• Lily Boland

“How Can Japan ‘Activate’ Women?” (What are we, robots with an “on” switch?)


Image credit to Temple University Japan Campus, FURUHASHI architect & associates.

Recently, TUJ’s ICAS held a joint seminar with Showa University titled “How Can Japan ‘Activate’ Women?” The keynote speakers were Akiko Imai (Professor of Business Design Department, Showa Women’s University) and Yumiko Murakami (Head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Tokyo Center). This was the second TUJ/Showa related event on women in June. I can say that we at the Zine are both excited and supportive of this series of events, especially with the ICAS talk “From the Women’s March to #WeToo and Beyond,” that followed on June 19. Nice initiative, TUJ.

Both keynote speakers were experts in their fields; working Japanese women who have been involved in the fight for gender equality since they entered the workforce. Professor Imai’s presentation provided a comprehensive history of the role of women in post-war Japan. She explained how the stage we are currently in is one of “Womenomics,” where major policies and principles are being implemented that focus on women thriving in the “super aging” era. These include recent legislation such as the Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement (2015), the recent Quota for Political Candidates Law (2018), and the new Bill for Work Style Reform (2018).

To answer the talk’s begging question, Prof. Imai began by explaining why Japan should “activate” its women (more on the use of this word to follow). She claimed that for human rights purposes, economic pressure for advancement, and social needs, women need to be activated in Japan. Japanese women are a resource not yet tapped in a country facing many economic and demographic problems. The country needs to make full use of its human capital given the reality of the super aging and low birth rate.

So how do we “activate” this human capital? Prof. Imai posits that this is a truly adaptive challenge. The fact that technical solutions by the authority (i.e. government) are simply not enough to raise Japan’s status on the Gender Gap Index, is blatantly obvious. And just as there is an overall reluctance to promote female workers, employ them in higher positions even, so too is there a lack of women fighting for that promotion and better work. Perhaps this is explained by a societal “fear of change, loss of vested interest, risk of marginalization, and risk of diversion,” Prof. Imai ponders. What she does believe is that there is a strong need for developing women’s leadership in the following:

  1. Universities

  2. Corporate social responsibility

  3. Business and cause

  4. Citizens

After hearing her presentation, as a strong female professor and someone earnestly invested in improving the status of and opportunities for women in Japan, I know that Prof. Imai will help guide leadership in her role at Showa University.

Yumiko Murakami spoke next on “The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle.” She began her talk by stating “this issue is not just in Japan!” There is a global theme of gender equality regression, unfortunately. Mrs. Murakami worked for Goldman Sachs in the 1990s and explained how Abe’s infamous “Womenomics” predated his 2015 campaign. Womenomics was actually first coined in 1999 as a means to entice global investors to invest in companies who embrace gender equality as a human rights campaign. Womenomics seemed to fail then, too. In comparison to 1999, Abe’s campaign has been able to gain a lot of support and enthusiasm because the emphasis of these policies have shifted from human rights to economics, perceived as far more interesting now with the addition of business. This was also linked with Mrs. Murakami’s conclusion; as a Goldman Sachs worker in the 90s, she had hoped Womenomics would take off and investors would choose to invest in companies that valued the role of women, however this did not happen. She hopes that once again, with the global trends of gender inequality and emphasis of diminishing the gap, investors will choose to invest in only Womenomics-supporting companies for both economic and human rights reasons.

Another key point she emphasized was how women tend to not choose STEM fields to study or work in. If they do, it’s in architecture or nutrition, both important fields but there is a prevailing issue of women not even having the opportunity to study topics such as engineering or harder STEM subjects. In the audience sat a male professor of Showa Uni. who took issue with the campus’ lack of STEM subjects but pointed out that this tendency to not pursue such fields is ingrained in a young age. It was pleasing to hear a male instructor of an all women’s university highlight education as being one of the key factors to reducing the gap.

Mrs. Murakami concluded with the statement that Japan needed to “change cultures, change minds.” It truly takes time to change behavior, there is no quick fix to eroding gender stereotypes, but it needs to happen and women need to be at the forefront of such change. She suggested affirmative action measures and making men take parental leave as two concepts that should be pursued, along with her final remarks that in order to activate women, “we have to activate men. Japan has everything it needs to close the gap and succeed, it’s just a matter of activating” its untapped potential.

At the beginning of this talk, I took issue with the use of the word “activate.” Are we as women simply machines that need to be turned on? Why are we being perceived as being “deactivated” or just “off,” not “on?” But by the end of the seminar, I understand the speaker’s use of the term. Women’s potential in Japan has not been activated and it is due to a variety of issues. Major ones being:

  1. Social conditioning for girls to pursue certain fields from lower education all the way to higher.

  2. Complete lack of enforcement by the government for any of its measures/acts/laws that it works so hard to pass through legislation.

  3. A lack of female role models in Japan.

They do not mean activate in an individual sense but how can the labor market activate a group that has not participated fully yet.

In the audience were the Ambassadors to both Sweden, Mr. Magnus Robach and Iceland, Mrs. Elin Flygenring. Both provided insightful comments on their respective country’s successes in gender equality along with pointing out the reality that even such highly regarded nations (in terms of gender equality global rankings) have their own issues. Ambassador Robach claimed that “progress in Sweden has been the result of women working together to make their demands felt and understood by the society. So activation--without participation by women, this would not have happened….the progress towards equal rights and progress happened from women organizing themselves and fighting for their rights.” He was followed up by Ambassador Flygenring, who delivered an inspiring message to all women in the room, specifically the majority who were Showa Uni. students, to first, have a dream and to second, pursue it no matter what.

Again, I hope that the Showa girls took the both speakers and Ambassadors’ speeches and advice to heart. Organize yourselves girls, and fight for your rights!

If you are interested, feel free to watch the lecture here.


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