportunities, and benefits. In 2016, 60 percent of all female workers were in non-regular employment and these women made up 70 percent of all non-regular workers.
That these gains could be so easily undone by the COVID-19 pandemic should come as no surprise. Feminist critics of Womenomics have long pointed out the precarious situation for these female workers and the often exploitative nature of the policy. In April of this year, almost 970,000 non-permanent jobs were lost, 73 percent of which were female workers—keeping with the global trend of heavy losses in sectors that typically see an overrepresentation of female workers, namely service and hospitality. While the overall unemployment rate in Japan remains relatively low (at 2.9 percent in July 2020), this doesn’t capture loss of income due to reduced hours or lower wages as a persistent gender wage gap in Japan remains. Nor does it account for women who may have fallen out of the labor force and stopped looking for work. A recent survey found that more than 30 percent of single mothers in Japan either quit their jobs or took a leave of absence due to safety concerns over the coronavirus.
That the economic fallout from the COVID pandemic could so easily wipe out women’s employment gains demonstrates how women remain the “shock absorbers” of the Japanese economy
The shoveling of women into part-time and non-regular positions under the guise of “women’s empowerment” was always a disingenuous attempt of Womenomics to use women as buffers to prop up the economy. The subsequent unraveling of progress demonstrates the fundamental weakness of a policy that relies on women to be, as Sophia University professor Miura Mari recently stated, “shock absorbers” of the Japanese economy during periods of downturn. This was made all the more evident by the lack of childcare solutions when Abe suddenly decided to close public schools back in March with the burden of care falling primarily on women, including all of those supposedly cherished working women who had to scramble to find childcare solutions.
New Prime Minster Suga Yoshihide has pledged to continue with “Abenomics” which means that post-COVID economic recovery will most certainly include a continuation of Womenomics policies. Suga has not been a vocal proponent of women’s empowerment initiatives in the past and has shown little to no interest in gender issues beyond his compulsory attendance at Council for Gender Equality meetings, the advisory body set up under the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society, and the recently announced support for insurance coverage for fertility treatment. He also faced previous backlash from women’s groups for his comment encouraging women to give birth in order to “contribute to the nation,” and tellingly, his new cabinet has only two women. This is an indication that his administration, along with the Liberal Democratic Party as a whole, has yet to move away from the traditional male Japanese bureaucrat tendency of equating pro-natalism policies with gender equality or women’s empowerment.
If the coronavirus crisis has indeed killed Womenomics, then let it die
The upside is that this is an ideal chance for the new prime minister to demonstrate a true commitment to gender equality rather than continuing along the same tired path—one that has proven to be perilous for women and the economy itself when an inevitable downturn arises. The challenges women face have been present long before the coronavirus crisis which is why the period of transition into a post-Abe and post-coronavirus era should present an opportunity to adopt new policies, such as an embrace of telework, more robust efforts of diversity and inclusion, and a revision of the social security system, that have been shown to help women and the economy as a whole to weather these shocks. Indeed, as the birthrate in Japan also remains stubbornly low, a problem that has occupied the government since the 1980s, the critical importance of making Japanese society a better place for women to live and work has only intensified in the current crisis.
If the coronavirus crisis has indeed killed Womenomics, then we should let it die. While it helped change the narrative among women about having careers and helped stimulate important discussions of gender equality in Japan, the policy tools themselves have proven to be woefully ineffective for the task of improving the economic empowerment and overall equality of women in Japanese society. In a post-coronavirus era and with a new Basic Plan for Gender Equality due at the end of this year, the policy tools and orientation of Womenomics goals must be rebuilt in a manner that heeds the warnings of these current failures while acknowledging the fact that the future resiliency of Japan and gender equality go hand-in-hand.
Kristin Wilson is cofounder and director of operations & financial affairs for WomEnpowered International (WE Int.), a membership association of young, diverse women and women-identifying individuals committed to empowering women and promoting gender equality in Japan and beyond. She holds a master's degree in public policy from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy, where her research focused on the intersection of gender and politics