A Year After Abe’s Resignation: His Womenomics Faultline

Arshad Shaharudin
10 min readAug 24, 2021

The country of the rising sun, Japan is one of the most powerful Asian countries stands with healthy GDP of $5.08 trillion in 2019 Nominal GDP (World Bank, 2020). Their main economic power is driven by advanced manufacturing of electric and electronic appliances, automobiles, machinery and others.

The resigned Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, helped to maintain their economic growth through their economic policies called Abenomics. Abenomics was introduced in late 2012 with his government, to lay down a comprehensive policy package to sustain or arguably, to revive the Japanese economy.

One of the main branches in this policy package is to enhance diversity and empowerment of the people; and part of this policy is “Womenomics”. This policy is uplifting to bring women into the economic settings, considering that Japan is severely problematic in their gender gap index.

This problem is concerning, because in 2013, despite up to 67% of women owning a tertiary education compared to their opposite gender which stands at 56%, but still, the glaring 18% employment gap happened between the gender.

The heavily Confucianism-based country expects their women to be the caretaker of the household, that a married woman is likely to be employed, let alone after having a child.

Married women experiencing problems combining their work and family life, resulting in women being full-time housewives. This black and white option, either work or family plunged down their fertility rate as youngsters tend to live their own lives rather than having a child.

Japan shrinking workforce (age vs year)

This is from Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, UN, showing that Japan working force is shrinking faster than other countries. We can see that as of 2020, the working population is around the estimation of 60 million and is expected to shrink by 10 million by 2055.

The aging population and the shrinking working population is a threat to their economic sustainability. Japanese government have been trying to revive this population by making the economy more “women-friendly” and promote gender equality.

Abenomics comes into picture

Gender issues in Japan are not new, they have been there for decades. Previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set his political and economic strategy by defining one clear component of it as “Womenomics”. It is to narrow the gender gap issues as one of the moves and sources for economic growth.

This government tried to promote reform on their work and policy structure to encourage the participation and advancement of women in the labour market and as active economic contributors (Chanlett-Avery and Nelson, 2014).

When Abe’s Womenomics was structured, their strategy is to provide more opportunities for integral involvement and provide strong support to women. They were trying to expand female participation in the workforce and tried to increase women employment from 68% in 2020 to 73% by the end of 2021. This is also to include women in managerial and leadership positions to 30% as per recommended by the UN.

There are various ways Abe’s administration were trying to make this happen; first and most critical is to provide strong support for women raising children, for example, flexible working hour and the presence of nursery to help them make things easier.

They also provide taxes and incentives to employers that uphold this policy and involve women participation in their companies. The government themselves were trying to offer more jobs to mothers who wish to return to work while raising their children as well.

Abe and his administration wanted to make a conducive space for women to be able to go back to the workspace and be in synergy with men to revive the economy at that time. Women participation in the economy is the key to sustainable growth, but the thing that holds them back is their responsibility being both a worker and a mother.

He is trying to address the problem of the lacking nursery homes in presence that was because women are expected to be stay-at-home-mom, thus bringing the effect for women hard to go out for work.

Thus, one of the key policies in this “Womenomics” is to secure the child care capacity, to make it women and family feel secured for them to go back to the workforce.

“The progress of opening more day-care centres has made it possible for a large number of women to decide to begin new jobs. I also stated that the Government is aiming for 30 percent of leadership positions in a variety of organisations to be filled by women by 2020. (Abe, 2014)

There is a lot more to it, they also increase child care leave benefits, further encouraging recurrent education for women away on maternity leave and provide female candidates with executive leadership training programs.

The Faultline

Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, in her interview with Bloomberg in 2019, commented on why the Womenomics failed. One of it is because the embedded culture in Japan, where the time employee spent in the office are more appreciated than the outcome they bring; this becoming one of the main results why this Womenomics failed.

Careered women, especially married and having children, it is only natural for them to spend their time both at home and office, juggling both of their responsibility. However, regardless of the result women bring and contribute to the company and the economy, their short hours in the office are still being side-looked.

These long-run decades kind of mindset is hard to take away in many companies’ cultures. To make this successful, it is more than bringing women into the workforce, it is to change Japan’s culture, and safe to say it is a long way to go looking at the way it is running now.

Watch the interview here:

Matsui also commented that the Japanese millennials have a different set of thinking where they are not keen to have a similar lifestyle as their father’s or grandfather’s that spent their 24/7 married to their job instead of focusing on their family. Thus, she sees a way out of it, but until the millennials take over the top management of these companies.

In addition to the culture itself, that Abe is trying to combat, many people see that his policies are problematic. Abe’s Womenomics, focusing on the pillars of revitalizing the economy and are using women as one of the drivers.

To actually combat this issue, is actually to tap women issues, not only from the economic downside, it is from their women’s overall well-being, from safety and health to dignity and self-fulfilment (Lundqvist, 2020).

Abe’s policies to promote women empowerment in society is mostly focused on economic benefits. This problem lies in the heart of the culture. It stretched beyond the economic spectrum; it also runs in how men treat their women.

It is not surprising to hear sexual harassment towards women commonly happened in Japan, especially in the workplace, and this is one of the key factors that Abe and his administration did not tap into. The nation was exposed in these past few years regarding the sexual harassment against a female reporter by a top Finance Ministry bureaucrat.

The motto ‘all women can shine’ is only when women are respected as the member of the society. Abe has been pushing women as another economics engineer, and this is a fault narrative to actually fix gender issues in Japan.

It is safe to say, this policy is a tad selfish for Abe not to fully acknowledge and uphold women in the country, but to seek for women’s labour only to stoke Japan’s economic growth that has been lagging for the past years.

The gender issue is not a new issue to be discussed in Japan’s society. The Basic Act for Gender- Equal Society have been started enacted in 1999 and the establishment of the Council for Gender Equality happened in 2001. Abe is just trying to push things forward with his Womenomics with the already discussed issue, but his time in office, still yet failed to have a concrete result

The Council for Gender Equality reported to the newly appointed Prime Minister Suga last year, that many of their goals have to be pushed back to at least 10 years maximum to allow a slow and stable gender equality growth.

Per se, in politics itself, the target for women to reach 30% in the Lower House by far only reached 17.8, and on terms of managerial positions at government offices, women only hold 5.3% from their target to get 7% by the year 2020. Being said that Abe’s government failed to push this goal in his own government sparks issues on where his priorities are set in his Womenomics.

Suga’s New Plan is Already Failing (?)

When the Gender Equality Council reported to Suga as the Japan new Prime Minister, Suga’s cabinet introduced The Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, an amended policy structure that was decided by the Cabinet on Dec 25, 2020. The policy is pointing out gender issues in 11 different fields to address the issues respectively.

The summary of the new policy is here.

Suga’s Cabinet reform the policy and making a clear field on how they want their women to be supported all-in-all. The whole idea of The Fifth Basic Plan is to respect the human rights of women and in consideration of social systems and practices. Their slogan is “Toward Reiwa society where all women can girls can thrive and achieve their full potential”.

On the day the Cabinet introduced the policy, PM Suga stated,

“We will form a policy which reflects women’s voices and aim for a society without gender bias for people in leadership positions”.

However, it is still early to say that Suga’s gender policy is going to be any more efficient compared to Abe’s.

Less than a year after this policy being introduced, they are already facing some issues with the policy. In Area 9, the policy is trying to push over a balance consolidation of the social systems for both genders.

One of the establishments of legislation concerning the family in the policy discusses a system of allowing married couples to use a separate surname. This is to eliminate inconvenience and disadvantages especially for women who have to change their surnames due to marriage and in cases of divorce.

However, this amendment was dropped after heavy pushback from conservative lawmakers. Their policy that calls for embracing the use of premarital surname failed to be implemented. Japan is the only country in the world that does not allow married couples to have different surnames.

The practice was first introduced in 1898 was planned to be dismissed is because, women changing their surnames hindering women’s identity in terms of building career or their personal achievement, and carried over under their married name.

A big percentage of 96% Japanese women adopt their husband’s surname, but we can see a growing number of women choose to maintain their maiden’s name in social and professional settings; skipping the hassle of rebranding themselves under their husband’s surname, and in the worst case if they got into divorce.

This going back-and-forth changing name bringing hindrance for women, that this policy was ideated and tried to be implemented but getting the pushback.

Survey results on a system of allowing married couple to use the separate surname

Despite growing support within the public to push the law to be amended for married couples having the same surname, the Cabinet still yet failed to fight for it to be implemented. This pushback question Suga’s cabinet capability or even willingness in addressing the gender issues.

Also, to state the fact that this effort has been a building effort since before. In 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved the use of maiden’s names in passport albeit the women’s husband’s surname. Women with premarital surnames can be charged in court as well.

Meaning, women with premarital names are already a functioning status and law in different terms, hence what supposedly Suga’s cabinet to push forward is actually to recognize and legalize it in their identity card and social status; which recently failed to do so.

Regardless of Suga’s new gender equality’s policy looking more comprehensive compared to Abe’s Womenomics, the policy implementation is still far away to be measured and discussed the success of it. This step back is highlighting the policymakers willingness to actually make changes.

Japan’s gender issues have become more glaring to worldwide audiences because Japan is a symbol of a first-world country in many other different terms and spectrum such as technological advancements and morality. UNDP has been pushing gender problems in Japan to be addressed by their cabinet, and like what has been discussed, the problems are addressed, the policies are enacted, but the implementation is far to be completed.

This also comes to terms with Japan’s social structure and culture itself. The embedded culture that stands for decades, perhaps centuries take time for it to be changed, but willingness should start from the Cabinets to start a spark of changes.

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Arshad Shaharudin

A Media Studies BA graduate, now pursuing a Development Studies MA. Always read but doesn’t really write, hence, here he is trying.