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  • Will Japan “Lean In” to Gender Equality?
  • Liv Coleman (bio)

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg briefly met Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in May 2013 on her tour to bring the “Lean In” movement, based on her women’s empowerment book of the same name, to Japan. The would-be hero of the contemporary American women’s movement met the conservative would-be hero of Japan, and found that they had a common solution to the divergent problems set before them—namely, women’s empowerment in the workplace. Sandberg asserts that women’s success in top professions requires them to renew commitment to their careers and invest in themselves, while Abe argues that breaking out of Japan’s economic doldrums requires a jolt of energy to be obtained by putting more women in corporate boardrooms.

If Japan has ever needed a postwar hero, surely the time is now. Abe, serving his second term as prime minister, faces a host of challenges: national debt level over 200 percent of GDP, low economic growth rates in a stubbornly deflationary economy, and an extremely low birthrate that seems to pose an existential threat to the Japanese nation itself—not to mention the challenge of recovery from the devastating “triple disaster” of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. These challenges seem all the more daunting against the backdrop of a rising China that seems, at least to many of Abe’s associates, to be set on reshaping the regional order and pushing Japan into the background.

Across these very different but interrelated debates about Japan’s economic and social challenges, the slow pace of Japanese women’s progress is frequently posited as the central problem of the country’s modernization and development. Women’s social advancement is represented as capable of unlocking all of Japan’s problems, from lack of alignment with international norms to economic development to national renewal of [End Page 3] the community and polity itself through replenishment of its human resources. According to Goldman Sachs, if Japan could boost women’s work participation levels to those of men, its GDP levels would be 14 percent higher, fixing the country again in the ranks of the top world economic powers.1

The “Womenomics” campaign could also not be better timed to counteract negative national branding of Japan on women’s rights and low fertility. In US popular media treatments over the last few years, Japan certainly seems to have its work cut out for it, being called the “Saudi Arabia of the developed world”2 and a “sexist society.” A headline blared, “Lack of Babies Could Mean the Extinction of the Japanese People.”3 Not to be outdone, a New York Times op-ed headline asked, “Without Babies, Can Japan Survive?”4 Japan’s Health Minister under the first Abe administration certainly did Japan no favors when he referred to women as “child-bearing machines” in a 2007 speech, garnering international attention. Picking up on such themes, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink blithely asserted in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek interview that “Japan’s demographics are so much related, also, to gender bias. Women don’t work. In Japan if Shinzo Abe reforms and gets the society to have women in the workforce, Japan will have another burst of energy.”5 Never mind that, in 2011, though still below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average, a record high 60 percent of Japanese women did, in fact, engage in paid labor in the marketplace.6 With Japan perennially buffeted by criticism on the “comfort women” issue, along with persistently low rankings on international indexes of gender equality, Abe’s initiatives seem designed to get the world to notice a change for Japanese women—thus enabling Japan to go from laggard to leader on women’s rights.

Yet Abe seems an unlikely candidate to awaken a women’s movement in Japan, given his historical support of the gender-equality backlash movement and conservative parenting education programs, and backed as he is by a diverse coalition of conservatives who push him in both neoliberal and socially conservative directions. Yet it is none other than Abe who has...


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