The number of working women in Japan has reached a record high as nursery places for toddlers increase and the restaurant sector steps up its battle for waitresses.
According to Cabinet Office data, a June surge funnelled an extra 250,000 women on to the Japanese payroll that now includes 27.72m female full-time and part-time employees — the highest since the data started being collected in 1953.
The increase in numbers, which was dominated by female workers aged between 25 and 35, means women represent just over 43 per cent of Japan’s labour force. This compares with 46.5 per cent in the US, 45.9 per cent in UK and 43.7 per cent in China, according to World Bank data.
With the Abenomics growth programme visibly losing momentum and cabinet approval ratings falling fast, Friday’s numbers provide a badly needed triumph for Japan’s prime minister. Since coming to power in late 2012, Shinzo Abe has repeatedly pitched himself as an empowerer of women, and has pushed policies aimed at increasing female participation in the workforce.
Kathy Matsui, Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, said the fact that nearly 70 per cent of the jobs secured by women in June were part-time confirms a trend that ensures Japan’s gender wage gap remains wide.
“Things don’t change overnight. At the minimum, we first need to get more women into the workforce. Some companies, desperate to retain staff, have already started converting part-timers into full-time contracts, so this may be a stepping stone towards more full-time female workers. Where progress is most needed is boosting female representation within managerial/leadership ranks,” she said.
Some of the government’s pro-women policies are beginning to bear fruit. Under Mr Abe, Japan has intensified a programme to build more nurseries and allow the country’s mothers more flexibility to re-enter the workforce after childbirth. More than 400 nurseries opened between 2013-14, and more remain under construction.
The women entering the Japanese workforce, said Tomo Kinoshita, an economist at Nomura Securities, are motivated by the need for cash, and companies — particularly restaurants — have had to tweak their hiring policies to attract women as the labour market tightens.
“But without the measures introduced by the government, we wouldn’t see this higher level of participation,” he said.
Restaurants and retailers, desperate to compete for their share of the shrinking labour force, have begun to drop their minimum hour requirements and allow part-timers to work as short as three hours a day.
But the increased level of female participation alone does not mean much, say critics of both government and corporate policies.
Japan’s female population remains one of the most under-exploited in the developed world, given its high level of education. Even when companies recruit equal numbers of men and women from universities, they do little to develop the careers of their female graduate recruits, and are notoriously bound by the assumption that women will permanently quit full-time jobs when they become pregnant.
Some believe Mr Abe has simply been lucky with his timing, and that the prevailing economic conditions are pushing women into the workforce without the government’s help.
The data released on Friday confirmed the continuing tightness of the Japanese labour market. The job openings-to-applicants ratio remained at 1.19 in June — the highest since 1992, and a symptom of the low birth rate demographics that are shrinking the labour force and pushing the average age of the population ever higher.
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