Womenomics – Women at the Japanese labour market

Japan’s regional position in East Asia is threatened by numerous factors, but the largest problems are the internal, economic and social ones. Can Womenomics bring significant changes in the Japanese society with respect to unexploited female labour force? In this paper we study the past decade of Japanese work with respect to the changes in woman’s roles, from the Meiji Restauration through the successful post-war recovery and the period of the Japanese Miracle to the gloomier developments of today.

In the following analysis we seek to answer whether the female labour market conditions can be changed efficiently in the current status of the Japanese society. For this purpose we have a closer look at Japan’s present demographic issues and labour market position as well as the developments of the past century from the aspect of female employees, and we examine what developmental process has taken place in the modern Japanese society. The results of Womenomics and their pace are compared with the targets set and the problems to be solved so that we can make a balance of the most recent trends.


One of the global issues is the changing composition of the society in the developed countries: fewer people are born and the proportion of elder people over sixty is getting higher. Societies transformed by economic development can be characterised with a low birth rate, and this is particularly true for the dynamically developing East Asia.[1] The most developed countries such as Japan and South Korea have the lowest fertility rate; the latter country takes the first place in the world in this aspect, followed by Japan in the second place.

The costs of aging can be rather high for Japan since this country, whose population decreased by a record number of 308 thousand people in 2016, suffered a decline in GDP of 1 percentage point in the same year.[2] However, according to the calculations of the IMF, this decrease can cost more and more to Japan, and between 2020 and 2050 the national income of the country might fall by nearly 1.5 percentage points if the present fertility trends continue, even in case the severe immigration policy is mitigated.[3] The Japanese labour force is a scarce resource; however, there are still unexploited fields, which, however, fall far from the expectations and traditional organisation of large Japanese corporations.

For an external observer, a typical Japanese is symbolised by a university graduate man working for a big company for a lifetime. However, Japanese sociologist Yoshio Sugimoto highlights that this is only simplification as there are more Japanese women than men, and only 15% of the adult population has a university degree.[4] The composition of the Japanese society clearly shows that a spectacular representative of the Japanese work culture is an employee loyal to large companies, who comprise a considerable part of economic life and thus largely influence the Japanese mass media and modern cultural life.[5] This life career, however, does not always show similarities with the varied lifestyle of the vast majority, including Japanese women employed part-time, with a temporary contract. Japanese decision-makers have to face this contradiction, too, when forming a policy inciting women’s employment.

Abenomics and Womenomics

The reform proposals known as Womenomics can be interpreted within the frames of the Abenomics economic plan introduced by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzho. Abenomics was announced by Prime Minister Abe after his election in 2012 with the promise of relaunching the Japanese economy.[6] The first step of the program package based upon the “three arrows”, i.e. three main guidelines was the fiscal stimulus in early 2013, the second step was the expansive monetary policy that has been working since 2013, and the third step was a structural reform package that has been promised for the enhancement of Japanese productivity.[7]

In his speech delivered before the UN General Assembly in 2013, the Prime Minister expressed his intentions of consolidating the economy before the international audience, too, and he also presented the theory of “Womenomics”.[8] Abe Shinzho pointed out that the endeavours focusing on women’s economic activity play an important role among the economy recovery measures. This has made him realise that Japanese women mean unexploited resources to the economy, and in the mirror of the above-detailed demographic issues the country cannot allow itself that some of the potential employees are left out of the market.

Womenomics can be the first of the three steps of Abenomics 2.0[9], which holds together the measures increasing productivity. The program “with the slogan Boost Productivity” aims to transform the Japanese labour market. It intends to transform the work culture in order to enhance productivity as compared to the changed demographic conditions. Other essential issues include the maximisation of overtime by the law, the punishing of offences and retraining, which are particularly important for mothers returning to the labour market.[10]

The economy recovery package includes the expansion of kindergartens and day-nurseries (for 500 thousand more persons by the end of the 2017 fiscal year) as well as the development of flexible work environment and objective performance assessment. The long-term purpose is “equal pay for equal work”, and thus the promotion of diversity both in the private and public sectors. Having become in effect in 2014, the act raised the childcare benefit from 50% to 67% during the first six months of the maternity leave in order to settle the balance between having children and a career.[11]

The Japanese analysists of the Goldman Sachs have conducted several impact studies on the utilisation facilities of Womenomics. The analysis carried out in 2010 deemed the utilisation of female work force as a national priority, despite the 60% employment, which was considered a record that time.[12] According to the analysis, the involvement rate of female work force should be increased since if women reached the 80% employment of men, the additional 8.2 million employees could increase the level of GDP by up to 15%. Japanese analysts also specified the ways each sector could benefit from the changes in the composition of the labour force. Numerous sectors such as social care, catering, free time companies, financial corporations as well as the distributors of clothing and beauty industrial products could gain a profit from the higher employment of women.[13]

A survey conducted on the aspects of women in 2008 suggests that the majority, i.e. 65.4 % of the women asked cannot reconcile parenting with work in time. Other significant reasons include the lack of in-work support, excessive physical overload and the low rate of the maternity leave.[14]

However, the report published by Goldman Sachs in 2014 suggests that despite the optimism of the suggestions and the program package launched, there are several things that are still lacking. One of the largest issues is the insufficiency of infants’ nurseries and kindergartens, which was classified as the competence of the governance.  Besides, numerous beliefs appear in the Japanese society, hindering an extensive change.[15]

According to the present state, the Japanese government supposes that Abenomics functions successfully since improvement can be observed in numerous fields including the nominal GDP, the number of employees, corporate profits and unemployment rate.[16] After the decline in 2016, the GDP growth rate has been estimated higher again by 2017, and after the 1.1% of the previous year the growth of 2.5% seems to be promising. Our study does not discuss how this growth is the result of Abenomics; we only cover the part of the economy program focusing women’s employment and its economic impact.


The evaluation of the Womenomics requires the description of the Japanese women’s social activity in the world of work. In the first period of Japanese modernisation, the economic reforms of the Meiji Restauration beginning in 1868 placed an emphasis on female work force.[17] For a country poor in capital it was difficult to realise the economic structural change; therefore, the Japanese government started to manage the capital accumulation based upon the available resources.

One of its sources was silk production, and the silk manufactures mainly recruited  young women for the sophisticated wok. In the state-governed industrialisation the textile industry was one of the fields of launching high technologies, and women accounted for 85% of the labour force in silk production and 70% in cotton spinning and weaving.[18] Rural and typically poor young women were sought into the silk manufactures with the promise of work and learning, and the possibility of emergence. Young women were employed for lower wages than men, and despite the learning and developmental opportunities promised, they were allowed less freedom of movement. During the modernisation of society, Japanese families played an important role in the service of national interests, which meant the participation in the production in the case of young women. Often their father or brother signed the contract instead of them, and also, it was them that collected them at the factories in case of strikes.[19] Nevertheless, this period already clearly showed the changing situation of modern women, too, since a large number of notes show that women involved in silk production used to choose other textile factories or other individual occupations instead of marriage.

The Japanese silk export particularly flourished during World War I since silk was the most suitable material for the production of parachutes used that time. The Japanese economy accumulated a considerable amount of capital through the silk export; therefore, female work meant a considerable added value during the evolvement of modern capitalism.

The rehabilitation of the country was also largely due to women. After the destruction of World War II the occupied Japan primarily aimed to revive the economy, mainly through enhanced industrialisation. The industrialised society was characterised by families in transition, and the emergence of nuclear families changed the men and women’s roles. In the modern Japanese family, a man is the breadwinner and a woman is primarily responsible for managing the household and bringing up the children; besides, women are allowed to do other work, mainly temporarily and part-time.[20] The less qualified and thus cheaper female work force was economical for employers for decreasing the production costs, and it considerably contributed to the economic growth of the Japanese Miracle. In the 1970s the employment status quo was questioned as women, who got married at an older age and had fewer children, intended to step out of the role of being a full-time mother and wife.[21]

This phenomenon interrupted the women’s typical participation at the labour market during the first century of the modern Japan, which meant little compensation for a large amount of unqualified work. This period coincides with a higher degree of modernisation, which has basically changed the traditional forms of the society, and today young Japanese women tend to get married less and less. This decision can be made for the sake of the career, too, since it is hard to break from the role of a full-time mother after bringing up the children, which is enhanced by both the insufficient childcare facilities and the Japanese tax system. Japanese men can only be entitled to a tax allowance upon their dependent relatives if their wives’ salary stays below a certain amount, i.e. 1.03 million yens.[22] Hence, most Japanese women do with part-time work that offers less challenge and facilitates no professional improvement or productivity.

In the Japanese public opinion the opponents of the expanding female roles are still loud. Conservative Japanese politicians, mostly members of the governing party, consider women’s employment harmful to the economy in demographic terms and worry about the traditional value system.[23] The strength of these voices and the necessity of a change is also shown by the fact that Japan fell back to the 111th place between 2015 and 2016 in the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, so the work of Womenomics can by no means be deemed as completed.


The modern social imprint of a culture that traditionally distinguishes public life and private life can be observed in political life, too. There are few women among the political leaders of the country, and their career often fails; therefore, Defence Minister Tomomi Inada was compelled to resign for retaining information about the position of Japanese peacekeeping forces serving in South Sudan.[24]

Recent years have made a change in this field, too; some women politicians, including the Governor of Tokyo Koike Yuriko, have become most popular. Taking into consideration that the current Prime Minister also fulfilled this post earlier, the female governor is also a strong candidate for the prime ministerial post.[25] The popular politician defeated the candidate of the governing Liberal Democratic Party during the elections held last year, and recently she has said that she feels the policy of the city more efficient and she can transfer more processes than she could as a Member of Parliament before.[26] According to the female governor, the Abe Government does not understand the essence of Womenomics, so they are unable to evoke a change despite all their efforts.

The politician strengthens the view that Japanese policy is petrified, so it is rather difficult to evoke a real change through it due to the long time it takes for a case to pass the system. Koike can be a symbol of the social change that means more efficient decision-making and a more active participation for women instead of the traditional Japanese political system.

The traditional negative conditioning of political life is strengthened by the repugnance to the former political manifestations of the current Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda, too. The politician struggled with fertility problems for many years, which made him represent the issues of starting a family in the Japanese parliament more seriously. However, he ran into opposition since, according to the majority of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, women opted for a career instead of having children, and therefore the number of births fell drastically. At the same time, Noda highlighted that the problem should be found somewhere else when she gave birth to her child at the age of fifty with in vitro artificial insemination.[27] The Japanese law does not regulate egg cell donation, and it says that surrogacy is also illegal. The case that occurred not long before the launch of Womenomics in 2011 shows that the Japanese political leadership should dig deeper in the management of demographic problems. The more and more opportunities of handling infertility exceeds the program of the government; however, in the future it might become a priority in the improvement of the social position of Japanese women.


The results of Abenomics aiming at women’s work can be studied based upon the data of the Japanese Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office[28] and the official results of Abenomics. As for the changes between the data of the period before the beginning of Womenomics and the data of 2017, we only study those that the above-described measures clearly refer to, since no other effects exerted on the Japanese labour market can be excluded either.

Prime Minister Abe set ambitious goals to increase participation diversely: he forecasts a 30% rate of female senior managers by 2020. In 2013 he modified the quote to 7% in the public sphere and 15% in the private sphere, with a deadline of 2021.[29] In his speech in Davos in 2014, he scheduled the rate of women returning after childbirth at 55% from the 38% in 2010, and the employment of women aged 22-44 at 73% from 68% in 2012.[30] The deadline for these aims was 2020; however, all this can be amended by the by-elections, too, and the partial results can be observed earlier.

During the Abe Government the economy recovery measures already brought results; in a period of four and a half years the employment of the active population of women  increased by 1 percentage point annually, which is considerable as compared with the growth of the previous decade rating to less than 0.5 percentage point.[31] Surprisingly enough, the participation of women aged 55-64 has increased the most significantly at the labour market, from 55% to 63.6% by May 2017.[32] This is mainly due to the fact that the rate of employment is lower among elder women, so the increasing demand could accept a considerable amount of labour force from this group. This influence was also supplemented with the measures of Womenomics aiming at the support of female work force, and as a result of the extremely low productivity rate this tendency can become even stronger in the future, and the ageing women can become a considerable impetus of the economy.

Another result of Abenomics can be that since the beginning of the program in 2012 the proportion of female employees has increased by 2 million by 2017, which accounts for two-thirds of the total increase of 3 million (see Figure 1).[33] However, the increase in the share of female work force is not exclusively due to the governmental measures, but it is also the consequence of social processes independent of them, with several examples: the excessive employment of elder women and the general shortage of labour force and the necessity caused by the long-lasting economic recession.

Figure 1: The number of employees in Japan, 2012-2017.

Source: http://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/

In the following we study the data published by the Gender Equality Bureau, comparing the data measured in 2010 and 2017. The results will be compared in the fields of public service, labour market and education.

As for Members of Parliament, the rate of women decreased in the Lower House (2010: 11.3% – 2017: 9.3%) and increased in the Upper House (2010: 17.4% – 2017: 20.7%).[34] The Japanese Government has several female politicians (including the above-mentioned members); however, we should remember that getting into the Upper House is strongly influenced by the nearly hereditary representative positions, so female politicians do not necessarily get into the Parliament according to their merits. A more considerable change can be observed in the justice system: the proportion of women increased from 16 % to 20.7 % among judges and from 12.9 % to 22.9 % among prosecuting attorneys.[35]

As for the manager-level managers of private companies, the rate of women totalled 9.8% both in 2010 and 2017, but the rate of middle managers rose from 3.6% to 6.2%.[36] The change starting from the lower levels might also affect the composition of the senior management in the longer term; however, in the following three years a change of unprecedented pace would be needed to achieve to target of 30% by 2020.

At present the M curve of female employment shows a sharp decline for the population in their thirties: on the average, 72% of women works during this period,[37] while the inclination to participate would be much higher (see Figure 2). Concerning the period of having children, the children’s day-care is still an issue despite the increasing employment (in 2008 the participation rate of the population in their thirties was 64-65 %[38]). As a response, the Abe Government introduced a measure extending the crèche and kindergarten care, whose results can be evaluated only in the following year owing to the 2017 deadline.[39]

Figure 2: The participation of Japanese female work force broken down by the age group

Source: http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men17/pdf/1-3.pdf

More and more women enter higher education, although the participation rate of women stays below the rate of men at each training level. However, 15% of men attend postgraduate education, similarly to the year 2010, while women continue their university studies after their graduate course in a decreasing number: only 5.9% instead of the earlier 7.3%.[40] More than 60% of elementary school teachers are women (both in 2010 and 2017), and in college training 50% of teachers were women, while by 2017 this proportion has increased to over 50%. As for university instructors, a survey conducted in 2008 shows that the proportion of women professors has increased from 18.9% to 23.7% by 2017.[41]

In most cases the indexes under study show a moderate increase, and the pace will probably be insufficient to reach the figures scheduled by 2020. However, instead of the actual figures a change of attitude is required at the levels of the public sphere, the private sphere and the broader society. This is because the factors hindering the realisation hide not in the instruments but in the decision-makers and managers” negative conditioning that have survived for cultural and other reasons.

According to the critics of the program, the considerable labour-market participation of women would impose a huge burden on the Japanese society. A firm supporting program for the promotion of women employees had only one single applicant in the first year,[42] which shows the conditioning of the Japanese society. According to certain public opinions in the country, the increased employment of women would decrease the currently low productivity rate.[43] This, however, can be contravened easily, since in most countries the well-balanced gender roles increases the rate of productivity, as it can be observed in the Scandinavian countries, for example: the state support promoting the starting of a family helps the parents share the parenting tasks in a similar proportion and provides flexible work for women.[44] Based upon this, it would be useful for Japan also in demographic terms to promote women employees; however, social prejudices should be surpassed for this and the state should assume a more active role, which can be realised within the frames of Womenomics.


Based upon the history of Japanese employment, it can be established that women work comprised an important part of production during the modernisation. Besides the changing social roles, however, the traditional expectations, which primarily reduced female roles to family life, have remained. The attitude fixed in the society is the main reason why female work force remains unexploited for the Japanese economy; therefore, Womenomics appropriated by Abe Shinzo was topical.

As a result of the measures, favourable processes began, which were also supported by other changes in the society and the economy. However, the objectives set by 2020 seem to be hard to achieve; therefore, the Japanese leadership should primarily endeavour to form their attitude, starting in the field of public life. Governor of Tokyo Koike can be one of the precursors of this change in mentality, and if her political career continues successfully, considerable changes may take place in the field of decision-making, too. A supportive family policy can mean a solution to the obstacles that are hard to remove, but the tax system should also be amended in the future.

In the 21st century, which presents new challenges for Japan, active Japanese women play an inevitably important role. Young career-starters, employees over 50 or pensioners with an increasing life expectancy will be needed in the Japanese society for a change in mentality and the recasting of roles.



[1] FENSOM, Anthony: Aging Asia: Turning Demographic Weakness to Strength In: The Diplomat, 07.08.2017. http://thediplomat.com/2017/08/aging-asia-turning-demographic-weakness-to-strength/

[2] FENSOM, 2017.

[3] Chart of the Week: The Cost of Asia’s Aging. In: IMF Blog, 01.05.2017. https://blogs.imf.org/2017/05/01/chart-of-the-week-the-cost-of-asias-aging/

[4] SUGIMOTO, Yoshio (2010): An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge University Press. p.2.

[5] SUGIMOTO, 2010. p. 3.

[6] About Abenomics. The Government of Japan. http://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/

[7] CHANLETT-AVERY, Emma – NELSON, Rebecca M:„Womenomics” in Japan: In Brief. August 1, 2014. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43668.pdf

[8] Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at The Sixty-Eighth Session of The General Assembly of The United Nations. Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet. 26.09.2013 http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201309/26generaldebate_e.html

[9] The three elements are: increasing productivity, promoting innovation and trade, and energising corporate activities. In: About Abenomics. The Government of Japan.

[10] Boost Productivity. In: Abenomics, The Government of Japan. http://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/productivity/index.html

[11] Boost Productivity. In: Abenomics, The Government of Japan.

[12] Goldman Sachs (2010): „Womenomics 3.0: The Time is Now.” Japan Portfolio Strategy. 01.10.2010

[13] Goldman Sachs (2010): Womenomics 3.0, p. 31.

[14] Goldman Sachs (2010): Womenomics 3.0, p. 20.

[15] Goldman Sachs (2014): „Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk.” Japan Portfolio Strategy. 30.05.2014

[16] Abenomics. The Government of Japan. http://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/

[17] After centuries of shogunate, the Meiji Restauration was a return to the emperor’s de facto reign and became the period of Japan’s modernization and industrialization to the Western model.

[18] FAISON, Elyssa (2007): Managing women: discipling labor in modern Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. p. 8.

[19] FAISON, 2007, p. 9.

[20] MEGURO, Yoriko: “Population, Fertility and Development from a Gender Perspective: Building Strategies for Empowerment of Women” http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/meguro.htm

[21] MEGURO, Yoriko: “Population, Fertility and Development from a Gender Perspective: Building Strategies for Empowerment of Women” http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/meguro.htm

[22] Goldman Sachs (2010): Womenomics 3.0, p. 16.

[23] Japanese women and work: Holding back half the nation. In: The Economist, 28.03.2014. https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21599763-womens-lowly-status-japanese-workplace-has-barely-improved-decades-and-country

[24] HURST, Daniel: Japanese defence minister to resign over South Sudan cover-up claims. In The Guardian, 2017.07.27. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/27/tomomi-inada-japanese-defence-minister-resign-south-sudan

[25] SIEG, Linda – MIYAZAKI, Ami: Politics is faster, more effective in Tokyo, Koike says. In: Japan Today, 09.08.2017. https://japantoday.com/category/politics/Politics-is-faster-more-effective-in-Tokyo-Koike-says

[26] SIEG – MIYAZAKI, 2017.

[27] FUJITA, Akiko: Japanese Politician Sparks Maternity Debate After Giving Birth at 50. In: ABC News, 07.01.2011

[28] Women and Men in Japan (Pamphlet). Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office. http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men.html

[29] LEWIS, 2017.

[30] Goldman Sachs (2014): Womenomics 4.0. p.7.

[31] KOPF, Dan: Older women are saving Japan’s economy. In: Quartz Media, 24.07.2017

[32] Activity Rate: Aged 55-64: Females for Japan. In: FRED Economic Data, FED St. Louis. 20.07.2017 https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LRAC55FEJPM156S

[33] Abenomics. The Government of Japan. http://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/

[34] Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2010 http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men10/pdf/1-2.pdf Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2017. http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men17/pdf/1-2.pdf

[35] Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2010. Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2017.

[36] Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2010. Policy and Decision Making, Women and Men in Japan 2017.

[37] Work, Women and Men in Japan 2017. http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men17/pdf/1-3.pdf

[38] Work, Women and Men in Japan 2010. http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men10/pdf/1-3.pdf

[39] Boost Productivity. In: Abenomics, The Government of Japan.

[40] Education, Women and Men in Japan 2010. http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men10/pdf/1-5.pdf  Education and Research Fields, Women and Men in Japan 2017.  http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men17/pdf/1-8.pdf

[41] Education, Women and Men in Japan 2010. Education and Research Fields, Women and Men in Japan 2017.

[42] LEWIS, Leo: Japan’s womenomics resists the sceptics. In: The Financial Times, 8 March 2017

[43] Goldman Sachs: Womenomincs 3.0

[44] Nordic Gender Equality in Figures 2015. Nordic Council of Ministers. p. 6.

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