William Pesek

As Japan’s economy mulls ways to boost a flagging economy, no policy lever holds more promise than empowering women.

In rabidly patriarchal Tokyo, no hint of progress is too small to celebrate as a touchstone moment for equality. This explains why the Twittersphere got so excited this week about Japan Airlines finally allowing female flight attendants to wear pants.

It explains, too, why observers are celebrating the election as a gender touchstone. Ahead of Sunday’s upper house contests, a record 28% of candidates were women. And 28 of those 104 women won parliament seats, roughly 27% of those up for grabs. A good result, but one that merely matches the 2016 election.

Here are two other metrics that augur less well for female advancement. One, the proportion of women in leadership remains well below the 30% goal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set after he took office in 2012. Two, Abe, who pledged to make women “shine” in both government and business, still refuses to entrust women with top cabinet jobs.

Gender-equality boosters from Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui to “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg say Japan has a role model problem. Not a single Nikkei 225 Index company, for example, is run by a female Japanese CEO. And Abe’s “womenomics” talking points fall flat when you consider just one of his 19 cabinet members is a woman.

What’s more, Satsuki Katayama hasn’t been entrusted with a portfolio that, with all due respect, enjoys real power. The minister of state for gender affairs and regional revitalization doesn’t tend to get many headlines. To address Tokyo’s role model deficit, Abe could name a woman to run the finance ministry, foreign affairs or act as chief cabinet secretary.

Sadly, Abe says he plans to stick with most of the male greybeards currently holding top jobs with few real achievements to show for it. All the while, a $750 billion gender problem festers just as the global trade war slams economic growth. This figure is a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much gender inequality costs Japan annually (Goldman Sachs estimates 15% boost of $5 trillion economy).

This week’s election was ostensibly about where Japan wants to be two decades from now. But really, it spotlighted two problems dating back 20 years that Tokyo has yet to address.

Deflation is the first. Abe, whose party held on to power, claims reflation efforts are progressing nicely. So does Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda. On July 22, a day after the Liberal Democratic Party’s win, Kuroda claimed the economy “is no longer in deflation.”

That’s highly debatable as inflation rises the least in two years and wages fall for a fifth straight month. Twenty years after the BOJ first cut interest rates to zero and seven years of Abenomics policies, you’d think Tokyo would be eking out a bigger consumer-price gain than 0.6% in June.

The year 1999 was also a pivotal one for gender dynamics. In the same year the BOJ went to zero, Matsui of Goldman Sachs began publishing an annual Womenomics report. A key argument she’s made since then is that Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15% boost if female labor participation rivaled that of men, or around 80% (women are just under 70%).

Adding that much to Japan’s $5 trillion economy would boost annual output equivalent to the combined GDP of Singapore, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. If only Tokyo would get serious about better utilizing fully one half of its population.

For all Abe’s big talk, the force with the patriarchy remains stubbornly strong. Japan, after all, has had an eerily quiet #MeToo moment. Societally, women in victim-blaming Japan remain far less likely to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment. Nor does the media generally want to go there. There’s even been an effort to sanitize things with local #WeToo and #WithYou hashtags more about supporting women than outing badly behaving men.

It’s telling, too, that Japan’s #KuToo movement often garners the most headlines. This play on “kutsu,” the Japanese word for shoes, is aimed at prodding the labor ministry to stop the practice of companies forcing women to wear heels and pumps.

Just as Japan has a role model problem, it’s also plagued by gaffe-prone, stuck-in-the-dark-ages male politicians. Exhibit A: Taro Aso, Abe’s deputy and finance minister. For journalists who love seeing politicians putting both feet in their mouths, Aso, 78, is the gift that keeps on giving.

In May 2018, for example, Aso sparked protests when he downplayed sexual harassment charges against a finance ministry deputy who’d been forced to step down. Aso said the claims were “not the same as charges of murder or sexual assault,” while arguing his ally had been “entrapped.”

Abe has done little to alter the gender playing field, even sticking with Aso. On his watch, in fact, Tokyo lost ground in World Economic Forum’s annual gender-equality index. It’s now in 110th place versus 98th when Abe came to office. And prior to Sunday’s election, Japan trailed Gambia and Nauru in the number of females in parliament at 164th place (from 122nd in 2012).

It’s high time Abe got serious about empowering the other half of his 126 million people. All the research from Goldman Sachs to McKinsey to the International Monetary Fund holds that nations that best utilize female talent are more vibrant, innovative and productive. And in Japan’s case, $750 billion richer each year.

William Pesek

I am a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”

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