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Women seen as the key to overcoming Japan’s demographics problem

Interview - April 8, 2015

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly stated in his address at the Sixty-Eighth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on 26 September, 2013, the Government of Japan will cultivate the power of women as the greatest potential for the growth of the Japanese economy, and further strengthen cooperation with the international community as well as assistance to developing countries with the belief that creating "a society in which women shine" will bring vigor to the world.


Women seen as the key to overcoming Japan’s demographics problem

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly stated in his address at the Sixty-Eighth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on 26 September, 2013, the Government of Japan will cultivate the power of women as the greatest potential for the growth of the Japanese economy, and further strengthen cooperation with the international community as well as assistance to developing countries with the belief that creating "a society in which women shine" will bring vigor to the world.

I would like to say that the Abe cabinet is taking a number of approaches to the whole issue of women’s empowerment and that we have a number of strategies. One of them emphasizes respecting traditional conservative values for women so if women choose not to work outside the home, we need to respect that viewpoint.

Another focus of the Abe administration that is completely new is that up until now the question of bigger involvement of women has been focused mainly on the human rights and the ethical side of it. However, the new aspect that is coming forth under Prime Minister Abe is that women's empowerment can contribute to the economic side and that it goes beyond just the social issues and the policies involving women to emphasize what differences they will make economically.

Prime Minister Abe is taking a very calm and collected approach by being aware of how women's activities can contribute to sustainability. This has given rise to a new basis for support. He is not just rushing into this but taking a very level-headed approach to encouraging the participation of women. That is partly because for some time the encouragement of women participation was limited to the feminist factor and there was a very strong support for greater participation on the part of feminists, but it was limited to that part of society. By taking this very strategic approach the hope is that we can include a wider base of people who will support this. At this stage we are working on the assumption that whether women participate in society is not a question of whether that is good or bad, but it is about making that the mainstream. I see my role as making sure that this is not a zero-sum game in which if women are going to gain or advance men are going to lose ground, it is not like that. I see it as a win-win situation and it is not just about making changes for women but also making changes for men. It is about making changes for society as a whole and we want to get all of society interested and involved in this issue.

So the Abe administration has set an extremely crucial mission for itself in not just being another successor in the ongoing succession of cabinets, but being the one that creates a sustainable future for Japan and initiates ongoing reforms. The Abe administration has committed to that and to making Japan's future an ongoing sustainable future. That is a crucial mission of the administration. I think that these fifteen years where we have been dealing with continuous deflation, a shrinking economy, the sense of crisis and the questioning of whether the economy is going any further than this were major factors that drove the success of the general election that we had in December. I think that in that election it was not a question of whether people liked or did not like Prime Minister Abe or whether they liked or did not like his policies, it was a question of “we are facing serious risks and we cannot afford to go beyond this point”. Japan has to do something to turn around in a better direction and this is our last chance for reform. I think many of the Japanese people share this sense of crisis and that this was our last chance to initiate reforms for our economy. The Abe administration is so strongly committed to increasing the participation of women, both at home and abroad. He is not just putting women in important ministerial posts as decorative ornaments. He is putting them there because he does not just want pictures that show the ratio of men to women: he wants true commitment to full participation by women in Japan. His goal is to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions to at least around 30% by 2020 and this seems a high hurdle. There a lot of hurdles to be overcome in reaching this goal. 

What are some these challenges that you are facing in the administration?

Prime Minister Abe does not just want women to be in managerial positions in name only. He is not going to put a woman in a position because she is a woman. It needs to be the best person for the position whether it is a man or a woman; it needs to be the person with the right knowledge, the right skills, the right capability and it is more than a title. We do not just want “someone in a skirt,” it needs to be the right person for the right position. I think that that approach of putting the best person in the right position, whether it is a man or a woman, is crucial to achieving social fairness. Otherwise, it serves to the detraction of both men and women. 

You were talking before about involvement and sustainability. To achieve this you are talking about changing the whole society's mentality and that takes time. Is the administration also working in any kind of regulatory frame or laws?

Yes, we have a bill that we want to put through. It will be a women's empowerment promotion bill essentially which will address how the private and public sectors can put women to work. That is a bill that we want to make it a law. Companies with more than 300 employees will be required to put a plan together and make it in public. We are going to try to have the same applied to the private sector which will be required to understand what the current situation is now and to disclose information so that we will know which industries and which companies are doing how much in terms of visibility and promotion. We are going to have visibility. Under that law companies will not be able to get away with just hiring women in managerial positions as a slogan or saying that they are going to hire women. They will have to provide the numbers and show how many years those women have been continuously working in the companies. This way, if women join the company and then quit right away the companies are not going to be able to use that as part of their evaluation. They will be judged in detail by how many hired women in managerial positions actually stayed in the company. 

Increasing women's participation in the workforce is also about changing the mindset in Japan. This is of course coupled also with the fact that there is possibly a dearth or a lack of support services for many women such as daycare. How are you working to change this public opinion, which of course will take time? And how are you working to provide the necessary services for these women who do work?

Childcare and daycare are crucial. For that reason, over the next three years we will be creating enough new daycare facilities to accommodate an additional 200,000 children, and over the next five years 400,000 children. There will be a new framework put in place to do that. In Japan, where the population is decreasing, that is something which is really crucial. It is going to take money but making people aware of the possibility and giving the possibility of working and raising children at the same time is a very strong message that we want to put across to the people. In order to do that we are going to be putting 512.7 billion yen into this new system for providing better childcare services. That will happen from this April onwards, starting from the new fiscal year. Regarding the resources needed, it was originally planned to finance that by taking the increase in the consumption tax from 8% to 10%. That additional 2% that was originally planned was going to be used for providing more childcare services. That increase has been postponed for now but we have decided through discussion with the various parties involved that even though the tax is not being raised yet we are going ahead as planned. This is a very strong political decision: we are going to move forward with this program even though we do not have that tax increase to finance it. In the social security system there are 3 major pillars of focus: medical care, pensions for retirement and nursing care for people who are cared at home. We also want to emphasize that child care is important even if we have to take the money from these other services. If we do not increase the tax, we still want this increased childcare program to go ahead even if it means taking away resources from these other programs. Over the past several months that has been a major focus of discussion and the emphasis has been towards moving forward with increased child care. This is financially zero-sum within the administration. 

You are also the Minister for the State of Regulatory Reform which puts you in charge of the Council for Regulatory Reform which has many of the leading private sector businessmen and businesswomen. You are charged with leading the way in some of these important reforms that deals with Abenomics. Maybe you can give our readers a bit of an insight in some of the areas you are working on regulatory reforms.

The main focus in terms of regulatory issue is on what we call “rock solid regulation”. One example is agricultural reform. We are implementing the first major agricultural reform in 60 years since the end of the War. The Abe cabinet is also introducing reforms in the medical system area in order to give people a broader choice so that patients can choose what medication and form of treatment they want, which will still be covered by public insurance. Also, as we talked, to provide more diversity in the way of working and neutral taxation so that people can choose the way that they want to work. These are some of the main areas of our focus. The Abe cabinet administration is committed to making Japan a sustainable society and in a sense he is sometimes called a reformist, sometimes conservative, but what he is thinking is that we need to retain the values but making the reforms that need to be made. 

Implementing those reforms required a really strong administration. The administration has to have stamina because the opposition is strong and we have to be able to stand up to it to get those reforms through. Prime Minister Abe is putting together a very level-headed strategy and a very balanced approach to that strategy. If you do not have the support of the people it is not going to be possible to put the reforms through. He is very determined that Japan is going to become a sustainable economy, but to do that you need to have a high level of support from people. Therefore Prime Minister Abe has set the economic vectors to point in the right direction and has the determination to really make them work. Not all of his policies are supported but his conviction is that these economic policies are the only way to go and he is very aware of that. During the last electoral campaign his repeated message was “this is the only way to go, we are the only party to do this”. The fact that we were strongly supported by the public in that election indicates that the people do support what he is doing. 

I am going back to regulatory reform. Up until now we seemed to have a society where people waited for things to get done by the government. We are starting to change so that people realize that even though the resources are limited we are willing to create the better society ourselves. This way we can act more from their own initiative. One central feature of the Abe administration is that it is not all about central sovereignty; it has to be more on the local authorities who have to take more initiative. The central government is giving local authorities not only the money but also the right to make those decisions on their own.

Ambassador Kennedy has said of Japanese-U.S. relations that, “the depth and reach of our partnership affects all sectors of government, business, sciences, education and culture. There is always potential to do more, deepen our ties and explore new opportunities together.” How though can Japan and the United States work together to increase women empowerment in their respective countries?

To answer your last question about Caroline Kennedy, I tell you that she is extremely popular in Japan among both men and women. People see her as a role model as a woman, as an ambassador and as a mother. She is seen as having a sense of power but also calmness and she is an amicable and approachable person. A lot of people have their concept of what America is through her. She is a fantastic ambassador. People are aware of how hard she works; she does not speak Japanese but recently she gave a speech to middle school students which she said it in Japanese that was written out phonetically so that she was able to communicate to them in their language. She is really committed to improving US-Japan relations. One thing I noticed in particular was a reception at the US Embassy of a female Diet member who had had a problem with sexual harassment. Caroline Kennedy made sure that that woman was invited to the US Embassy to meet with her. I do not know if that was a move on her own personally or in her formal role as ambassador but I am seeing how much consideration she puts into the linkages between the US and Japan and into the linkages involving women and I am very much impressed by that. For example we have the doll festival coming up soon in Japan on March 3rd and she has stayed in touch for many years with people who gave her a set of dolls for the doll festival. She puts a lot of weight on the personal - emotional aspect.