This guest article prepared by Koike Yuriko in February 2023 is part of the Asia program’s Women’s Voices From the Indo-Pacific Project. John E. Merow Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith features influential women in Japan’s political, economic, and social fields.
If we consider how to advance the status of women in Japan, we must consider it from two vantage points. First, gender equality is necessary for the well-being of individual Japanese people. Second, it is necessary to have diverse perspectives in order for Japanese society to innovate. People are our source of growth. Women make up half of our population, and I believe the active involvement of women across Japanese society will drive the creation of a new society, one that is rich in diversity.
Ever since I became a Diet member in 1992, I worked to increase the number of female legislators in Japan’s parliament. I also tackled issues related to gender equality. I established a special committee to promote the advancement of women and recommended policies, such as reducing public funding for political parties with a low ratio of female representation and creating incentives for Japanese companies to have a high percentage of women in managerial positions.
Unfortunately, as the gender gap index released by the World Economic Forum makes clear, Japan ranks last among the G7 nations. Perceptions that women are neither decision-makers nor leaders run deep in Japan, and this results in an underutilization of women’s abilities. This is indeed mottainai, or an unfortunate waste.
International competition in securing talented individuals is intensifying. At the same time, investors now examine a company’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices more carefully, including whether women are playing a more active role in leadership. Japan’s high gender inequality thus runs the risk of draining human talent as well as reducing the inflow of capital. It hinders Japan’s national interests, and if we do not change now, we could be left behind.
Japan, like other G7 nations, must enhance its presence on the world stage as a responsible member of the global community. The status of women has been particularly threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a universal concern. Meanwhile, challenges unique to Japanese society remain, such as unconscious bias and entrenched beliefs about the sexual division of labor in the workplace, in households, and in child-rearing. We must break with the status quo and find solutions to these challenges, and thus it is essential for Japan to empower women, utilize their full potential, and incorporate their views on how to change. Japanese society can also be diversified by recognizing other voices that have been marginalized. Japan must build a society that is bright and filled with hopes and dreams for everyone, including women, people with disabilities, sexual minorities, and non-Japanese.
Leading the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG)
Since being elected as governor in 2016, I have been proactive in implementing measures for women’s empowerment. First of all, I pushed forward organizational reforms that would make Tokyo a model for other bodies, including local governments and private companies. When I took office, the proportion of women on the councils of experts that deliberate important policies of the TMG was in the 20 percent range. However, I felt strongly that the opinions of women are vital to changing our society, so we implemented a quota system whereby either men or women must account for at least 40 percent of our members. Women now represent 40 percent of those who sit on our advisory councils.
Advancement by women can also be seen in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, our legislative body. One in three representatives are women, the highest share of women in any prefectural assembly in Japan.
To accelerate a change in Japanese attitudes towards women in leadership, I feel it is important that Tokyo as well as Japan as a whole supports a more active role for women. Tokyo regularly hosts the Vision Network of Women Governors and Mayors, a gathering of local government leaders together with entrepreneurs on the frontlines of business. Since 2021, we have included female ambassadors who currently serve in Japan. Participants share their knowledge on women’s empowerment, and exchange views and information related to women’s advancement in society.
The United States, a richly diverse society, is often cited as having one of the world’s best environments for women to start businesses. I want to make Tokyo a city where women looking to become entrepreneurs can more easily realize their dreams. The Acceleration Program in Tokyo for Women (APT Women) offers short-term, intensive development programs for female entrepreneurs. It also provides a framework for participants of the program to serve as role models and mentors, thereby helping to foster networks of female entrepreneurs. Since its launch in 2017, 200 women have participated in the program, going on to make great advances. For example, one of the participants has established businesses worth 10 billion yen ($75.9 million) in aggregate market value. Starting a business is just the first step, not the end goal. Each year, Tokyo hosts the Network to Empower Entrepreneurial Women (NEW) Conference which encourages female entrepreneurs to learn from each other and form supportive networks.
We will continue to nurture and expand the number of female entrepreneurs, helping them to develop further and serve as role models for Japan’s next generation of women. I believe such a virtuous cycle will further promote the advancement of women in society and will change the future of Tokyo for the better.
In promoting women’s full participation in society, it is also important for men to take on a more active role in childcare. In Japan, there is a childcare leave system that allows workers to take time off to care for children less than one year of age. More than 80 percent of female employees take childcare leave, but the percentage of men is far lower. Soon after I assumed the governorship, I took the lead in changing the mindset of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on childcare leave and on work-life balance more broadly. As a result, over the last six years, the ratio of male TMG employees taking childcare leave has increased 6.5 times to 42.5 percent. I have also provided incentives for similar efforts in the private sector in Tokyo to make it easier for their employees to take childcare leave. When I took office, the percentage of male employees in Japanese companies located in Tokyo taking childcare leave was just 7.4 percent. Today, it has grown three-fold to 23.8 percent.
I also pushed to change the common perception that childcare leave was taking time off. Instead, I encouraged people to consider it instead as a period to raise children, the treasures of our society. Removing this stigma would make it easier for everyone to take childcare leave. We solicited ideas from the public for a catchy phrase that would express childcare in a way that imparts greater value to society as opposed to simply seeing it as a holiday. We then joined with companies, the national government, and other influencers to change the way people think about taking leave to care for their children.
I have also tackled unconscious gender bias. We called on the residents of Tokyo to share examples of their experiences with unconscious bias based on gender, and we received more than 1,300 responses. We have selected a hundred stories that would lead to greater awareness for everyone and released them on the TMG website. In facing unconscious gender bias, it is important to make the unconscious conscious. This should be the starting point in stimulating understanding and changing behavior. This is the path to enhancing the status of women.
“The First Woman to…”
Since I entered politics, the phrase “the first woman” has been a constant refrain. For example, in 2007, I was appointed Japan’s Minster of Defense, the first woman to occupy that Cabinet position. In 2010, I became the first woman to chair the General Council of the Liberal Democratic Party, a top executive position in Japan’s largest political party.
Perhaps because the idea that men should be in charge of national defense was so deeply rooted in Japan, as Minister of Defense I was often subjected to criticism that “Women don’t understand the samurai spirit,” or “Women don’t understand the ways of the world.” I paid absolutely no heed to such comments. No matter what position I attained, I never let myself succumb to feelings of insecurity or to the idea that a woman could not do this job. Instead, I rose to embrace the challenges.
Now as Tokyo’s first female governor, I am putting forward new initiatives to support the empowerment of women and to support childrearing. We have included provisions in the fiscal 2023 budget to provide families with 5,000 yen a month ($40) for each child up to the age of eighteen, and we are making nursery care free of charge for a second child. We are also increasing infertility treatment assistance for people who want children and taking steps to expand existing subsidies for women to freeze their eggs. I am proactively pursuing measures to promote the advancement of women who have children, as well as those who want them.
Fundamentally, gender is irrelevant to many jobs. This also holds true for politicians. To change the world, we need to shatter the glass ceiling that prevents women from playing more actives roles in the workplace and in Japanese society. When stepping into any role as the first woman, it is necessary to be a model for society and serve as a guide for other women. I have always approached such roles with the attitude, ‘If I don’t do this, then who else will?’
Throughout the ages, individuals pioneer the way to the future. My aim is to realize a society in Japan in which women’s empowerment and other terms that point to gender differences can fade away, where all people can play an active role in the truest sense and find their own way to thrive.