With a dwindling population base caused by low birthrates and late marriages, an aging population that has spurred rising welfare costs, and a workforce predominantly made up by men that has shrunk, Japan is facing a dire economic crisis. According to a 2010 Goldman Sachs report, Japan is facing a “demographic tsunami” so acute that it “may be the only OECD nation where the number of pets (25 mn) exceeds the number of children (18 mn under the age of 15).” The result is increased healthcare burdens that can worsen the country’s huge fiscal debt and inability to get out of deflation.
General elections are scheduled next month and political candidates try to woe voters with platforms that aim to address these economic concerns. But for those who have been observing the demographic trends in Japan for some time, the solution to its woes lies in something quite simple: get women back into the workforce.
Compared to the United States where 43 percent of managers are women, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report released last month showed that female managers in Japan and Korea are only pegged 9 percent. Furthermore, the Goldman Sachs 2010 study also found that after having their first child, a staggering 70 percent of Japanese women leave the workforce. Among those who have obtained college education, only 65 percent are active in the labor force.
One of the primary reasons why so few Japanese women are encouraged to remain in the workforce is “a toxic combination of deeply rooted social mores and how they’re manifested in Japan’s corporate culture,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes in a 2011 HBR report. A woman’s primary role as a ryosaikenbo or “good wife, wise mother” carries with it the assumption that she will happily settle into this domestic role when she marries. Even when she does return to the workforce, however, fulfilling her motherly and wifely roles are often challenging because of the country’s rigid corporate culture where working from morning to midnight is the norm.
As Japan struggles to find answers to its economic woes, Kaori Sasaki, president and CEO of consulting firm ewoman, says in an Agence France-Presse news article that closing the gender gap is not merely a rights issue but a “management and growth strategy.” A more diverse senior management, she says, is crucial especially when companies “try to manage crisis, create products or design services.”
The Goldman Sachs report estimates that actively employing women would expand Japan’s workforce by 8.2 million and increase its GDP by as much as 15 percent. The IMF 2012 report agrees: Increasing Japan’s female labor participation rate to 70 percent in the coming 20 years will increase its GDP.
A June 2012 Japan Times editorial cited a government survey which showed that an “astounding 86 percent of women want to continue working after having children.” But to maximize the use of its most underutilized talent, corporations and governments will have to be more women-friendly, especially in accommodating the needs of working women with children. The editorial concludes: “Japan must change its workplace to allow greater flexibility if it is going to better include half of the population in the important goal of rebuilding the economy and moving toward the future.”