A lone gunman claimed the life of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on July 8, shocking a largely violence-free nation. Tributes poured in from all over the world and commentators in many countries praised Abe’s enormous contributions to foreign policy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where Japan under his leadership has emerged as a critical regional power.
In remembering Abe, however, little has been said about his domestic legacy. On the surface, Abenomics brought about an era of quantitative easing and relatively low unemployment. Abe promised to boost productivity and bring solutions to Japan’s aging society. And while exports grew and Japan had long stretches of positive economic growth, an essential segment of Japan’s population was left largely behind: women.
Abe knew better. Low participation by women in the workforce had long hampered the Japanese economy and he announced “womenomics” as a top priority of his administration. Abe aimed to bring women’s participation in the economy up to the level of other developed countries and in so doing, help Japan solve one of its most pressing problems – its massive labor shortage. He failed. Many of the new jobs for women were of low pay or were part-time, and women have suffered more from job insecurity than men. Many of the targets Abe set for women remained well beyond reach when he left office in 2020.
While politicians often change their positions, nationalism was in Abe’s political DNA. He was associated with Nippon Kaigi, Japan’s largest ultra-conservative far-right lobby, which was forceful in pushing back against any moves towards gender equality. Abe appointed Kato Katsunobu, who twice served as Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare and who has been roundly criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kato and Marukawa Tamayo, the head of the Women’s Affairs Office of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are both affiliated with Nippon Kaigi. These appointments are central to Abe’s domestic legacy and show where his interests lay, as they reinforce his entrenched beliefs that shaped policies regarding gender equality in employment, a declining birth rate, sex education, imperial male succession, and whether married women can keep their maiden names.
Not surprisingly Japan remains near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s rankings in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, at 116th out of 146 countries. In 2020, when Abe left office, Japan ranked 121st out of 153. Among G7 nations, Japan was the only country that did not rank in the top 100. The lack of gender parity is especially marked among legislators, senior officials, and managers. A comparable report by U.N. Women shows similar results, a ratio of just 9.7 percent for women in parliamentary positions and 10 percent in ministerial positions. The present Kishida cabinet, with only three female ministers out of 20, has fallen short of the world average of 21.9 percent, let alone the Japanese government’s own target figure of 30 percent. While Japan increased female participation in economic activities, a metric that many point to as a success story in Abe’s womenomics platform, the gender gap in pay is still one of the largest among OECD countries.
Women have always been overlooked in Japanese society, although they were vital to Japan’s double-digit growth in the 1960 and 1970s, contributing in the form of the “M-Curve,” in which women enter the workforce early, but leave in their 30s and 40s to raise children, and then reenter in later years. While the curve has softened, in part by a growing number of women who are choosing not to marry, women are still mostly relegated to low-paying jobs.
Abe had the opportunity to make changes to postwar employment practices that would have benefitted women. He was director of the Social Affairs Division and deputy chief cabinet secretary in the administrations of Mori Yoshirō, who has a history of foul comments about women, and Koizumi Junichiro. Koizumi, whom the press fawned over and the public liked, was instrumental in instituting controversial structural reforms, which gave companies more leverage in hiring and firing. A dual track classification for female employees was created. Women could choose to enter the category of sogo shoku (career path) or ippan shoku (non-career path). These were presented in order to seemingly accommodate the needs of female recruits to thrive both at work and at home. The decision of which path to take was required at the time of hiring. Of course, this choice was forced only on women, and has been referred to as “indiscriminate discrimination.”
The societal attitude that women are “the reproductive sex” places them in a vulnerable and defensive position, as women are obligated to raise children, as well as take care of their elderly parents and those of their husband. The expressed ideal was ryōsai kenbo, or good mother, wise wife. Conservative Japan under previous administrations and under Abe did little to counter this traditional view of women, who became an inexhaustible supply of cheap and disposable labor.
Abe’s ultra-conservative ideas about women, supported by Nippon Kaigi, are well documented. Abe did not believe that there should be a female line of succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He was the leader of an LDP project team that conducted a survey on “excessive sexual education and gender-free education.” Abe, who had bashed gender equality movements had not changed much of his views, but didn’t openly oppose Japan’s gender equality policies, partly because it protected him from political opponents on the left.
The compiled data on gender is damning for Japan, laying bare all of the aspects of life for Japanese women that have been impacted by a political establishment that is less than committed to gender equality. It’s not difficult to draw the conclusion that Abe’s womenomics was not aimed at achieving real progress, but merely attractive window dressing that aimed to raise slightly Japan’s dismal position in various global indexes of gender equality.
In other words, Abe’s approach toward gender equality was reactive rather than proactive. Even his target figure of 30 percent of leadership roles occupied by women by the year 2020, proposed by the Gender Equality Bureau in 2003, needed to be pushed back and reset a decade forward to 2030. The discrepancy between this slogan and current reality is obvious. The literature on the competitive advantage of nations is extensive, instructive, and an admonition. Japan’s main resource is its population. Abe’s slogan “A Society in which Women Shine” was never truly progressive and was hardly realized in any event. Japanese women continue to suffer as a result.
Gender equality needs a political catalyst. It is unfair to laud the former prime minister for his foreign policy successes without taking a closer look at his domestic blunders. While Abe’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is unquestionably visionary, he lacked focus and direction in raising the fortunes and stature of Japanese women, whose untapped potential might have done wonders to transform Japan’s long-ailing economy. In remembering Abe, we cannot cherry-pick his legacy. That would be akin to whitewashing history. Abe must own his failures and we must remember them, too.