Both the challenge and the promise of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” campaign are wrapped in the stylish woman at his side—his wife Akie.
Like so many Japanese women, Akie Abe grew up thinking that being a housewife was the surest path to happiness. She’s been, at best, a dabbler in the world of work—one stint at advertising agency Dentsu, another as a radio DJ. When, in 2012, she took a stab at charting her own life by opening a small organic izakaya pub in Tokyo, her appalled mother-in-law demanded that she stay off the premises.
Akie is brashly outspoken, openly disagreeing with her husband on everything from nuclear power to raising the sales tax (she opposes both). “Women who can’t speak their minds grow depressed,” she has said.
Now Japan’s first lady is deploying that outspokenness on behalf of an initiative they can both agree on: Reviving the country’s long stagnant economy with a jolt of female talent. “We are in need of bold change,” she told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Tuesday afternoon. Akie spoke at the Washington-based think tank’s event titled, “Womenomics: Why it Matters for Japan and the World.”)
No kidding. Japan—aging faster than any country in the world–is on a course to lose nearly 40% of its workforce by 2050. Despite a high rate of college degrees, most Japanese women stay home after their first child.
The country, along with Korea, also sits at the bottom of the World Bank’s ranking of industrialized countries’ inclusion of women in their economies — particularly in professional and management ranks — and Goldman Sachs estimates that closing the gender employment gap would boost Japan’s GDP by 13%.
Akie argues that luring women into the workforce means changing the country’s infamous 24-7 work culture that analysts say is built on peer pressure and ubiquitous overtime pay, even among white collar workers. “For females to flourish there is a need for more flexible work,” Akie said. “It’s hard to believe that a society where women work as hard as men is a happy one.’’
The Prime Minister’s policy agenda includes expanded daycare, encouraging businesses to double child-care leave times, and issues calls to raise the portion of government and business leadership positions held by women to 30% by 2020. He is also revising corporate reporting requirements to include the number of female directors on the companies’ boards.
But mobilizing Japanese women may require more effort than policy change. When I asked Japan’s first lady to describe the biggest obstacle facing womenomics, she admits it’s a societal one: “The culture and consciousness of women who have the dream to be Lucky Strike housewives.”
That problem is far from new. I spent part of 1993 living in Japan and, like other Western journalists, went in search of a budding “feminist” culture that English-speaking scholars insisted was emerging. What I found instead were middle-aged housewives content to run the family (who would want the grind of a salary-man’s life, after all?), and young women and girls far more interested in marriage than professions. All of this, of course, was captured that year in the media hype over Masako Owada, the Harvard-trained economist/diplomat who reluctantly dropped her turbo-charged career to marry the Crown Prince and live the confined life of Japanese royalty. (I wrote about the surprising decision for the LA Times that year.)
Reality, it seems, is what Akie hopes will inspire Japanese women to work. “The life of the good housewife may not be [forever]. There is divorce, or because of an accident a husband might not be able to work,” she said, perhaps referencing the increased instability of a Japanese economy that offers husbands fewer lifetime guarantees of employment. “If something happens, a woman needs to be independent…Some of my friends are in that situation.”
The husband-wife Abe team faces a country with long ingrained discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay—and plenty of backlash from threatened men. True to form, Akie offered a pointed retort: “Up until now Japanese men have been ignoring the complaints of women… Men are facing a reality and there is no choice but to accept the change…[They should] think about complaints from the female side.”
“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a daily series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.