Commentary: The rise of woman economics in Japan is turning its ageing society around

Commentary: The rise of woman economics in Japan is turning its ageing society around

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 'womenomics' policy is bearing fruit, but there are still gaps that remain, says economic professor at Ochanomizu University Nobuko Nagase.

Woman clad in a kimono is reflected in an electronic board displaying Japan's Nikkei share ave
A woman clad in a kimono is reflected in an electronic board displaying Japan's Nikkei share average outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, April 18, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

TOKYO: Japan’s policies to increase women’s employment are finally bearing fruit, especially by allowing female university graduates to continue working during child-rearing years. 

In 2017, the percentage of first-time mothers who are university graduates in long-term employment rose to nearly 50 per cent, from below 30 per cent in the early 2000s. This trend accelerated after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started his "womenomics" policy in 2013.

Rather than labour participation, the important ratio is women in long-term employment. Long-term employees are paid far more than non-regular employees. 

Re-entering long-term employment positions in middle age after being out of the workforce is difficult. A rise in long-term employment implies an increase in the pool of female workers enjoying promotion possibilities.

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The government aims to increase female employment without affecting the country’s already low birth rate. "Womenomics" policies focus on changing Japanese corporate culture and improving access to day-care centres to help workers of both sexes achieve a better work–life balance. 

Six-hour working days for employees with children under the age of three was first mandated at firms with more than 100 employees, and then rolled out to other companies. This policy has proven to be successful — first childbirth statistically increased for women at mandated firms by 30 per cent after 2009.


The Diet passed three laws concerning childcare in 2012. It aimed to re-coordinate childcare facilities and kindergartens (previously administered by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as educational facilities) with day-care centres (previously administered by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare as welfare facilities). 

More kindergartens are encouraged to offer full-time day care. Subsidies for day care also have been extended to small day-care centres and kindergartens. While shortages are still evident, the number of childcare facilities in urban centres is increasing faster than ever before.

Mother Children Japan
A woman giving snacks to children during a Halloween parade in Tokyo. (Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

Despite these reforms, breaking down or transforming entrenched gender norms at home and in the workplace still has a long way to go. 

University-graduate males working at large firms — the group with the best income prospects — continue to have the lowest share of housework and childcare responsibilities. This is significant because the timing of second births in double-income families tends to be delayed unless husbands do more child-rearing.

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In 2016 the government passed another law mandating firms with more than 300 employees to gather gender-related statistics including hiring, managers, work hours and tenure years. 

They must disclose some of these statistics to the public, along with their action plans to improve the status of women workers. But the information disclosed is insufficient and misleading because firms can choose what information they make public.


Previously, the government aspired to increase the proportion of women in managerial positions in government and the private sector to around 30 per cent by 2020. That goal was later modified, with more modest targets adopted in some areas. 

The 2020 target for the number of women in senior managerial positions in the private sector, for example, was reduced to around 10 per cent in 2015. But even this is not expected to be reached. 

The proportion was still only 6.3 per cent in 2018. While a statistically significant increase of women managers after 2013 is seen, the gap remains large.

Another reason for Japan’s significant gender wage gap is the large share of female workers in non-regular employment that pays less than regular employment. The percentage of non-regular employees who are young women is noticeably high.

Of never-married women aged 25 to 39, 40 per cent of high school graduates, 28 per cent of junior college graduates and 21 per cent of university graduates had non-regular jobs in 2017. In comparison, the percentage of high-school graduate, non-married males in non-regular employment was 24 per cent.

A law mandating the principle of "same work, same pay" — where workers are paid equally for the same work regardless of their employment status — will be implemented from April 2020 for larger firms and from April 2021 for smaller firms.

Japan office workers
Japanese workers walk toward their offices in Tokyo on Oct 21, 2016. (Photo: AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

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While the up-take of this principle will be an important step forward, its impact remains unknown. 

If an employee is not in a job where they can be relocated or ordered to work overtime, for example, as in most long-term employment at large firms, the work may not be considered equal in Japan where commitment to work is enshrined as a defining characteristic of "long-term employment". 

Married women in non-regular employment also voluntarily limit their work hours to enjoy coverage of social protection for dependent spouse without paying social security tax, and they may not be eager to earn more income.

In October 2016, the social security law was amended to shorten work hour criteria to include more part-time workers at firms with more than 500 employees in the Employees’ Pension Insurance system. Due to labour shortages, more married women than expected were included.

In 2017, it was found that inclusion in the pension system encouraged a larger number of part-time status women to work longer hours and gain higher incomes. Though yet small in numbers, it shows an important policy direction for change.

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The percentage of high-school graduates who go on to university is increasing (56.3 per cent of males and 50.1 per cent of females in 2018), reflecting ambitions for better futures among Japanese youth. 

Among them, about 40 per cent have student loans. Repaying loans is not easy, especially for those in non-regular employment. 

Kimono-clad women using sun umbrellas pause on a street during a heatwave in Tokyo
Kimono-clad women using sun umbrellas pause on a street during a heatwave in Tokyo, Japan July 25, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Since a significant portion of women still enter non-regular employment after childbirth, repayment burdens are becoming an obstacle for family formation. One possible solution may be income-contingent student loans.

READ: The enormous, avoidable waste of human capital caused by gender inequality, a commentary

The Japanese labour market is slowly adjusting to a rise in double-income families. More new mothers are no longer choosing to quit work to raise children, instead continuing as long-term employees. 

"Womenomics" policies are facilitating this transformation. But elements of a system that supports a bread-winner model of family life remain firmly in place, and there is a long road ahead for Japan to fully overcome these.

Nobuko Nagase is a Professor in Economics at Ochanomizu University, Tokyo. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum. Read it here

Source: CNA/nr(sl)