Jim Armitage: Japan has a long way to go in smashing glass ceilings


Click to follow

Outlook: Of all the shortcomings in the blinkered and nepotistic Japanese business culture, exposed by the fraud at the camera giant Olympus, there was one subtle factor that always stood out for me: the lack of women in any senior corporate roles.

It was an issue that the company’s former boss, Michael Woodford – sacked after blowing the whistle when he discovered the fraud – repeatedly went back to when he talked of his time there. With its super-low birth rate, Japan just can’t afford not to employ the talents of half the population, he would argue.

The Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has acknowledged the problem. He talks a good game, declaring he wants the percentage of female corporate managers to rise from  7.5 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020. This week he showed Japan and the world that he would lead from the front, hiring an unprecedented five female MPs to his 18-strong cabinet in one swoop.

But many Japanese women will not be getting their hopes up too high. In this country where train operators have had to create female-only carriages to deal with the wandering hands of groping men, three of the five whom Mr Abe has chosen are, according to local activists, far from being equality enthusiasts.

Midori Ito, a veteran equality campaigner, says that the trio were part of the conservative political group known as Nippon Kaigi, which actually opposes gender equality. He told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that two of them, including the new minister for women, spoke at a conference that condemned the idea of allowing women to keep their surname when they marry. The third, Sanae Takaichi, uses her maiden name but says on her website that she is opposed to any legislation that would make it formally legal.

The new women’s minister has also been accused of being ambivalent about promoting birth control to junior high school students, the newspaper reported.

To be charitable, you could argue that it’s hard for women climbing the career ladder, in a sexist society, to take too strident a line on equality. Perhaps these five will, now they have some power in the Cabinet room, feel confident enough to drive through meaningful change.

But, according to the lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda, that’s not good enough. She  asks: “I wonder if politicians with such thinking will really put together policies that lead to improving the social standing of women?”