Japan’s Womenomics: a Demographic Perspective

Z Geography is out of town this weekend.

A 17 January (2014) USA Today article discusses Prime Minister (of Japan) Shinzo Abe’s proposal to expand child care and pressure on corporations to permit (up to) three years of maternity leave in an effort to increase women’s participation in the economy. Additionally, Abe reportedly instructed government ministries to “boost female workers and managers to 30% by 2020.” According to the article, the government believes these efforts will assist in reversing Japan’s “longtime economic slump” (though it is still the third-largest economy, behind the U.S. and People’s Republic of China).

Prime Minister Abe’s proposal will probably be meet with some indirect and subtle resistance, as the article notes. Women make up 42% of Japan’s workforce (compared to 47% in the U.S.) but only 11% of managers (43% in the U.S.). These statistics highlight whether the solution is rooted in women’s economic participation or, more likely, conservative attitudes preventing the employment of women in corporate leadership roles. As one quote illustrates “the business community is dominated by conservative, older-men who don’t’ want to let go of their privileges.” One observation casts doubt on the government’s motives, it has yet to introduce legislation to “strengthen labor or equal-opportunity” laws.

Taken together, Z Geography ventures that the government’s proposals have less to do with stoking an economic recovery through increased participation of women in the economy (which is the stated objective) and more to do with facilitating increased fertility for Japanese women already employed. True, more women will likely enter the economy thanks to increased child care opportunities and longer maternity leave – but these also benefit already employed women as well. Further as Z Geography and others have discussed, Japan faces a shrinking population (Stage 5 in the Demographic Transition Model) and increasing dependency ratio as proportionally fewer workers are economically available and the population of the elderly expands. These proposals, increasing child care and maternity leave, are likely aimed at increasing the fertility of women in Japan’s labor pool.

A country’s fertility rate is understood as the number of children that a woman will (probably) have over her child-bearing years. Thus, increasing the benefits (or subsidizing in this case) of child birth and rearing will spur employed women to have a child (or second or third). In the long term, these policies could increase the size of Japan’s labor pool, though this is uncertain. One uncertainty is how employed women react, for one women (and couples) may choose to have only one child, which is below replacement level fertility (2.1 children per couple with one child each for the parents and a “.1” child to account for those unable, or unwilling, to have children).

Over the short term, Z Geography questions the economic benefits of these proposals. Based on the statistics reported in the article, it seems that the problem lies not in the participation of women in the economy but a gendered “glass ceiling” that prevents their rise.

Finally, the government’s proposals ignore to other “quick” fixes for the economy and demography – immigration. Given that Prime Minister Abe and his party are considered “conservative” (according to the article), this is not unexpected. Despite this the influx of immigrants into Japan would facilitate an expansion of economic output (and the labor pool) while also increasing the birth rate. As one commenter in Z Geography observed (in no uncertain terms) however, national purity is at stake.

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