Womenomics: Happiness for All?

By Yuko Nakano

Woman on her way to work, Akishima-shi, Tokyo. Source: Morpheus's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Woman on her way to work, Akishima-shi, Tokyo. Source: Morpheus’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Since Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced an economic revitalization policy earlier this year, his government has persistently emphasized the role of women in the economy. He wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on September 25, titled, Unleashing the Power of ‘Womenomics,’ followed by an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations  where he laid out his vision to create “a society where women shine” both within Japan and beyond. “Enhancing opportunities for women to work” is no longer a choice, he said, but “a matter of the greatest urgency.”

To that end, Mr. Abe’s government has announced a blueprint for a society in which women are able to better manage work-life balance and foster a corporate culture that supports an advancement of female leadership. Such plans include making childcare more accessible, expanding the length of maternity leave from one to three years, and encouraging private sector firms to appoint at least one female member to their boards.

From the numbers, it is a no-brainer that robust female participation in the workforce will boost the Japanese economy. One must also examine what Japanese women and men want.  If the pursuit of economic growth comes into conflict with other factors that people perceive as a source of happiness, what do Japanese people do?

Promoting equal opportunity and eliminating cultural biases are the areas that need more improvement in Japanese society. In order to achieve policies that maximize happiness, it is increasingly important to study public opinion and foster a public dialogue on these issues.

Ideal Balance

According to an opinion survey conducted by the Meiji Yasuda Institute for Life and Wellness, a research arm of the Japanese insurance company, more men consider full-time employment for women ideal than women themselves do.  More than 65 percent of women surveyed in the study said they would like to work full-time until their first child is born. The desire for full-time employment drops to 7.8 percent when children reach pre-kindergarten age, and the demand for shorter hours increases as children enter kindergarten and elementary school.

Men’s perceptions of ideal work-life balance for women are more telling. While 50.4 percent of male respondents to the Yasuda Institute survey consider it preferable for women to stay home when their children are under the age of four, 19.3 percent said women should keep their full-time jobs, more than double the number of women who wish to work full-time at that stage. The difference in opinion between genders becomes more apparent when they are asked about children’s elementary school years. More than half of the women said shorter working hours are preferable (55.9 percent) and only 28.8 percent would choose to work full-time.  On the other hand, 42.4 percent of men favored women to work full-time.

One possible reason why more men think women should work full-time than women are actually willing to may stem from the burden of providing for the family. When men are asked, in multiple choices, about factors that are necessary for their happiness, money (78.1 percent) tops good partner (70.3 percent) and good health (58.4 percent). Money also comes in first among women at 88.5 percent, followed by good health (79.8 percent) and good partner (79.1 percent). In Japan men have traditionally been considered the sole bread winner. The aforementioned survey indicates that both men and women prioritize money, thus putting a heavy pressure on men’s shoulders to focus on earnings, which in turn leads men to encourage their spouses to work full-time.

Shift in Men’s View on Work-Life Balance

As the government encourages female labor participation, some polling data suggests men could be leaning towards a more favorable work-life balance of their own. According to the Meiji Yasuda Institute polls, 52.7 percent of men in Japan said they would like to put their private life before their work while 17.5 percent regarded work as their first priority. Fifteen years ago, more than 60 percent of men considered it ideal for men to put work as priority and merely seven percent said family life should take precedence.

Another survey by the Cabinet Office shows a gap between reality and aspiration. In a poll conducted in 2012, 20.8 percent of Japanese men said they would prefer family life to their work and 16.9 percent would give work top priority. Asked how they manage their work-life balance in reality, more men said work comes first (37.7 percent) than family life (18.9 percent).

“Having it All” Paradox

Since the phrase “having it all” entered the lexicon of women’s work-life balance discussions, it has given American women hope for thriving in career, marriage, and family life. This idea has yet to gain traction in Japan. Lately, doubts over the notion of “having it all” have been expressed more vocally in the United States. Debora Spar, writes in her book, that if women “set as the goal for themselves having it all, by definition, they are going to fail.” Spar argues that they have to make choices and trade-offs at different stages of their lives. Yet the same can be said for men and their choices. Notwithstanding some cultural differences, Japan can learn from how the “having it all” movement and the debate over work-life balance have evolved in the United States.

Policies set forth by the Abe administration to encourage female labor participation are promising; yet surveys have shown the divergence in perceptions of work-life balance among Japanese men and women. It is important to study the differences in views and foster a public dialogue on how to achieve maximum happiness. If we all strive for “having it all” without considering the broader context, the brilliant ideas and sound policies will be of little or no avail. Not only can “womenomics” define the future of the Japanese economy, it can also help chart the future course of Japanese society.

Ms. Yuko Nakano is a Research Associate with the Japan Chair at CSIS. To read Yuko’s analysis of Japanese women’s prospects in the political process check out her Japan Chair Platform piece: Among Equals? Women in Japanese Politics.

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