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  • The Contradictions of the Womenomics Campaign:Abe Shinzō's Employment Reforms and Japan's Public Service Workers
  • Charles Weathers (bio)

Japan, in economic terms, is possibly the most gender-unequal of post-industrial democracies. Over half of female salaried workers are relegated to non-regular status, suffering large differentials in wages and benefits, and the ratios of women holding management level positions in corporations or the civil service remain exceptionally low.1 Yet that very situation provides the government of Abe Shinzō, prime minister since 2012, an excellent opportunity to sponsor reforms that might not only reduce workplace inequality but also stimulate economic growth (Shibata 2017) and strengthen political support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by bolstering its faltering support among women.2 Indeed, the Abe government has made women's workplace advancement a pillar of its economic agenda. Under the rubric of Womenomics, the government has launched campaigns to reduce the country's large pay differentials and expand the childcare and elder care systems, policies that could greatly benefit women and childrearing couples (Dalton 2017a). Moreover, the timing is fortuitous. Japanese employers have long resisted equality-enhancing measures that could raise costs or weaken managerial control over workers, but steady economic growth has created a margin for additional spending and increasingly severe labor shortages have forced many companies to improve their treatment of non-regular employees and to introduce work-life balance (WLB) measures to attract workers.3 [End Page 47]

Rather than take advantage of the favorable economic environment to assertively advance women's economic opportunity, however, the government has continued to press policies that—contrary to its rhetorical proclamations—closely reflect past patterns of conservative and neoliberal policymaking. Corporate executives and free market-oriented academics, for example, continue to play leading roles in formulating many important labor- and welfare-oriented proposals, and the government has emphasized reducing taxes for corporations over funding social services and other programs that would advance gender equality. In addition, while calling for equality-enhancing practices, the Abe government continues the longstanding conservative practice of avoiding use of the term "equality" (byōdō) itself in policymaking documents (Eto 2016). To be sure, many women, especially those needing child and elder care services, stand to benefit from Abe government policies—the problem is that the government is not supporting the people who provide those services.

This report shows that the Abe government, while claiming to advance working women's interests, in reality ignores—and often even undermines—the interests of hundreds of thousands of workers in public service occupations such as education and care work. These occupations often hold low social status but are essential to advancing women's interests both because they account for large numbers of employed women and because they provide services crucial for working parents. However, the Abe government has continued to use neoliberal policies such as outsourcing and privatization that degrade the employment conditions of public service workers. Moreover, Japan's public sector unions, already too weak to effectively support workers, are still sometimes targeted or marginalized by conservative policymakers. This article takes up these issues as follows: Part One explains the general policymaking issues regarding public service workers in Japan; Part Two outlines problems in the major sectors, including childcare and education; and the conclusion sums up the argument: the Abe Government's neglect of public service workers contradicts its claims to be advancing working women's interests.

Part One: Public Service Workers and Policymaking Problems

Public Services and Female Workers

Today, nearly all advanced economic democracies seek to use WLB (or family-friendly) policies to raise women's workforce participation rates and to reduce inequality. Robust public services are important to both objectives: they provide essential support, especially to working parents, and, if properly funded, provide good jobs for women, who in most countries still account for greater numbers of "outsider" workers than men (Iversen and Rosenbluth 2010; Iversen and Soskice 2015). Sweden and Denmark are exemplary cases [End Page 48] of countries that have sharply raised women's labor force participation rates largely by expanding public sector employment (Huber and Stephens 2001, 116-117, 126, 129). On the other hand, the Netherlands has a...


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