Glen Fukushima: The Power of Japanese Women

Japan’s historic victory in the Women’s World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, on July 17 stunned the world.

The news brought to mind several aphorisms: “Expect the unexpected” (since almost everyone had predicted that the United States, ranked number one in the world, would win); “There’s always the first time” (since Japan’s record against the U.S. had been 0-21-3); “Don’t believe the experts” (since virtually all the experts had bet on a U.S. victory); “It’s never over until it’s over” (since the U.S. dominated almost the entire game); and “Never give up” (since the U.S. was the first to score and led in points up to the last few minutes of the game).

Japanese women convincingly demonstrated their power by winning in the global competition of soccer. Yet, in Japan itself, the opportunities for women to excel outside the home remain limited. True, there have been some advances since the passage of the Gender Equality Law in 1985.

Yet equality is the exception rather than the norm. In 2010, Japan ranked 94th out of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index, which compares men and women’s wages and societal positions, compiled by the World Economic Forum in Geneva. Similarly, Japan ranked 57th in the United Nations’ Gender Empowerment Measure, which assesses women’s standing in the politics and economy of 109 countries.

Professors at Japan’s top universities and recruiters at Japan’s major companies admit that if students were hired based on their school grades, achievements, and job interviews, more than two-thirds of the offers would go to women. To ensure against such a result, many companies impose an artificial ceiling to limit women to 15 or 20 percent of entry-level professional positions.

This is one reason why, according to a study done in 2009 by Corporate Women Directors International, women occupied only 17 seats on the boards of directors of Japan’s top 100 companies, or a mere 1.4 percent of the 1,198 board positions-placing Japan near the bottom of 35 countries surveyed, including Jordan (2 percent), Oman (2.3 percent), and Kuwait (2.7 percent).

With an aging population, declining birth rate, and miniscule immigration, Japan can ill afford to underutilize the power of women. This is especially so given the increasing insularity, risk averseness, and lack of drive seen among younger men, who have been coddled and protected by their mothers and sheltered from the competition, both domestic and foreign, that their fathers’ generation experienced in the nation’s high-growth period from the 1950s through the 1980s.

According to a study on the Japanese economy released by Goldman Sachs, “Increased female participation [in the workforce] implies higher income and consumption growth which we estimate could lift GDP growth by 0.3 percent to 1.5 percent from 1.2 percent and boost per capita income by 5.8 percent over the next 20 years.”

Perhaps it is time for Japan’s leaders-nearly all men-to realize that the skill, strategy, energy, determination, resilience, teamwork, and results-focus evinced by the women in Japan’s victorious World Cup team is exactly what the nation needs to overcome the political, economic, and social miasma of the last two decades.

Glen S. Fukushima, a native of California, is Chairman & Director of Airbus Japan and former President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. From 1985 to 1990, he was based in Washington, D.C. as Director for Japanese Affairs and, later, Deputy Assistant USTR for Japan and China at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

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