Japan’s centuries-strong patriarchy had a wake-up call Sunday when one of the globe’s most unequal parliaments saw a record surge in female candidates.
Going into the upper house contests on July 21, nearly 30% of those running were women. Twenty-eight of those 104 women triumphed, giving female politicians a 27% success rate.
While not the game-changing revolution Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised back in 2012, is marks notable progress on one brake holding back Japan’s economy.
It’s one of three potentially impactful dynamics flowing from election results that could reshape Japan in the months and years ahead. The other two are trade talks with Washington and Abe’s dream of rewriting the pacifist Constitution.
Making women shine
“Womenomics” is an issue Abe never misses a chance to tout. For almost seven years, Abe has pledged to “make women shine” in both business and public life.
In reality, neither happened. While female labor participation rose toward 70%, that figure mirrors the female share of “non-regular” jobs. These gigs pay less, offer fewer benefits and enjoy zero job security.
Meantime, only one of the 19 members of Abe’s Cabinet is a woman. Not a single Nikkei 225 Stock Average company is run by a Japanese woman. Japan’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index worsened to an abysmal 110th on Abe’s watch from 98th.
And, before Sunday, Tokyo trailed Gambia, Nauru and Antigua in the number of females in parliament.
The results might improve Japan’s standing a bit, but altering big-picture gender dynamics requires bold government action. It’s been 20 years since Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui began publishing annual “Womenomics” reports. Her key argument: Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15% boost if the female workforce matched men, which is close to 80%.
Abe claims Matsui’s research inspired him to act. In his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, gender equality was barely mentioned. Abe 2.0 aimed to tap what he termed the most “under-utilized resource – Japanese women.” He declared “Abenomics is womenomics.”
Sadly, it was more a talking point than a strategy. In fact, only 15% of the women who ran on Sunday stood with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. That is compared with 45% for the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Officials at the International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, McKinsey and elsewhere agree that empowering the other half would increase innovation and productivity and jump-start Japan’s startup scene.
Abe now has a chance to make good on making women shine. The good news: there are more women in power to demand that he does.
Trade talks, trade pressure
Free trade agreement talks with Donald Trump are about to start. Until now, Abe has slow-walked the US president’s demands that Tokyo submit to bilateral negotiations.
Abe’s team demurred, equivocated and punted as best they could. Most recently, they argued that a deal before Sunday’s contests would reduce Abe’s latitude to lower trade barriers.
Abe is now out of excuses. Trump, meantime, is virtually out of chances to score a win on the world stage. His trade war with China is going awry. Twelve-plus months of tariffs may be breaking Beijing’s export-growth model, but not Xi Jinping’s determination to deprive Trump of a victory.
As the odds of a US-China deal dwindle, Trump is betting pal Abe will fill the void.
That’s a tall order for Abe, who expended considerable political capital joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the two years since Trump reneged on predecessor Barack Obama’s TPP, Abe has stuck with it, and also signed a giant trade deal with the EU.
Things are sure to grow contentious. Trump expects sizable concessions the LDP is loath to make. A face-saving deal to, say, increase US car imports into Japan might be Abe’s best means of placating Trump.
It’s not like the average Japanese is going to buy a Ford or General Motors car when Toyota’s, Honda’s and Nissan’s trump Detroit on quality and fuel efficiency.
Abe will do his best to keep the peace – and to maintain the US security blanket on which Tokyo relies. But Trump is sure to bristle at Team Abe’s stubbornness on maintaining certain trade barriers.
The big ambition
Abe’s long-term political raison d’etre is to scrub the pacifism the US foisted on Japan after World War II from the Constitution. It bars Tokyo from fielding a conventional military, enraging Abe and fellow right-wingers – even more so as Beijing ramps up its military spending.
Abe’s election win will help him become Japan’s longest-serving leader come November. But the results were not a total victory: He failed to secure the “supermajority” needed to revise Article 9 of the Constitution.
But that won’t stop him from trying – a point Abe drove home in his post-election news conference. While the odds are against Abe securing the necessary referendum win to make the change, there are enough security challenges facing Japan to underwrite his stance.
South Korea is Japan’s only natural regional ally, but Seoul and Tokyo are massively at odds. A recent spate of court wins against Japanese companies concerning forced wartime laborers has led Japan to take economic retaliation.
Meanwhile, Seoul is under domestic pressure to stand its ground against any and all things Japanese.
Matters between Tokyo and Beijing are barely any better. Although Abe and President Xi met in Osaka last month, the leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies remain worlds apart.
And Japan might do Trump’s bidding in the region. Trump, for example, is prodding Tokyo to help Washington patrol the Strait of Hormuz. Might the South China Sea be next?
That would put Japanese vessels in dangerously close proximity to China’s. And this comes at a time when security pundits are abuzz about reports that China has a secret deal to station naval vessels in Cambodia.
For seven years now, Abe has pledged to shake up the status quo, not only in Japan, but in the broader Asia region. In the months ahead, neighbors will finally get an idea of how that might look.
This means that, at the very least, events in Tokyo could serve up many a surprise.