Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was often praised for his government’s “womenomics” policy. However, there is a lack of evidence that this policy helped gender inequality in Japan.
The late Prime Minister Abe was well known in the West for his longevity as prime minister, serving between 2006-2007 and 2012-2020, and for his economic policies, including those for women. So-called womenomics were part of the bundle of economic policies known as “Abenomics” introduced in 2012 to jumpstart Japan’s stagnant economy. Broadly speaking, the aim of womenomics was to encourage more women into the workforce, provide support so they could stay there, and promote more women into higher roles.
Many people praised womenomics. Hillary Clinton was a fan, believing in the potential of these policies to empower women. After Abe’s assassination, Clinton called Abe “a firm believer that no economy, society, or country can achieve its full potential if women are left behind.” Regrettably though, Abe’s policies did leave most women behind.
The bipolarisation of working women
The 2022 World Economic Forum report on the Global Gender Gap shows that within East Asia and the Pacific, Japan has the furthest to go to bridge the gap between men and women in the realm of “economic participation and opportunity.” Japan’s female labour force participation rate rose substantially during the Abe administrations – by 2016 it had surpassed the OECD average – but has dropped slightly since the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the bulk of the increase of women into the workforce has been as non-regular workers. Women are mostly working in low-paid, insecure work that does not allow them financial independence from men, who continue to form the bulk of the core workforce. Almost 70 percent of the country’s non-regular workforce is female, and more than half of all women workers are non-regular. Compared to many other countries where the principle of equal pay for equal work is recognised, in Japan, non-regular workers and regular workers are treated differently and unequally, even though the work they do is often very similar, and even though the Abe government’s 2015 “Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens” policy proposals included the principle.
Womenomics consolidated the bipolarisation of working women into a small group of elites and the rest. It is often the female-dominated industries that are essential to advancing working women’s interests: education, child- and elderly-care, where most workers are women, are also industries that women rely on to participate in the workforce. Womenomics did not offer much for women working in these areas. They remain low-paid and low-status jobs. It is true that the number of childcare places increased significantly under the second Abe administration, but this was done through deregulating the childcare industry, which led to a decline in publicly subsidised childcare operators and more privately owned ones, a consequence of which has been lower pay and worse conditions for the workers.
This did not start with Abe. It was under the Koizumi administration between 2001 and 2006 that neoliberal policies like these gained a stronghold. It was also Koizumi’s government that articulated many of the goals that womenomics pursued, such as filling 30 percent of all leadership roles with women by 2020, a goal which has since been revised to 2030.
The economics in Womenomics
Womenomics was the brainchild of chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, Kathy Matsui. The key argument of her and her colleagues in their 1999, 2005, 2010, and 2014 reports was that Japan needed to take advantage of women as an untapped labour resource. The expansion of women’s labour participation at the heart of womenomics was not about gender equality. Rather, it was a means of stimulating national economic growth and harnessing a workforce in a society with a shrinking population. But womenomics did not even achieve that, or at least nothing like what Abe had aimed for. Real wages have barely increased in Japan since 1990—in fact, between 2012 and 2018 they fell—and in 2020, the country entered recession.
While Japan remains the third-largest economy after the United States and China, in 2021, one year after the conclusion of Abe’s second tenure, it ranked 30th in the world for per capita gross domestic product (GDP). This was a significant drop from third place in 1995, the year before Abe’s first tenure. Compare this to neighbouring South Korea, where wages nearly doubled in the same period and where per capita GDP surpassed Japan in 2018.
Abe’s legacy at home
When it comes to Abe’s legacy in Japan, things look somewhat different to what the Western media has focused on. Many Japanese will remember him for the scandals and cronyism that characterised his ruling style. On the topic of women, Abe was less known in Japan for womenomics and more known for his conservative stance on women’s social roles. He was one of the leading opponents to the argument that called for the removal of the legal obligation that married couples have the same surname, an argument that the majority of the population is behind because they see the law as discriminatory against women. Abe was prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when the party proposed revising Article 24 of the constitution to strengthen the importance of “family” over the individual, something that drew strong criticism from women’s rights lawyers and activists. We now know that the conservatism of the LDP was bolstered by the association of its members, including Abe, with an anti-communist religious movement, the Unification Church. The Unification Church’s gender ideology is based on very conservative views of men’s and women’s social roles. The movement’s views on “family” is reflected in the stance of the LDP.
The strong ties to this movement by Abe and many of his colleagues, exposed by Abe’s assassin, has shocked the Japanese people, and many questions are being asked. There has been wall-to-wall investigative media coverage of these connections, the implications of this for Japan’s democracy, and the tragic ramifications of the predatory practices of the Unification Church on individuals and their families. But the fact that Abe supported the conservative ideas shared by the Unification Church about gender has not surprised many. It is entirely possible to create policies like womenomics and support such views simultaneously because the two are not incompatible, and neither are pro-women.
Emma Dalton lectures in Japanese Studies in the Department of Languages and Cultures at La Trobe University. She is the co-author of Voices from the Contemporary Japanese Feminist Movement (2022), and the author of Sexual Harassment in Japanese Politics (2021) and Women and Politics in Contemporary Japan (2015).
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