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Japan's drop in global gender gap ranking highlights lack of initiative by Abe gov't

Participants of the World Assembly for Women hosted by the Japanese government are seen at the prime minister's official residence in October 2017. Pictured from top left are: Japan International Cooperation Agency President Shinichi Kitaoka, International Trade Centre Executive Director Arancha Gonzalez, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Rui Matsukawa, Haruno Yoshida, vice chair of the Japan Business Federation Board of Councillors and NHK Chief Producer Minori Takao. Pictured from bottom left are: Marine Affairs & Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti of Indonesia, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda and U.N. Under-Secretary-General Pramila Patten. (Pool photo)

Dec. 26 marks five years since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's return to power. While he likes to boast about the accomplishments of his administration such as business improvements and stock price growth, looking at Japan's places in international rankings including women's statuses and competitiveness, one cannot help but feel concerned about the country's future.

Despite efforts by the Abe administration to promote women's active engagement, Japan received a disappointing ranking in November in the Global Gender Gap Report annually published by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss foundation known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The report analyzes and quantifies women's positions in politics, the economy, education and health, and this year Japan ranked 114th out of 144 countries -- down three places from last year, and the worst among the Group of Seven (G-7) major economies. Iceland came in first, followed by Norway and then Finland. The United States ranked 49th and China came in 100th.

Mari Miura, political science professor at Sophia University who specializes in gender studies, points out that the gender gap ranking focuses on how women in each country occupy key posts. "Japan is lagging behind in the male-female ratio among Cabinet members, which is particularly prone to swing," Miura said.

"It's only natural that the number of female Cabinet members doesn't increase since female legislators are so scarce in Japan to begin with," she adds. "To achieve a society where women can truly succeed, every aspect of the gender gap, including wages and promotion, should be given attention and efforts toward eliminating such gaps need to be made."

So, is the Abe administration confronting the challenge of eliminating this gap?

During his visit to China this year, Prime Minister Abe made a speech at a gender equality event on Sept. 20, saying, "In the four years since I came back to power, the number of working women has increased by 1.5 million and the proportion of women who remain in the workforce after giving birth now tops 50 percent for the first time." Back in June, he also addressed an international conference, boasting about Japan's employment growth, saying that it had improved by 1.85 million since the inauguration of his administration in 2012, and stressed that at least 80 percent of that growth came from women's employment.

However, professor Miura is critical of Abe's assertion. She says, "For a long time Japan's economy has advanced by using women as cheap labor. Expectations for women (to work as such inexpensive labor) have even increased in the age of the shrinking population. I don't see the Abe administration's willingness to rectify this kind of inequality while it boasts about the increasing employment rate among women."

Furthermore, there are some alarming figures concerning economic policies -- the top priority in the current administration's agenda. While Japan ranked fourth in the World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness, it placed ninth in the organization's Global Competitiveness Index among 137 countries and regions, dropping one place from the previous year. The Global Competitiveness Index shows an overall evaluation of countries and regions based on numerous indicators including market efficiency, infrastructure and innovation. Japan topped the ranking in the number of patents, but its overall ranking dropped due to factors such as a lack of effort to secure human resources such as engineers and researchers.

Economic analyst Mitsuru Saito says Japanese technology is losing its former glory. "It's mainly due to struggling exports especially in electronics areas as Japan is becoming overpowered by South Korea and China," he suggests.

Saito adds, "A nation's overall competitiveness does not solely rely on economic policies but also on the degree of freedom in education and society." He expresses concerns about the future of Japan, saying, "Apart from the gender gap, if the education gap is also left uncorrected, talented people would not be able to bring out their potential, which would be a loss for businesses and society as a whole."

According to data published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on public spending on education shown in the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), Japan spends 3.2 percent of its GDP on education -- the lowest among 34 countries available for comparison. Furthermore, in the press freedom index Japan's ranking dropped to 72nd in 2017 from 53rd in 2013.

The country ranked 51st in the 2017 World Happiness Report released by the U.N. research group Sustainable Development Solutions Network. While it moved up by two places from last year, it was still the lowest among G-7 countries. Those that occupied the top seats in this ranking were Norway, Denmark and other European welfare states that have their citizens shoulder heavy burdens but provide high-quality welfare services.

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