During my journeys in Japan, I’ve met a number of modern Japanese women who represent the nation’s face of gender empowerment in the 21st century.
These women are confident and career-oriented; some are married with children; and they are being recognized for their contributions to society.
Rui Matsukawa epitomizes this group. Matsukawa passed the examination for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA), and joined its ranks in April 1993. In 1997, she received a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
Matsukawa, a wife and mother of two girls, is now the first director of the Gender Mainstreaming Division, Foreign Policy Bureau, MOFA, a position newly established in 2014.
I first met Matsukawa just before she coordinated the kick-off World Assembly for Women in Tokyo (WAW! Tokyo 2014), an event held at the initiative of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with keynote speakers that included the Prime Minister himself, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde.
The assembly’s motto, “Toward a Society Where Women Shine,” is from Abe’s words at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when he said that, “Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work, and enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice for Japan.”
Abe’s presence and exceptionally long participation at WAW! Tokyo — he and his wife Akie were present for one and a half days — reinforced the belief, shared by attendees, that he is not just paying lip service to women’s issues. He is truly committed to women’s empowerment.
Matsukawa has her own tale of finding her voice in society. “Actually, I was a shy girl when I was little,” she says. “I never imagined that I would like to speak in front of many people.”
Because she didn’t like to raise her hand in class, her outgoing mother made a big black paper hat and arranged for Matsukawa to perform at a community center as a magician in order to help her overcome some of that shyness.
What changed her persona and allowed her to shine in public, however, was her best friend from a childhood spent in her hometown of Nara.
This girl was always putting up her hand and saying, “I think . . .” She had an opinion and was very bold and active. “I was so impressed by her that I thought, ‘This is also possible for me,’ ” Matsukawa recalls. “She was like a [role] model for me.”
Surprisingly, although the pair were in school together in Nara for just one year, the impact this friend had on Matsukawa serves as an example of how, even at a very young age, women can serve as role models for each other, sometimes without even knowing it.
When Matsukawa sat for the MOFA exam, out of a total of about 700 applicants, just one or two women passed out of 28 finalists. At that time, it was easy for women to feel discouraged or intimidated, Matsukawa says.
Fortunately, in her year, four women passed. “It was [a] historically high [number],” she says and laughs. Today, the pass ratio is two-thirds to one-third men to women, representing a significant improvement in women’s participation in MOFA.
Strong negative stereotypes about the gender gap in Japan persist outside the country, however, and women’s representation in political and business leadership in the nation remains poor.
But this is not just a numbers game; it is broader and deeper. That explains the upcoming WAW! Tokyo 2015 topic choices: “Work Life Management,” “Change with Men,” and “The Difficulties Shared by Women throughout the World,” to name only three.
With a family and a profession, Matsukawa, unlike many women in Japan and elsewhere, has enjoyed a relatively trouble-free career. “I never feel like I’m being mistreated [at MOFA] because I’m a woman,” she says.
Where the disadvantage comes is in the balance between the private and public space, which is a common experience for most Japanese women.
In Japan, women do the heavy lifting in family life, as they do in many parts of the world. The responsibilities related to childrearing fall almost exclusively into the woman’s lap. If you also have a full-time career, as Matsukawa does, that means having to do two jobs: one paid, one not.
In Matsukawa’s case, she never thought about the career–family life dichotomy. “You can do both, my mother did it,” she says. But this does not mean her life has been without challenges.
“The difficult part,” she confesses, “is whether or not you choose a ‘super career’—this means, are you aiming to be a director, or are you just going to continue in the job [without aiming for the top].”
Indeed, while 70 percent of Japanese women work in either full-time or part-time jobs (after just over a year of the Abe administration, around a million women newly entered the labor market), women in leadership roles account for a smaller ratio, especially when it comes to those seeking both full-time careers and a family life.
This is for a number of reasons, including inflexible employee contracts and the expectation that the women will work overtime.
What’s the solution? “We have to change this work–life balance,” Matsukawa says. “It’s not only harmful to women, but also men. [Indeed], more and more Japanese men are [often] faced with taking care of their elderly parents, which means that [some] men [may] require more reasonable, flexible work hours, as do [many] women. It’s probably Prime Minister Abe’s top priority,” she adds.
For positive change to occur, the whole population has to play its part, Matsukawa believes.
“We want to change the working style. Being more productive in a shorter time is not just about women. We have to leave behind the past model: the man working crazily until late at night to support the family.
“That was fine when we had an expanding economy. We have to change the model now, to [one in which] men and women work together more efficiently and with greater productivity. We’re talking about a quality of life for the elderly, disabled, [and] foreigners to feel safe and sustain their living. That’s Japan’s model for the next phase—[an improved quality of life].”
Indeed, “[Japan’s] changing already because men don’t earn as much money now as they used to,” Matsukawa explains. “Whether the government does something or not, the Japanese economy demands that more women enter the labor market in order to sustain it.
So change will occur inevitably.
The point is to bring about a ‘good’ change. More women should take roles in decision-making positions.” Like Matsukawa, my sense is that change is coming to Japan, one way or another.
The second year of WAW! Tokyo, which Matsukawa’s office is overseeing, will take place in late August.
While last year’s conference was career-oriented, this year’s themes are more inclusive, with such topics as the difficulties of single mothers, girl’s education, women’s roles in peace and security, and women and science—even a table with college students will be added.
And men will make up 30 percent of the participants. For Matsukawa and others, this year’s gathering really will be “WAW” for all.
Dr Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is currently in Japan as a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellow, completing her next book, "Japan: The Super Nation Brand."© Japan Today