Sheryl Sandberg and Shinzo Abe: Thumbs up.

Give Japan's Abe a Break on Women

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Why are Western pundits, inside Japan and out, so down on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? I have three theories. First, Abe is a nationalist -- sort of a Japanese Ronald Reagan -- and nationalism scares a lot of people: What if Abe starts a war with China! And when it comes to Japan, most people still associate nationalism with World War II. Second, Abe's "Abenomics" agenda includes a large dose of quantitative easing, which for some reason makes people very uncomfortable. Third, Japan's political system is so dysfunctional -- there is no real opposition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party -- that Western journalists may take it upon themselves to provide some kind of balancing or cautionary role.

Whatever the reason, Abe pessimism is the word of the day. For example, two female ministers, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, recently resigned. The reasons were incredibly typical of Japanese politics -- funding irregularities and a rules violation. This is the kind of stuff that every Japanese politician does, and when one is "caught" and resigns over it, you can bet that the real reason is a behind-the-scenes power struggle or a bit of bad luck.

Yet despite the ordinariness of the resignations, many newspapers are reporting that Abe's so-caller womenomics agenda has suffered a severe setback. But how does this make sense? What matters for Japan isn't the number of women in the cabinet (and in any case, Matsushima's replacement will also be a woman). What matters is whether Japanese women get good jobs en masse.

Japanese women are getting jobs. Observe the employment rate for prime-age Japanese women:

The rate has been rising for a long time, but you can see an acceleration around the time Abe took office in late 2012. At this point, more prime-age women are working in Japan than in the U.S.

Of course, most of these jobs are not good jobs. Japanese companies are still hiring women mostly for low-wage, low-benefit, temporary jobs, while the high-paying secure management-track jobs go mostly to men. But the fact that most Japanese women are now working is huge and shouldn't be ignored. It means that the traditional division of labor -- breadwinner man and stay-at-home woman -- is dead. That is a necessary step. Now that Japanese women work, it is only a matter of time before they start to demand better working conditions, more equality and better pay. Tellingly, complaints about workplace harassment of working mothers have risen.

Meanwhile, Abe's administration continues to push ahead with real, substantive reforms to improve women's status in the workplace. His cabinet just submitted a bill requiring all companies with more than 300 employees to declare numerical targets for women in management positions and/or the number of women hired. Abe is also pushing a proposal to revamp the tax code to eliminate an implicit penalty for two-income households. And Abe's ambitious plan for government-funded day care -- something the U.S. conspicuously lacks -- remains on the agenda.

But despite these initiatives, Abe can't seem to catch a break with the English-language press. My friend and Bloomberg View colleague William Pesek, after calling on Abe to appoint more women to his cabinet, doesn't give Abe credit for fulfilling his request, instead scoffing at the "tokenism" of the move. Meanwhile, it seems like every small obstacle that crops up gets its own headline.

I don't think this is the best way to help Abe win the battle for womenomics. We are no longer living in the 1990s -- it is no longer the case that Japan's ruling class is complacent and out-of-touch, content to coast on business as usual, with only the Western press to sound the alarm. At this point, the Japanese leadership knows exactly what needs to be done, and the main barrier is the influence of vested interests -- in the case of womenomics, that means entrenched corporate managers who don't want to see their cozy boys'-club culture change. What the Western press should now be doing, in my opinion, is not condemning Abe's efforts to help working women, but cheering them on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net