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Business interests are competing with culture in Japan like two powerful forces in a boxing ring. In one corner stands Japan’s near-future shortage of “people power” in the workplace. In the opposing corner, the traditional gender roles of Japanese culture offer a worthy challenge to change. Truth be told, culture is not the enemy; it’s in fact the most effective means by which to implement strategic advancement.

Introducing change

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has positioned himself as a champion of so-called “womenomics” in Japan, a plan that targets the employment and promotion of women. The financial motive is that opening opportunity for women in the Japanese workforce will positively influence the nation’s economy. A new law to implement the plan was announced last year, and is effective between April of 2016 through March 2026.

“womenomics” – What is is about?

Here are the stats:

  • Of “career-track” job hires (sogoshoku) in Japan, 22% of hires are women[i].
  • Women make up less than 10% of senior positions in big companies in Japan[ii].
  • Big companies are now required to appoint women to 15% of senior positions in less than four years, by the year 2020[iii].
  • Another intended outcome of the new law is to raise the rate of employed women in Japan by 5%—from 68% to 73%—also by 2020.

Representation of women in the workplace is a basic „win“ for womenomics. In order to decrease the professional achievement gap between the genders, women must be present and progressively advancing through opportunities offered in the workplace. As in many countries, a gap in labor force participation rates lends to the challenge, with men outnumbering and outpacing women. As a result, there is a current shortage of workingwomen in Japan who are sufficiently prepared for higher-level professional roles, despite the cultural expectation that they will pause or stop work to become primary caretakers of their children. See how your country weighs in on a comparison of employment rates by sex across 55 select countries, including Japan: Click to the International Labor Organization’s „Global Employment Trends for Women“ report (2012) and scroll to Figure 3 on page 15 as printed on the document.

The challenges

Before placing your bets, consider how womenomics in Japan will play out under the following conditions:

  • The new law applies to Japanese companies with 301 or more employees. Companies that meet this criterion—as well as central and local Japanese governments—will be required to make related analysis, set numerical targets and share their plans with the public.
  • Companies decide their own goals to advance women in the workplace. There are no penalties if companies fail to reach their targets.
  • Nearly three-fifths of workingwomen are non-regular workers (e.g., part-timers or temporary staff). The new legislation does not make provisions for such workers.

Gender equality in Japan and the rest of the world

While the workplace contribution of women in Japan may look very different in your country of residence, you’re never too far from gender inequality anywhere around the world. The World Economic Forum ranks Japan at an overall 104th place on their 2014 Global Gender Gap Index, as determined by economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political opportunity. Japan scores just ahead of other countries in a similar “weight class”: India (ranking: 114), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (115) and Nigeria (119). Japan scores just behind Ghana (ranking: 101), Indonesia (97), Greece (91) and Guatemala (89). Curious who ranks among the top five of the Global Gender Gap Index?

Impossible is nothing.

For those in the business world who may gather like a street crowd to watch a good fight with a certain victor, we wager that they witness something better in the case of womenomics in Japan. We believe that something better is how people use culture to respond to seemingly impossibility in the world around us in order to survive, innovate and thrive. Perhaps contrary to how the impossible is spoken about in Japan and viewed culturally, we’ll end this piece with a quote from the GOAT (greatest of all time), world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali:

“Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”


Wir freuen uns auf Ihren Kontakt!

[i] Source: Female empowerment law first step, but male-oriented work culture must change: experts (7 Sept. 2015).


[ii] Source: Corporate Japan struggles to promote women workers: Abe womenomics policy sets sights on cultural change but progress is slow (11 Jan. 2016).[iii] Source: Same as endnote ii.



Photo credit: Getty Images.

The above article was included in our Sept. 2016 intercultures e-newsletter. 

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