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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be remembered for his economic agenda—including the mixed success of Japan’s ‘womenomics’

July 11, 2022, 1:39 PM UTC
Shinzo Abe standing in front of a microphone speaking to the media.
Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke to the media at his office in Tokyo, Sept. 16, 2020.
Kazuhiro Nogi—AFP/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! President Biden signs an executive order on abortion rights, there’s a new Wimbledon champ, and the legacy of Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ lives on. Have a meaningful Monday.

– Womenomics lives on. The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday shocked the world. The shooting sparked conversations about the dangers of homemade and 3D-printed weapons and the rarity of gun violence in Japan compared to the U.S.

But with more time to process the news, attention has turned to Abe’s lasting legacy in Japan. Like any world leader, his legacy is complicated. Abe, 67, was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister—a nationalist who objected to the pacifist constitution put in place by the U.S. after Japan’s defeat in World War II. He stepped down in 2020 amid a handful of scandals, including one involving his wife, Akie.

At the center of Abe’s domestic agenda, however, was “womenomics,” part of the prime minister’s overall “Abenomics” agenda to boost Japan’s economy. Womenomics attempted to tap women as an economic resource by boosting their labor force participation rate in Japan. Specifically, the womenomics theory calculated that “well-educated, yet underemployed, women could solve Japan’s twin problems of economic stagnation and demographic decline.” Prior to the policy rollout in 2013, economists projected that increasing women’s workforce participation to the same level as men’s could grow the country’s economy by 10%.

Abe told World Economic Forum attendees in 2014 that Japan “must become a place where women shine.” He argued that women had been “structurally and unjustifiably underused for generations” in the country’s labor force, the Financial Times reports. By speaking about the untapped power that women could bring to Japan’s economy, Abe elevated the issue of women’s roles in Japanese society, encouraging women to seek work outside the home and pushing men to accept the societal changes. By 2019, 71% of Japanese women were employed, up from about 56%.

To realize its women-focused policy goals, Japan mandated gender disclosures by major companies, expanded state-run benefits like childcare and paid leave, and adopted ESG standards in investing.

But when it came down to the details, womenomics was less successful, especially when compared to other aspects of the Abenomics agenda. Long wait lists for day care remain—a critical roadblock in bringing to life the womenomics vision. Women held just 10% of management positions at Japan’s public companies in 2020, far below a 30% target. And the COVID-19 pandemic further derailed progress women had made in the labor force.

When Abe stepped down as prime minister in 2020, Japanese women said his vision was far from reality. “I saw a huge gap between what he said and what was really happening,” a woman told the New York Times at the time. The reality of Japan’s brutal work culture, without adequate support for childcare or domestic responsibilities at home, prevented many women from taking advantage of the opportunities the country presented. (Sound familiar?) “If there are talented, competent women who get married or have children, their career paths are derailed,” the woman added.

The term “womenomics” was originally coined by Kathy Matsui, now a founding general partner of Japanese ESG venture capital fund MPower Partners. She came up with the name in 1999 while working for Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. In an op-ed for Fortune earlier this year, Matsui argued that womenomics still has potential and that the private sector needs to pick up the mantle to bring the vision to life.

With Abe gone, those who seek to carry on at least one piece of his legacy can certainly do so by working to ensure womenomics lives up to its initial promise.

Emma Hinchliffe
emma.hinchliffe@fortune.com
@_emmahinchliffe

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ON MY RADAR

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PARTING WORDS

"Today, she adds to her medal count."

-President Joe Biden, before awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to all-time great Olympic gymnast Simone Biles last week. 

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