- PM Shinzo Abe vowed to make Japan a country where women would shine
- But new gender gap rankings from the World Economic Forum show it has slid to a lowly 121st out of 153 countries
Despite the promises of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make Japan a country in which women would "shine", the nation has slipped 11 places in the global gender rankings in 2019, putting women here behind their counterparts in nations such as Angola, Benin and the United Arab Emirates.
Ironically, given Abe's vow, the gender gap is most visible in the world of Japanese politics.
Japan came in at 121st out of 153 nations on the World Economic Forum's rankings for the year, down from 110th in 2018 and firmly in last place among the world's advanced economies. Of the Group of Seven nations, Japan came well behind Italy, which was in 76th place.
Japan also found itself behind 106-ranked China and South Korea in 108th spot.
The figures released on Tuesday by the Switzerland-based WEF, which has compiled the gender gap rankings annually since 2006, show Japan has mostly eradicated the difference between males and females in the areas of education and health.
The statistics show that the problem lies in economic empowerment and is even more pronounced in Japan's political arena.
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A mere 10 per cent of members of the lower house of the Japanese parliament are female, although the figure of the upper house was 23 per cent. Globally, the average ratio of women in national assemblies was 25 per cent.
Similarly, the report points out, the present 19-strong cabinet has only three women members, while the average for the rest of the world stands at 21 per cent. Japan has never had a woman prime minister.
Similarly, just 15 per cent of senior positions at corporations in Japan are held by women, although there is at least positive movement in the labour market.
"I consider myself to be really fortunate to work for a company that is committed to equality in the workplace because if management was not ensuring that I was treated the same as my male colleagues, I don't think I could stay here," said Ayumi Kimura, 41, who works in sales for a Tokyo-based publishing company.
"There have been changes in Japan in the last few years in terms of employment opportunities and things like time off to raise children and so on," she said. "I also think that more women are now willing to speak up about things like a shortage of kindergarten places and financial support for families with children.
"That's important as it is the only way that improvements will happen," she said. "But I don't see things changing in Japan's political world."
That opinion is shared by Mieko Nakabayashi, a former member of the Diet for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and now a professor of social sciences at Tokyo's Waseda University.
"The figures are based on certain criteria and Japan does extremely well on health care and education, but we really fall down on political representation," she said.
"Part of the problem is that other countries have increased the number of women in their political systems, but Japan has just stayed the same and that has hurt our overall ranking," she said.
The root of the problem lies in Japanese political parties still being beholden to the "old boys" who make decisions on which candidates get assigned which constituencies to fight in general elections. As a result, the leadership of parties are able to choose candidates who are loyal to their way of thinking and similar to them
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Nakabayashi also dismissed promises by Abe to make women "shine".
"That promise was made in response to Japan's falling birth rate and shrinking work force," she said. "It was less to do with giving more women opportunities to rise within companies but more about getting them back to work instead of opening the doors to more foreign workers due to fears that outsiders would change social norms.
"It was purely an economic calculation designed to satisfy conservatives opposed to more immigration."
Nakabayashi is pessimistic that women will be permitted more of a political voice in the near future.
"Women can and should be more involved in the political process in Japan and they should definitely participate more and that would bring change to society here, but my feeling is that they are already too busy trying to raise families, trying to make ends meet, trying to have a career," she said. "It may happen, but it will take time."
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