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In 2013, standing before the UN General Assembly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo declared his intention to create a “Japan in which women can shine.” The government program, which came to be known as “womenomics,” was a central part of “Abenomics,” the Prime Minister’s plan to revitalize the Japanese economy after several decades of stagnation. Womenomics was one of the key programs to deal with a confluence of problems: a rapidly ageing society, a decline in the working age (15-64) population as the “baby boom” cohort retired, and declining marriage and fertility rates. Decline in the working population was placing increasing pressure on social welfare schemes, as smaller numbers of workers had to support a growing number of retirees.
Womenomics aimed to increase female participation in the labor force. The policies which included generous time off for maternity and childcare, an increase in subsidized child care capacity and paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, made it possible for women to return to the work force after giving birth and led to a steady increase in the female labor participation rate which was just 66.5% in 2000, but had risen steadily, reaching 78.9% in 2018, a rate that was higher than that of the United States.
The hard-won gains of the Womenomics policies have been called into question with the advent of the Covid epidemic. In Japan, as in the United States, schools were temporarily closed causing a crisis for families with young children. Women, who had become accustomed to busy lives in which they somehow “balanced” work with family and childcare obligations, found themselves facing a more difficult struggle to meet both family and work obligations simultaneously. In both countries, essential workers in many sectors of the economy were forced to make choices, with implications for their health, their families’ economic stability, and the functioning of local and national economies.
The Covid crisis lifted a veil, revealing the fragile base supporting the gains in gender equality in both countries, leaving women to wonder if the gains they had made in the hard-fought struggles for gender equality were all going to disappear. The 2020 Abe Fellows Global Forum will review the gains made in the struggle for gender equality over the last decade, and consider the challenges facing both Japan and the United States and the differential impact of the pandemic as a result of differences in education, marital status, occupation, and race. Our speakers will address these issues, considering what needs to be done to ensure progress toward greater gender equality—a gender equality based on a work-life balance that allows both women and men to share the pleasures and burdens of a life that truly balances work and private life. The speakers will also share ideas of what Japan and the United States can learn from each other.
Abe Global 2020 is held in partnership with the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative at Indiana University and New America’s Better Life Lab.
An initiative of the Abe Fellowship Program, the Abe Fellows Global Forum (Abe Global) brings Abe Fellow research and expertise on pressing issues of global concern to broader audiences. Abe Global hosts events each year in partnership with academic and civic organizations. The Abe Fellowship Program is a partnership between the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.