Messengers. A student addresses the media; Akie Abe; Akie Abe’s husband, PM Shinzo Abe; IMF CEO Christine Lagarde.

Here’s how to promote the Japanese prime min . . . I mean, Japanese women

ON SEPT. 12, THE first day of the World Assembly of Women (WAW), the speaker was sharing some of her intimate family moments. “When we were on summer holiday, I cooked,” she said, “and my husband cleaned the dishes.” She paused for emphasis, then added, “He also took the trash out.” Her words were met with thunderous, show stopping applause that filled the event hall and washed over the man in question sitting in the front row. The speaker was Akie Abe, and the man lauded for his help with household chores was Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan.

The clapping was initiated by Akiko Yamanaka, moderator of the WAW’s “Special Talk Session.” “I was proud to introduce Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his policy speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations last year,” her statement in the WAW booklet reads. While Yamanaka was introduced as “Visiting Professor at Cambridge University,” she is not only a fellow member of the LDP, but once served as the director general of the party’s Women’s Bureau, and is the former Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Party politics could go a long way in explaining why, rather than directing the conversation between the two women on stage Akie Abe and Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Yamanaka kept directing questions to the prime minister sitting in the audience. Instead of presenting the two women as successful and influential individuals engaged in interesting activities, she reduced them to the role of “wife of . . . ” In doing so, Yamanaka passed up the chance to set a business like tone for two days of speeches, panels and discussions in working groups among women from 25 countries in favor of harmless gossip. It made Japan appear provincial rather than international.

Things didn’t get better. In his own opening speech, Abe listed examples of companies improving their stance in promoting women to high positions. He spoke proudly of the computer company that collaborated with a jewelry brand to change the design of a laptop upon the suggestion of a female employee, so that it could be opened without ruining elaborately manicured fingernails. The rest of Abe’s speech focused on his record of actions taken to raise the lot of women in Japan and what he’s got planned for the future like pledging “to eliminate the word ‘childcare waiting list’ from the Japanese lexicon.”

Still, his words left many attendees impressed, especially those from outside of Japan, who were very likely the main target. Many of the mostly female speakers were surprisingly enthusiastic in thanking the prime minister and his wife for spending quite some time at the conference, and many attendees were also appreciative. “The WAW Conference for me was a clear demonstrable conviction of the government of Japan to see it did not lose the economic strength of its women,” said Zia Mody, a corporate attorney who attended from India. “The personal commitment of Prime Minister Abe reinforced this.” “There should be more heads of state like Abe”, said Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. She somewhat half jokingly lamented, however, that Abe had stolen some limelight from her organization by giving away in his speech that UN Women was opening an office in Japan.

The only speaker who gave the impression that she was able to see behind all the clichéd phrases was Christine Lagarde. In her keynote speech, “The Economic Power of Women’s Empowerment,” the Managing Director of the IMF made a point of convincing male decision makers to promote women not for the sake of equal human rights, but because it could help their companies perform significantly better, lift the economy and give “Abenomics” a push. She repeated her widely quoted remark of 2012 that Japanese women could save Japan, and that gradually raising the country’s female labor force to the average level of the G7 could raise income per capita permanently by four percent. Raising it to participation levels of Northern Europe would give Japan a further four percent. “Overly ambitious perhaps, for now,” she added with a smile. She packaged uncomfortable topics like immigration in words of praise of Japan’s hospitality.

Several speakers praised Abe for recently appointing five female ministers. They might have been less enthusiastic had they known that some of them have a track record of being extremely conservative and actually obstructing gender equality. One opposes sex education at schools. Another wants the abortion law tightened. And the timing of their appointment a week before WAW was certainly not coincidental.

WAW was supposed to highlight women, their plights and their achievements and create public attention domestically and internationally. While it provided opportunities for the invited women to network, it also felt like a well choreographed PR event to promote PM Abe as a modern statesman abroad. In that sense, it was successful; it even convinced some of the Japanese attendees of his sincerity. One, however, was less enthusiastic. Ayako Shiomura, whose speech earlier this year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly was interrupted by sexist remarks, said that Abe had tried to ignore the issue at the time. Now, Shiomura says, it is one thing to talk about the promotion of women. But it will take another ten years for true change to materialize.

Sonja Blaschke is a German freelance journalist writing for publications in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She works as a producer for TV filming in Japan.