Will Women Shine if Toilets Shine?: The Abe Government's Convoluted "Womenomics"

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Montana State University; ICU graduate (1990)
[The article below is the same as the article that appears in the eighteenth issue of the CGS Newsletter.]

In recent years, many policies and laws have been proposed in Japan to support and promote the greater participation of women in the workforce. But are there any hidden pitfalls lurking behind this seemingly positive progress? Who will end up being marginalized when only a select few can take advantage of the changes? We invited Tomomi Yamaguchi to share some insights from her research on feminism and Japanese politics.

Shinzo Abe is known as the driving force behind the bashing of Japan's move towards gender equality at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and even led an LDP project team in 2005 to investigate "excessive sex education and gender-free education." However, after being reinstated as prime minister in 2012, he has embarked on a policy of "womenomics" to mobilize the female workforce, as part of his Abenomics growth strategy. Moreover, he appointed Haruko Arimura to oversee this policy as the Minister in charge of Women's Empowerment, despite her affiliation to the right-wing group Nippon Kaigi ("Japan Conference"), which has been so critical of the gender equality movement. A bill to promote women's empowerment is expected to be passed in the current Diet session. At the same time, with the passing of the revised Worker Dispatch Law, the number of women who will forever be compelled to work in temporary employment is set to increase. In fact, it is only a handful of women who will actually flourish under Abe's "womenomics," and there are grave fears of the ever-widening wage gap among women in Japan.

It was in this climate that Minister Arimura recently announced the "Japan Toilet Challenge" as part of her women's empowerment strategy. Awards to recognize excellence in public restrooms have been created to re ect the idea that "improving the quality of life starts with pleasant toilets." While there is nothing wrong with improving toilets, why do toilets have to be at the center of a strategy for women's empowerment? Surely there are many other, more pressing issues to be addressed? On June 24, the Cabinet O ce hosted its annual "National Conference for the Realization of a Gender Equal Society." This year's theme was "Power of Community × Power of Women = Future of Infinity" (official government translation). The keynote speech was entitled, "Building Local Communities and Mobilizing Women Through Abenomics," and the panel discussion centered on how women could stimulate local communities. Thus, the conference portrayed Abenomics in a positive light and emphasized the significance of women's economic contribution as well as childcare support from the private sector. However, it hardly touched on the responsibilities and obligations of the national and local governments. Moreover, the government's plans for gender equality, which had originally avoided getting caught up in stereotypical gender roles, somehow came to take on a very diff¬erent meaning with the promotion of "activities that make good use of the special characteristics of women."

The Cabinet Office Headquarters for Creating a Society in Which All Woman Shine produced a pamphlet that defined just five life stages for women: "pre-child rearing stage: before and after childbirth," "child rearing stage: infant-age children,""child rearing stage: school-age children," "experienced mommy," and "aged care and di cult circumstances." It does not envision any other life path for women besides marriage, childbirth, child rearing, and aged care. Even though the government purports to support "all women" so they can shine, its only strategy for empowering women who choose not to become mothers seems to involve shinier toilets.

The Abe government's "womenomics" is therefore based on the idea of mobilizing women to support its strategies for boosting economic growth, building local communities, and countering the declining birth rate. However, it barely mentions the abolition of gender discrimination, which was supposedly the original intention behind Japan's ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Furthermore, at the abovementioned conference, Shigeru Ishiba, the Minister in charge of Vitalizing Local Economy, announced that there had been a lack of recruits for the Maritime Self-Defense Forces but allowing women to sign up had raised morale. We must continue to view Abe's promotion of "womenomics" with critical eyes, and question what it might mean especially in the current climate when his government is driving Japan's transformation into a nation that can wage war.