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Betting on social change in Japan

With Japan facing an aging population and a looming labor shortage, more investors see opportunities in the country's planned structural changes to lure women into the workforce.

Despite expectations Japan's population will decline over the next few decades, the country's outlook can still be positive as more women begin to enter the workforce, said Miyuki Kashima, head of Japanese equity investment at BNY Mellon Asset Management.

"If you actually have half the population who hasn't really contributed to society, even if they wanted to, then there's potential for growth," she said.

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Increasing the number of women in the workforce has become a key plank in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's strategy, dubbed Abenomics, for kickstarting Japan's long-moribund economy out of a decades-long struggle with inflation.

Abe has said he wants Japan to change its "pervasive male-oriented thinking." He plans to ensure at least 30 percent of the national government's hires are women and is working to expand day-care facilities around the country.

"I'm not quite sure if Abe is actually pro-women," Kashima said, but she added he appears to be on the right track. "We really need more participation of women in the workforce for the growth strategy to be successful," Kashima said. "Japan has already started on this project of increasing more daycare facilities; they're filling up very quickly."

Seven & I Holdings Co. new employees take notes during an initiation ceremony in Tokyo.
Noriyuki Aida | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Seven & I Holdings Co. new employees take notes during an initiation ceremony in Tokyo.

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BNY Mellon is launching a fund to tap into investment opportunities from womenomics, targeting several categories, including firms which hire and promote more women, companies directly benefiting from women's increased spending and those that benefit indirectly, such as security and eldercare.

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking launched a similar fund earlier this month.

"When women have more income, they'll spend more," Kashima said. "In every age group that you survey, women do have a higher propensity to spend, which is good for the economy."

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Faced with discriminatory barriers, including tax penalties, women are often squeezed out of Japan's workforce. Only around 63 percent of Japan's women participate in the workforce, compared with 85 percent of men, according to 2013 data from the World Bank. The country ranks 79th out of 136 countries in the World Bank's Gender Gap subindex for labor force participation.

At the same time women are being squeezed out, much of the population is also aging out, making boosting participation a necessity. One in four Japanese – or 31.86 million people – are aged 65 or older.

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Japan's demographic makeup has become so skewed toward an older population that the 21.3 million registered pet dogs and cats counted by Japan's Pet Food Association outnumber the around 16.8 million children below age 15.

If women's participation rate rose to match men's, Japan's gross domestic product (GDP) could rise by as much as 12.5 percent, Goldman Sachs estimated in a note in early May.

Goldman also sees investment opportunities in womenomics.

Read More Will Japan's elderly get burned by 'Abenomics'?

Sectors it believes will benefit from greater female employment include e-commerce, travel, prepared food suppliers and restaurants, beauty and apparel products and childcare and eldercare providers.

The bank also noted that companies with better track records of encouraging women's success in the workplace tended to outperform the Topix stock market index.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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