Can 'womenomics' really make Japanese women happy? And save the economy?

'Abenomics', Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's 'three-arrow approach' to revitalising the world's third-largest economy has become well known globally, if not always well understood.

" For the economy and corporations alike Japanese women are the under-utilised human resource of last resort."
Elizabeth Masamune, Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan

But there was another dimension to Abe's agenda, potentially even more significant: 'Womenomics', launched with much fanfare in 2013, envisioned a “society where every woman can shine”.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Photo Credit: Jiji/Getty Images

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Photo Credit: DAJ/Getty Images

“Yes, we can”, has somehow turned into “Yes, you can”, but women are not really buying the message.

The underlying assumption is that after women have played a crucial role in keeping the population from shrinking, in these modern times where human resources make a difference to competitive edge, they are wasted in their roles as wives and mothers at home.

The stark reality is the “Showa Housewife” epitomising the values and success associated with Japan's post-war economic miracle (the era of the Showa Emperor) casts a shadow so long it is almost impossible for a Japanese woman today to break free of her legacy.

Moreover, the roles men and women have been cast to play in Japan have been cemented over centuries, not just a few decades. And they were undeniably part of the secret to Japan's success in the Showa Era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Wives kept everything going seamlessly behind the scenes in order to allow their husbands to devote themselves completely to the company (and by extension the Japanese economy). The company in turn acted as his substitute family and promised life-time employment.

Thus, with everyone playing their nominated part, in many cases at great social and personal cost, Japan's rise from the ashes to one of the largest economies in the world was made possible.

For every woman out there in Japan today who would like to grasp the choices that womenomics offers and run with it, there are countless others still grappling with the idea they can have choices at all. And all of those women have mothers and mothers-in-law who more than likely could be described as “The Showa Housewife”.

These Showa Housewives set impossibly high standards for any modern woman to meet. Further adding to the weight of expectation is the fact that the husbands of today's generation (including mine) were brought up in homes where women did everything and men had no responsibilities when it came to household chores and child rearing.

And so not only do the conversations in the board room and the senior management meetings need to change, the real path to happiness and fulfilment for the next generation of Japanese women starts across the dinner table. The old adage “change starts from within” could not ring truer.

Conversations with the next generation of men to change the way that expectations are set in the home, followed by actions outside that actually 'walk the talk' have the real potential to change the social and corporate landscape one individual at the time.

And as the most important and enduring role models we will ever have in our life are in fact our own parents, the opportunity to break the cycle that binds both sexes to pre-determined roles in Japan is here and now.

I recently attended a diversity seminar where one Japanese man described his 'guerrilla campaign' at work in order to secure three months of paternity leave for himself - which was in fact an employee entitlement.

For six months prior to the birth of his first baby, a daughter, he needed to make her part of his 'work family' before she was even born by talking about her imminent arrival and keeping them excited about the latest baby news.

By discussing his personal life in the workplace, something historically frowned upon in Japan in the past, he succeeded in obtaining the support of his boss and co-workers for the idea of him taking paternity leave.

More men like him will eventually obviate the need for such guerrilla campaigns.

Work-life balance is a very new concept in Japan. Google runs a program called Women Will which in Japan is themed “Happy Back to Work”. It uses the Google platform to collect and synthesise the voices of all the Japanese women out there who wish for change. There are also some inspirational 'surprise' videos prepared for several new Japanese mothers on their first day back to work after maternity leave. Whilst this is far from the widely practised reality, it lets us see how things could and should be.

Happy Back to Work

Japanese women, like women everywhere, need to know it's OK not to be perfect. And that men are there to help them. It's a simple message but one which has the potential to unlock their courage to 'give it a go' in the belief that they can truly have it all. Or indeed any unique combination of those things taken for granted in the West. Japanese men owe it to their daughters, and granddaughters, not only to support their ambitions. But most of all to allow them to dream without fear of failure. Only then will Japan be truly closer to achieving Prime Minister Abe's vision of “a society where every woman can shine”.

Elizabeth Masamune is based in Tokyo. She is Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan Inc, an official supporter of the Google Japan Women Will program. After 23 years of marriage she still apologises to her Japanese husband if the garbage has built up a bit. “Whereby he magnanimously tells me not to worry, whenever you have time for it!” she says.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

09 Sep 2015

Beep. Are you being served? Bzzzz

Elizabeth Masamune | Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan

Minami started work at Takashimaya department store in Osaka, Japan in October 2013. Since then she has dealt with over 1,000 customers, honing her sales skills. On her third stint at the store in May this year she was reassigned to the men's shirt department, with a sales target of ¥500,000.

27 Oct 2015

How the TPP will turn Japan's fruit & veg market

Terrie Lloyd | CEO, Japan Travel KK

For all the benefits the Trans-Pacific Partnership will bring to each country involved, a level of consternation has popped up in all countries and in Japan there's been a loud cry from the agricultural sector.

29 Apr 2015

​Naked insight: business lessons from a Japanese bath house

Peter Hanami | Author & consultant

As a small-business owner, I have found business insights or 'light bulb' moments can arrive anytime: lining up at the supermarket check-out, driving and listening to the radio or – rewardingly - when you are experiencing something new for the first time.