- Gender Gaiatsu: An Institutional Perspective on Womenomics
Womenomics: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s ambitious plan to increase the number of women in Japan’s work force and government has generated a great deal of international media attention and scrutiny. The term “womenomics” has now become associated with Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs Japan and her 1999 report, in which she argued that Japan could grow its economy by 13 percent if it increased the number of women in its work force (Matsui 2006). Because Japan has the fastest-aging and fastest-shrinking population in the world, it faces a daunting labor shortage and a complex set of policy challenges for maintaining its long-term economic stability and competitiveness. One quarter of Japan’s population is now 65 or older, which means that there are fewer than two people at work for every retiree (Ezrati 1997: 1; Japan Times 2014a). In an op-ed piece that Abe wrote in September 2013 for the Wall Street Journal, he explained that he was impressed by Matsui’s analysis and eager to include her recommendations when he became prime minister again (Abe 2013). Abe had served a brief term as prime minister in 2006–2007. He left the post early because of health problems and had never really escaped the shadow of his predecessor, Koizumi Junichirō. Koizumi was quite charismatic and celebrated for his bold leadership style and reforms. It was not easy to follow such a persona and one with such a memorable political legacy, but on September 26, 2012, Abe received a second chance at the most important political office in Japan, and another opportunity to [End Page 79] redefine himself as a strong and visionary leader. He would begin by launching a bold economic reform agenda of his own.
Abe’s economic reform plan, the “Three Arrows,” makes a point of addressing the issue of women’s labor to manage the country’s demographic and economic pressures. The first arrow targets monetary policy; the second, deflation through fiscal policies; and the third promotes investment and growth by implementing “structural reforms.” In his third arrow, Abe took inspiration from Matsui and set targets to increase the number of women in the labor force, and also went a step farther by setting additional targets to increase the representation of women up to 30 percent across all levels of government, the bureaucracy, higher education, the legal system, the sciences, business, and many other professions by 2020—the same year Japan will host the Olympics.
The media and pundits were quick to dub his economic reform agenda “Abenomics,” and to call his targets for increasing women’s participation in the labor force and other areas “womenomics.” Matsui’s idea of womenomics was about capitalizing on women’s labor to promote economic growth in Japan, but for Abe it now refers to his expanding agenda on women both at home and abroad. His third arrow encourages greater inclusion of women in the economy and government, although many are skeptical about the sincerity and motivation behind this plan because Abe and his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), are not exactly known for their feminism.
When Abe was prime minister before, he established a reputation for upholding traditional ideas and values about the Japanese family. Why would a conservative prime minister—and a political party with a history of preserving women’s roles as mothers and homemakers—champion women’s roles in the work force and other areas outside the home? They are doing so because womenomics serves two important purposes: (1) its focus on women’s labor can help Japan better manage its urgent demographic, labor, and economic pressures; and (2) it gives Abe the power to redefine Japan’s role, ranking, and reputation in the international community on matters related to Japan’s economic performance and its record on women’s issues—two areas that international investors and activists monitor regularly. Womenomics may have begun as a strategy to address demographic and labor shortage pressures, but it has also become an important public relations strategy under Abe because of the mounting pressure on Japan to do more to address...