Volume 3(2014)

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Womenomics vs. Women: Neoliberal Cooptation of Feminism in Japan

Chelsea Szendi Schieder

Assistant Professor, School of Political science and Economics, Meiji University, Japan


The recent gestures toward "womenomics" under Prime Minister Abe's leadership in Japan offers another location from which to examine the relationship between the prioritizing of market demands and what has been dubbed the "trickle-down feminism" of liberal feminist demands. This article addresses the blind spots of economic policies that focus on increasing work opportunities for an elite segment of women. While recognizing that the promise of promoting more women to higher-level positions does address long-standing frustrations about the institutionalized sexism of political and corporate culture in Japan, this paper seeks to reposition the rhetoric of "womenomics" alongside the reality of the feminization of poverty in Japan.

Keywords: womenomics, neoliberalism, feminism, poverty


"Women are Japan's most underutilized resource."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister Abe Shinzô advertises "womenomics"—a policy of opening top political and business positions to women—as a thematic centerpiece of his various proposed reforms to the structure of labor in contemporary Japan. As part of a package of structural innovations designed to bolster the lagging Japanese economy, encouraging more women to advance in the workforce is part of a strategy that, following the neoliberal model, seeks a more general deregulation of labor to make labor markets more flexible.1 In Japan now, women's labor is becoming idealized as a new motor for economic change and the focus of discussions about neoliberal labor deregulation, in particular in a political climate where discussions about immigration are practically taboo. Abe seeks to tap into the economic potential of Japan's highly educated women to boost the economy, which he refers to as a "living thing."2 Nurturing the economy at the top, however, shifts the conversation away from the hardship increasingly endured by those—both male and female—no longer able to secure a living. As David Harvey has pointed out in his studies of neoliberalism as it has developed globally since the 1970s, the ideal of market deregulation generally favors the needs of a "good business climate" over the needs of the "well-being of the population at large" (2007). Indeed, as these policies have been implemented around the world, Harvey has found that, "although neoliberalism has had limited effectiveness as an engine for economic growth, it has succeeded in channeling wealth from subordinate classes to dominant ones and from poorer to richer countries." Here I will explore how Japan's flirtation with neoliberal labor policies in the name of liberating the potential of many career-oriented women in Japan—for example, with more flexible work environments—can have different consequences for women, and men, seeking stability and sustainability with work. What in one context offers freedom, in another offers only the freedom to starve.

1.The "three arrows" of Abenomics are fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reform

2.For example, in his November 18, 2014 press conference.