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Shinzo Abe Vowed Japan Would Help Women ‘Shine.’ They’re Still Waiting.

2020-09-13 04:03:34
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TOKYO — This was supposed to be the era when Japan finally stepped beyond its centuries of patriarchal dominance and empowered women in the workplace. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the country’s prosperity depended on it, and promised policies to help women “shine.” He even gave the push a name: womenomics.

Sayaka Hojo has yet to see the fruits of those pledges.

Ms. Hojo, 32, the mother of a young daughter, has had three different employers during the nearly eight-year tenure of Mr. Abe, who said late last month that he was leaving office. In all of those jobs, Ms. Hojo worked mostly with women but was overseen by men — a still-common situation in Japan that belies Mr. Abe’s promise to significantly increase the share of women in management roles.

And Ms. Hojo, like many women in Japan, cannot accept a full-time job even after Mr. Abe pushed through a law intended to ease Japan’s brutal work culture. Because she shoulders the bulk of housework and child care, the hours at work would be too demanding.

“If there are talented, competent women who get married or have children, their career paths are derailed,” Ms. Hojo said. Of Mr. Abe’s flowery rhetoric about elevating women, she added: “I saw a huge gap between what he said and what was really happening.”

“So do we really call that womenomics in the sense that it’s augmenting the status of women in society?” she said. “No.”

Mr. Abe did shift the tone from previous leaders who had declared that a woman’s rightful place was in the home. And in one area, at least, women have made noticeable progress: By 2020, more than a third of hires for management-track jobs in central government ministries were women, up from less than a quarter in 2012.

But many women still struggle to find adequate child care, even after Mr. Abe promised to eliminate waiting lists for public day-care centers by 2020. As of earlier this year, there were still nearly 12,500 children on waiting lists, even as the number of babies born in Japan fell to the lowest level in close to a century and a half.

Yayoi Kimura, a Liberal Democratic member of the House of Representatives who endorsed the letter, said that when she co-sponsored a bill to provide a tax break for unmarried parents, some of her male colleagues argued that most single mothers were either mistresses of rich men or hyperambitious career women who did not need government assistance.

The measure passed, Ms. Kimura said, because women of all parties banded together to vote it through.

Some women hope that Mr. Suga would be slightly more in tune with their needs. Unlike most Japanese lawmakers, he does not come from a wealthy political family. In Yokohama, where he served on the City Council, he worked to reduce long day-care waiting lists.

Still, like so many other men in Japanese politics, Mr. Suga has made public comments that reflect traditional views about a woman’s role in society.

When a popular actor, Masaharu Fukuyama, married the actress Kazue Fukiishi in 2015, Mr. Suga predicted on television that their marriage would prompt “Mama-sans” around the country to “want to have babies alongside the new couple and contribute to the country.”

And when Mr. Suga and the other two men running for prime minister, Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, were asked in a debate what kinds of fathers they were, all acknowledged having rarely spent time at home while their children were growing up. Mr. Kishida was roundly attacked on Twitter recently after posting a picture of his wife serving him dinner while she stood in the doorway looking more like a waitress than a partner.

Megumi Mikawa, 40, said she did not see how her life had improved under the Abe administration. In July, she quit her clerical job in Nishinomiya, a city in western Japan, because she was unable to perform her duties from home during the pandemic.

Because she left the part-time job voluntarily, she was not eligible for unemployment benefits or government subsidies for parents who took time off to care for children while schools were closed because of the coronavirus.

In a Zoom interview from her kitchen on a day when her 7-year-old daughter’s school was closed because of an approaching typhoon, Ms. Mikawa, whose husband is currently posted in Tokyo, said that simply increasing the number of women in Parliament could foster more women-friendly policies.

“The fundamental ideas of the country are controlled by men,” she said. “That’s why we don’t have any policies to really cater to ordinary people.”

Ms. Hojo, the accountant, said she viewed her destiny as extending beyond motherhood. “I still have ambition,” she said.

When she returned to work after staying home with her newborn daughter for two years, she took a part-time job at the medical clinic where she had previously worked full time. Since her husband worked 100-hour weeks as a delivery service driver, she accepted a reduction in her hours because the clinic required staff members to stay until 8 p.m. — too late to pick up her daughter from day care.

She said she wanted the next prime minister to use his bully pulpit to promote gender equality.

Invoking an idiomatic expression — nagai mono ni makareru on people’s tendency to follow authority, she said: “If the government, which is in the strongest position, demonstrates” the importance of giving women more opportunities in the workplace, “private companies would follow suit.”

Reporting was contributed by Makiko Inoue, Ben Dooley and Hikari Hida.


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