Is Shinzo Abe really a feminist?

Authors: Ayako Kano, University of Pennsylvania, and Vera Mackie, University of Wollongong

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech on 26 September at the United Nations General Assembly proposing ‘womenomics’ as the key to Japan’s economic recovery. Abe proposed ‘refortifying Japan’s true abilities and its economy once more’. He pledged to create ‘an environment in which women find it comfortable to work and … be active in society’. It was ‘no longer a matter of choice for Japan’, but ‘a matter of the greatest urgency’.

Abe has been associated with the denial of the history of enforced sexual slavery in the Second World War, with the backlash against gender equality policy, and with plans to alter the Constitution of Japan. Under an earlier Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government, members of the party not only advocated rescinding the ‘pacifist’ Article 9 of the Constitution, but also targeted the articles which promised freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.

It was thus surprising to see Abe using the United Nations as a platform to champion ‘womenomics’. Had Abe converted to feminism? Or was he merely making a theatrical gesture in that direction? What was the wider context of the speech?

In recent decades, Japanese governments have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); passed an Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985; passed the Basic Law for Gender-Equal Society in 1999; and created the Gender Equality Bureau under the auspices of the Cabinet Office.

Ironically, Abe has in the past been seen to be against such advances. In the first decade of the 21st century, as head of the LDP’s project team for ‘Investigating the Status of Radical Sex Education and Gender Free Education’, Abe and his allies attacked various initiatives that they saw as detrimental to ‘traditional’ cultural values.

As we argued in an earlier essay, deep-seated gendered inequalities still exist in contemporary Japanese society, and nearly all aspects of government policy could benefit from adopting a more gender-sensitive outlook. In 2010, the Japanese government was criticised by the UN’s CEDAW Committee for the lack of women in leadership positions. At the time, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government promised to undertake what it called ‘positive action’ (known elsewhere as ‘affirmative action’) with a goal of increasing the share of women in leadership positions in all sectors of society by 2020. But the DPJ regime was slow to take steps, and the multiple disaster of March 2011 further stalled progress.

When the LDP regained power in a landslide victory in late 2012, there was widespread concern that the return of Abe as Prime Minister would mean winding back the gains that had been made in gender policy in previous years.  Indeed, in the latest Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, Japan’s position has dropped.

There were also historical international dynamics that prompted Abe’s apparent championing of women’s rights at the UN. The Japanese government faces unresolved issues from the Pacific War. It is involved in territorial disputes with Russia, China, Taiwan and South Korea. And it is under international scrutiny for its lack of response to calls for apologies and compensation for wartime atrocities, including the sexual violence of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and wartime sexual slavery. These are clearly gendered issues, and critical observers accuse the prime minister of attempting to quell criticism through ‘ad-hoc gestures.’

The reasons for scepticism about Abe’s feminist posture become even clearer when we examine recent government statements on gender issues. For example, Abe’s task force considered instilling the idea of a ‘proper childbearing age’ into all women through the distribution of ‘women’s notebooks’. This has been criticised as being intrusive. Abe also proposed extending women’s childcare leave to three years to encourage women to withdraw from the workforce and be full-time carers of their infants. This has been criticised as unrealistic and likely to lead only to further discrimination against women in the workplace.

The LDP has been rated by the Women’s Action Network as being among the worst of all political parties in Japan when it comes to gender issues. The LDP has only been supportive of gender policies when they could be directly linked to economic growth and boosting the birth rate. In Abe’s UN speech and in his actual policy decisions, ‘womenomics’ is a policy for recharging the economy and refortifying the nation, not for improving the situation of women. Perhaps it is just Abenomics under another name?

Abe’s UN speech is a welcome reminder that gender issues are a key factor in international politics. Historically, however, the LDP has championed women’s progress only when it was most convenient for the party, and domestic support for the party is split on gendered lines. This is why Abe’s performance was greeted by scepticism rather than enthusiastic applause.

Ayako Kano is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Vera Mackie is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Wollongong.