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Tokyo — Rui Matsukawa is the poster child for women empowerment in Japan. And it’s easy to see why.

Petite and pretty, Matsukawa is nonetheless a commanding presence. She’s a member of the House of Councilors, which she got elected to in 2016. Prior to her run for office, she spent 23 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she held a number of high-profile positions.

Matsukawa is also known for the work she’s done to offer opportunities to women not only in Japan but around the world. She began the World Assembly for Women (WAW!) in 2014, now an annual event held in Tokyo that promotes gender equality and mainstreaming. The purpose of the international conference is to realize a “society where women shine.”

The 2019 WAW! will be held next month, this time in conjunction with the Women 20 (W20), an engagement group with the G20, which will hold its June summit in Japan. Previous speakers at the conferences have included Ivanka Trump, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund and Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank.

“I’m a working mother,” says Matsukawa, who has two young children. “I would hope more women would follow me. This is my task.”

I recently met Matsukawa on a reporting trip sponsored by the Foreign Press Center of Japan, a nonprofit organization that works with journalists from all over the world.

Much like the U.S., Japan is debating how to help more women succeed in the workplace, such as through equal pay, paid leave and child care. While Japan has made progress in recent years, the country still has far to go in its work to empower women. But other countries should look to the innovative initiatives Japan is putting in place.

“Our government is making efforts,” Matsukawa says.

A push for ‘womenomics’

For Japan, encouraging more women to get involved in business and politics isn’t just about gender equity. It’s a serious economic concern.

And that’s why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made upholding women a priority of his past seven years in office. Japanese officials dub this “womenomics.”

Women in Japan are typically highly educated, but keeping them engaged in the workplace has proven a challenge — especially after they have children, many drop out, and that’s a huge loss for the economy.

More than most other developed countries, Japan also faces a severe population shortage, as fewer women are having babies. Combined with a quickly aging population, the government understands that if it doesn’t address these disparate yet intertwined concerns, economic disaster looms.

The dual challenge of engaging more women in the workplace — and making it more appealing for them to have bigger families — is at the forefront for the country’s leaders.

“There’s a lot of talented women at home, and women are a talented resource,” says Masateru Yoshida, director for international affairs with Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau. “We are elevating the priority of women’s empowerment. Japan is facing a turning point.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 “Global gender gap report,” Japan falls at 110 out of 149 countries for the gap between men and women in the categories of economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. For perspective, the U.S. is at 51. Iceland leads the world in gender equity at No. 1.

Although Japan clearly wants to better its ranking, Yoshida points to improvements made in recent years. In the last six years, the number of working women has increased by nearly 3 million, and more women are moving up to managerial positions and boards. Yet those numbers are still very low, when compared to other countries. In 2017, women only held 10.9 percent of managerial positions.

That’s partly why women drop out of the workforce, says Machiko Osawa, director of the Research Institute of Women and Careers at the Japan Women’s University in Tokyo. They aren’t being challenged by their work and they don’t feel like there is room for advancement.

“Countries that promote women are more successful,” Osawa says.

Helping women succeed

The government is also working to improve the “work-life balance” for both men and women, to encourage larger families. Typically, the Japanese work long hours — often until 8 p.m. or later — and commutes are frequently long. This places pressure on parents to find child care, which is costly, and also leads to a stressful home life.

Culturally, Japanese men haven’t played much of a role in child-rearing or in housekeeping. But that’s starting to charge, with fathers being encouraged to take paid leave following the birth of a child. Other campaigns led by the Equality Bureau seek to model how men can help out at home, whether through cooking or getting more involved with their children.

“Women find it difficult to balance work and home,” says Yoshie Komuro, CEO of Work Life Balance.

Since 2006, Komuro says she has consulted with 1,000 companies and government officials about the importance of reasonable hours and flexible work schedules for both men and women. These policies often pay off for companies, too, with a more energized workforce.

Other entrepreneurial women are finding ways to keep mothers — and fathers — engaged in the workforce. Kanae Tsutsumi created her company, Career Mam, more than 20 years ago to help give working parents more options. She now works with around 50 businesses and has 100,000 registered clients — largely mothers. Career Mam connects these clients with projects at the various companies, and the work is done remotely by women working in teams.

I also met with government officials from the city of Yokohama, who are actively promoting women-owned businesses. In 2011, the city began its F-SUS (female start-up support) program, an incubator for small businesses. The city has worked with 152 women entrepreneurs, and 38 are currently actively engaged. 

Through the program, the women pay a small monthly fee and then can use office space, as well as receive business support and advice.

One of the women taking advantage of F-SUS is Kumiko Sugaya, who has created a company based on her passion for kimonos, the traditional garment for Japanese women. She custom sews kimonos for her clients, with a goal of making them less costly and easier to wear.

Sugaya was dismayed that fewer women were wearing kimonos.

“I wanted to broaden their use,” she says. “It’s an art.”

Local efforts like this one in Yokohama, combined with the national push to boost women in business and politics, are making Japan a burgeoning leader in female empowerment.

“We want to take this message to the world,” says Matsukawa.

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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