Japanese Women at Work? Traditionalists Say No

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Days after Kaoru Shimada and other Japanese mothers rallied in Tokyo this year to press for more public daycare, she was shocked to read a local politician's blog blasting their "shameless" demands and asserting kids should be raised at home.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to take steps, including expanding daycare, to help mobilize women power as part of his "Abenomics" plan to end economic stagnation and engineer growth in a country beset by an ageing, shrinking population.

But that economic imperative is colliding with a conservative worldview, shared by many ruling party politicians as well as top business executives, that sees women's proper place as in the home, not in offices, factories or boardrooms.

"My first impression was that he was mocking us," said Shimada, a 29-year-old system engineer with a toddler son, referring to the comments by blogster Yutaro Tanaka, a local assembly member from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

"He has no idea of the reality," Shimada - who found a daycare spot about a week before she had to resume work in April - told Reuters at a gathering of young parents exchanging information on day care options and related headaches.

(Read More: Japan Needs Women Power to Galvanize Economy: Party)

Opposition lawmakers, experts and even some from Abe's own party say such conservative views are common inside the LDP.

"Their view of women is basically as tools to boost the birth rate, reduce social security spending and increase growth. Women have a role because they are key to solving these three problems," said Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"But they have a strong idea of the traditional family as a core ideology of conservatives. That ideology and reasonable solutions do not match, so the policy is always schizophrenic at best."

Hidden Message?

Experts and working women laud Abe's goal of mobilising women power even as they note the moves are long overdue in a country where female board members account for only about 1 percent of the total and women's employment rate of 60 percent is among the lowest in developed nations.

Abe has pledged to eliminate in five years daycare wait-lists - which official data put at 25,000 nationwide and private experts much higher. The plan is to provide fiscal support for non-government facilities and ease regulations to give private operators more scope.

He has set a target of having women in 30 percent of leadership posts in all sectors of society by 2020 and also urged Japan Inc to put more women on corporate boards. His initial goal: one woman director per firm.

(Read More: No Longer a Niche Market, Firms Target Female Investors)

"At the end of the day. It's the first administration that I can think of that even mentioned women's participation. So that's a step forward," said Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. She estimates that raising female labour participation rates to the same 80 percent seen for males could boost Japan's GDP by as much as 14 percent.

"Obviously, this is going up against a tidal wave of potential opposition, but at the end of the day, what other choice do they have?"

Critics, however, say parts of Abe's agenda send a different message and would have the opposite effect to his stated goal.

Among the moves critics question is Abe's request for firms to increase childcare leave from a maximum of 1 1/2 years to three and an LDP proposal to make private nursery schools, which hold only morning sessions - free for pre-schoolers.

"They are saying: 'Stay home until the child is three, then put the child in nursery school and take care of him or her yourself in the afternoon,'" said opposition Democratic Party lawmaker Renho, a former TV announcer and mother of teenage twins, who goes by one name.

"The message is: 'Don't think about working full-time.'"

While some women might welcome the prospect of three years' childcare leave, many say the notion is unrealistic given the need for double incomes and the likely damage to careers from a three-year gap. Currently, those taking childcare leave get a government allowance equal to half their salary.

"Practically speaking, three years would be tough," system engineer Shimada said. "I took off 18 months and there was a gap that made me feel like a rookie employee when I returned."

Silver Democracy

Japanese firm Benesse Corp, where one-third of managerial staff are women, found that a three-year childcare leave program introduced in 1990 had the opposite effect to that intended: fewer female employees returned to their jobs.

"Some did return and what they said was that it was really difficult to catch up," said a company spokeswoman, Yuko Onizawa. Five years later, Benesse shortened the leave system to one year and has since found that more women return to work.

Corporate attitudes also need to change for Abe's pitch to work. Although some major firms are taking diversity policies seriously as one key to boosting profits, business lobby Keidanren is blocking a proposal to require listed firms to disclose their gender statistics.

(Read More: One Billion Women to Enter Workplace in Next Decade)

"Keidanren is greatly opposed - I think because it would be obvious how few women they have," Yuriko Koike, a former defence minister who heads the LDP's PR department and advocates bolder steps than those favoured by many in her party, told Reuters.

With public debt already twice Japan's $5 trillion economy, finding government funds to subsidise programmes to promote daycare and advance women in the workforce could also be tough.

The metropolis of Yokohama near Tokyo last month announced it had eliminated its daycare wait-list - three years ago the worst in the country - through deregulation and bigger spending.

Abe has touted Yokohama as a model case others should follow, but the national government and other municipalities may be reluctant to follow through with similar spending rises.

"It's a kind of 'Silver Democracy' dilemma," said Hiroki Komazaki, founder of non-profit daycare provider Florence who sits on one of Abe's advisory panels.

"They have to cut spending on the elderly and invest in the future. But young people only vote at half the rate of the elderly."

A basic lack of understanding of the issues among many politicians remains, the LDP's Koike says, a big barrier to change.

Recalling a session of an LDP panel on policies concerning women, she said, ruefully: "I explained the notion of 'diversity' and one of the men asked me 'Where is that?' He thought we were talking about a place called 'Diver City'."