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A Conversation with Japan’s Akie Abe on Advancing Gender Equality

February 14, 2018

By Editor

On February 21, The Asia Foundation will recognize Mrs. Akie Abe, spouse of the prime minister of Japan, for her achievements in advancing women’s empowerment at the inaugural Lotus Leadership Awards Dinner in San Francisco. As chairperson of the Foundation for Social Contribution, Mrs. Abe is an advocate for education, women’s empowerment and international exchanges, notably in Myanmar. Mrs. Abe established “UZU workshop,” a leadership and learning community that organizes panel discussions and other programs to support and advocate for women. Ahead of the event, In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with Mrs. Abe on women in the workforce, breaking cultural molds, and the power of the individual in advancing equality.

Increasing women’s participation in the workforce is a key part of the Japanese government’s plan to revive the nation’s economy. Yet women still face significant institutional and cultural obstacles in the workplace. In fact, Japan has even been known for its “M-curve” (the M-shaped fluctuation in the labor force as women in their 30s and 40s exit the workforce and reenter it as opposed to the female labor force participation rates that look like mountains as high percentages of women work through their 30s in the U.S. and Europe). Can you talk about this challenge and what lessons other Asian countries can take from Japan’s experience?

In Japan, women’s participation is visibly increasing. Since the Second Abe Cabinet, the government has added 1.5 million women to the workforce in five years, and steady progress is being made in resolving the issue of the so-called “M-curve.” The number of women directors at listed companies has grown 2.4 fold in the last five years. Of course, there is still a long way to go as women in managerial posts still make up only 3.7 percent of all managerial positions. If anyone has to learn about women’s participation in the economy, it is Japan. In other Asian countries, there are many women business managers and more women politicians than there are in Japan. In Japan, however, we are not aiming to have the kind of society where women would work as hard as typical male salaried employees of past years. Alongside efforts to advance women’s participation in society, we are working to improve work-life balance, which includes building more childcare facilities and curbing long working hours.

Culturally entrenched behaviors and traditional perceptions continue to perpetuate disparity against women in many parts of the world, including Asia. What do you think can be done to break these cultural molds and ways of thinking among both men and women in order to advance gender equality?

The fixation of gender roles by culture and tradition is a global issue. The problem that exists in Asia existed, at least until the 1980s, in Scandinavia and other Western countries that are considered “advanced” on gender issues. Asia has its own unique cultures and traditions. Rather than trying to make them similar to Western cultures and traditions, it’s important that we explore our own ways of doing things. To that end, I think each one of us living in Asia would benefit from actively learning about world trends and examples of other countries while further learning about our own cultures and traditions so that we can take action to make a better, more livable society for women and men across Asia.

Japan is deeply committed to girls’ empowerment and education across Asia. How can philanthropic communities like The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle support those that are most vulnerable and marginalized to ensure that solutions are inclusive and relevant?

Japan has for decades through its official development assistance (ODA) supported women’s empowerment initiatives in Asia. Women’s empowerment, however, is an area in which little progress can be made by building things like roads or schools alone. It is more important to support individual women and small businesses, by providing skills training and professional development and leadership opportunities, and by raising awareness in local communities. We have learned that at times women’s empowerment clashes with culture and tradition. Even investments of large sums of money may not bring about improvement in a short period of time since changing attitudes and behavior takes time. I hope that the Lotus Circle and other philanthropic donors promoting women’s empowerment will continue to persistently support and stand by women and girls in Asia in support of their rights and opportunities.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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