Enthusiastic. Brave. A remarkable behind-the-scenes player in the world of male-dominated Japanese politics. That's how admirers describe Mariko Bando, director general of Japan's Gender Equality Bureau. Formal titles aside, Bando is the Japanese government's front-and-center spokeswoman, cheerleader, and champion of its policy of leveling the playing field for women in Japan. Since being tapped to head the new office in 2001, Bando has helped to reshape attitudes toward women and work -- and scored some dramatic successes.
Her first recommendation to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: Set up more government-funded day-care centers to slash a waiting list that had 150,000 children on it. He did it, and within a year the list had fallen to less than 100,000. She has also persuaded centers to stay open later, and to take babies less than 12 months old -- previously considered too young.
As a working mother herself, Bando knows the problems. Until she began reforming the day-care system, child care was typically available for only eight or nine hours a day, but career women must log at least 10 hours at work. That's a key reason most Japanese women quit their jobs after giving birth. Although three-quarters of them return to the workforce as part-timers later in life, Bando says, they then get paid just half, on average, what men do for similar work. Bando wants to keep those mothers on a career track. As Japan's population continues to age, talented women with years of working experience will be sorely needed if Japan is to remain competitive.
Working her way up through the civil service 20 years ago, Bando would bicycle to the office at 7 a.m., dropping her baby off at day care on the way. Then her mother picked up the child in the afternoon, and Bando kept working until 11 p.m. In her spare time, she has managed to write 25 books, mostly on gender and family issues. She wants things to be easier for the next generation. "To attract and keep gifted people, Japan must change," she says.
Bando's next goal, now the subject of intense debate across Japan, is to ensure that government committees -- advisory groups of outside experts on various issues -- be at least 30% female. So far, Bando has managed to get participation by women up to about 25% in government committees at the national level. And some prefectural governors now won't approve committee recommendations unless at least some women are part of the decision-making. It may strike some as tokenism, but it's the first step. "Only a few years ago, we had no women in government at all," Bando says. "Now it is beginning to change, and it will change drastically." With Bando in charge, there's little doubt about that.