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Number 1 Shimbun

Japan’s Far More Female Future




Bill Emmott, looking longer, thinking deeper




In the late 1980s, after his three years as bureau chief for the Economist in Tokyo, Bill Emmott wrote The Sun Also Sets: The Limits to Japan’s Economic Power, thinking it would be his swansong vis-à-vis Japan. Little did he realize then what many of us who’ve made our careers in Japan know well, that Japan can be like some viruses: once it’s in your blood, you’ve got it for life.

The Sun Also Sets went on to become a best-seller and Japan became an important part of Emmott’s work. Of his 14 books to date, including six published only in Japanese, ten have been about Japan.

Emmott’s latest book has taken for its topic a phenomenon related to Japan’s 21st century demographics: the rise of women in leadership positions in the Japanese workplace. Publication of Japan’s Far More Female Future: Increasing Gender Equality and Reducing Workplace Insecurity Will Make Japan Stronger is scheduled for publication on 25 September 2020, but here’s a preview.

Why women?

While this may seem an odd choice for a male writer whose work generally analyses political-economic trends, it is precisely Emmott’s analytical skill that makes the topic of women in the Japanese workforce well worth his close attention. As Emmott puts it, “the real art for journalists and academics alike is not chiefly one of interpreting events but rather that of detecting and analysing the changes that take place more gradually, below the surface, out of sight of the TV cameras.” This is what he does in Japan’s Far More Female Future: identify the factors most likely to drive change to “women’s role in society, the economy, and politics” going forward.

Emmott has always maintained that it is his job as a journalist and author to be proactive, in particular analyzing data to uncover patterns and trends that might slip past reactive writers who focus on reflecting conventional wisdom. Emmott insists this approach doesn’t make him a contrarian; instead he characterizes himself as “instinctively suspicious of well-established views”. He made that very clear in The Sun Also Sets.

Although Emmott has published frequently on Japan and other economic and political topics across the three decades between The Sun Also Sets and Japan’s Far More Female Future, the latter begins like a sequel. Kicking off in 1989, Part One of Japan’s Far More Female Future provides a detailed examination of the Heisei years, marked by Japan’s rapid economic decline and the demographic shift that Emmott had forecast in his earlier book.

Mismanaging realities

It is, of course, no coincidence that Japan’s economic downturn in early Heisei came just as Japanese demographics shifted from the “dividend” (large working-age population) to the “burden” stage (large non-working age population; in particular an ageing population). Demographic experts have long held that employment practices in those two stages must, of necessity, be different, with broader, more accommodating employment practices in the burden stage when workers are necessarily drawn from more diverse elements of a nation’s population. Successful transition from one stage to the other requires rapid response, which is where Japan has failed up to now.

Why were Japanese business practices so slow to adapt to the post-bubble situation? Emmott’s explanation is that after the bubble burst, policy makers and many private companies clung to tried and true practices, believing – or as Emmott suggests, wishfully thinking – the downturn to be a temporary blip. Of course, that assumption failed to recognize not only economic realities but also an irreversible demographic dilemma. Once a country has moved from dividend to burden stage, it never goes back.

At the same time, such a powerful economy as Japan’s at the end of the 1980s could coast for a very long time. In a sense this has been Japan’s saving grace, but it has also allowed Japan to make only incremental changes to its legal, economic and employment landscape that, in the end, may cause more harm than good.

The gig economy

One “incremental” change with seismic consequences for Japa- nese society has already arrived in Japanese employment prac- tices. While so-called lifetime employment remains the gold standard for employment in the eyes of most Japanese, fewer and fewer lifetime opportunities are available. Instead, most large employers have come to rely on a substantial number of workers engaged on fixed-term contracts or unstable part-time arrangements. Such workers get little or no ongoing training and have little prospect of career advancement.

They are also overwhelmingly female, supplemented in this contingent sector by a growing cohort of entry-level and retir- ing workers. Emmott accurately characterizes this situation as “the under-use and long-term erosion of the country’s human capital”, a shocking turn of events for a country whose greatest natural resource is its people. All this in an economy facing a severe labour shortages.



Reasons to be cheerful

At the same time, Emmott, with his sharp eye on gradual, deep-level changes, sees increased labour participation by women with optimism. Noting how, particularly after Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act took effect in 1986, the number of women choosing four year universities over two year junior colleges increased substantially and continues to do so, Emmott also demonstrates how this trend is finally beginning to place women in senior leadership positions and postulates that the prospects for increased equality for working women can only increase from here.

Emmott concludes Part One with the observation that a significant problem for many women as they seek to establish or build their careers is the lack of role models. He then uses Part Two to introduce readers to 21 female role models across a diverse sampling of careers and work styles, a surprising and welcome shift from Emmott’s partiality for crunching people’s data rather than actually talking to people.

What he finds is that women aren’t subject to the same stigma as men if they choose to leave a job because they don’t see any future in it. Consequently, women are far more likely than men to vote with their feet when employers don’t grant them career opportunities at the same pace as they do men, or overlook them in the promotion season: for good reason, it is often suggested that men are promoted based on potential while women get promoted based on achievement. Without tangible oppor- tunities on their horizon, Emmott’s examples show women on a spectrum from simply finding other jobs to going on to further education, often overseas, and/or becoming entrepreneurs.

Japan’s women entrepreneurs

Most of the businesswomen in Emmott’s profiles found success outside Japan’s mainstream business world. While Japan is notorious for quashing ventures that don’t originate in the mainstream, there tends to be more tolerance of female entrepreneurs. For a working woman, does this tolerance stem from not being taken seriously until her business model is so well-established that it cannot be ignored, or is something else going on?

Or perhaps it is something else, that the business ideas of female entrepreneurs come from diverse viewpoints and are driven by practicality. It is interesting to note how many of the role models Emmott presents have come up with creative, entrepreneurial business models that not only provide func- tioning livelihoods but have also enhanced society and even the economy of Japan. Whether it’s starting a business to recycle used school uniforms, developing a cleaner waste-manage- ment system or building a chain of childcare services, Emmott’s subjects have succeeded partly because they saw a need that no one else saw until they stepped in.

The cost of the climb

Nearly all of Emmott’s subjects have had non-standard or non-mainstream careers, although there are notable examples of a diplomat and an executive in a large electronics company. Exceptions that prove the rule?

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and founder of, would be pleased to see that the role models who are married with families have husbands who are true life partners, helping at home and with raising the children. At the same time, many of the role models Emmott spoke to are single or childless women. As Masako Kamiya of Gakushuin University noted even before the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, women in Japan could be just as successful as men as long as they were willing to work on the same terms, the same hours, single-mindedly devoting themselves to their employer’s demands and jettisoning the dis- tractions and obligations of family life, which for most of them meant remaining single. Decades later, Kamiya’s observations are as valid as ever.



Bill at the FCCJ


Exceptions or mould-breakers?

One could be forgiven for concluding that the role models Emmott offers are not really representative of Japan’s female workforce. As Emmott himself notes, those who rise to the highest echelons are, perforce, exceptional, irrespective of gender. Yet the accomplishments of these women cannot diminish their value as exemplars. The very diversity of Emmott’s subjects tells this reader that there is something in there for everyone.

In the final part of Japan’s Far More Female Future, Emmott issues a call to action, detailing a dozen public and private practices that must change if the Japanese economy is to fulfil its potential despite its 21st century demographic dilemma. His proposals and conclusions are based on sound political and economic reasoning and echo others’ ideas, most notably those of strategy maven Kathy Matsui, originator of the term “Womenomics”. Such proposals all bear repeating. Emmott’s fundamental conclusion is that the Japanese male establishment cannot afford to ignore the necessity for change.

As a political economist, Emmott avoids getting tangled in cultural arguments relating to the trends he has analysed, perhaps wisely so. It is undeniable that Japan’s aversion to change is a powerful brake on women’s advancement towards workplace equality. But if Japan continues to walk while other countries run, it will inevitably fall behind. For Japan to delay qualitative diversification of its workplace, the way it delayed recognizing and responding to the reality of Japan’s econom- ic downturn in the early 1990s, is not just courting economic failure, it is a shame.

● Vicki L. Beyer is a travel writer, a kanji on the 2020 FCCJ Board, and a professor in the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Law Business Law Department.

Published in: September 2020

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