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Japan's 'career or family life' choice is abnormal: UN Under-Secretary-General

Izumi Nakamitsu participates in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Feb. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiyuki Sumi)
Following her appointment to U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu shakes hands with U.N. chief Antonio Guterres at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Oct. 12, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the U.N.)

NEW YORK (Mainichi) -- After entering the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1989, Izumi Nakamitsu spent her career in areas such as humanitarian aid and security before becoming U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. Now 56, the top Japanese official at the U.N. is also raising two daughters with her husband, a Swedish diplomat. The Mainichi Shimbun asked her how Japan's gender issues look from the outside.

Mainichi: You say that gender equality, which gives opportunities equally to people regardless of gender, benefits society as a whole.

Izumi Nakamitsu: This way of thinking is the global norm. Let's take, for example, conflict, a field in which the U.N. is involved. There is research that shows that peace accords in which women are at the negotiation table have a 35% higher chance of lasting 15 years than an agreement that was negotiated by men only. According to a report released by consulting giant McKinsey & Co. in 2017, companies that have women among their management have higher operating profit margins than companies that don't. It's only natural. Since half of consumers are women, having people who truly understand the needs of those consumers will raise profits. There is no arguing that gender equality is a plus in a lot of ways. The data proves it.

So then why is Japan so behind in gender equality? U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says that the issue of gender is an issue of power, of authority. Until now, pretty much 100% of various positions were monopolized by men. When asked to share those positions with women, of course there is going to be resistance from men.

It emerged that in entrance exams for Japanese medical schools, male applicants were given favorable treatment. This means that female applicants who were qualified were rejected. But think about it. If you don't accept people who are at the top in the field, Japan's national strength and corporate performance will remain low. This benefits neither Japan nor its institutions.

Mainichi: What kind of efforts are being made at the U.N.?

Nakamitsu: We have a numerical target of reaching a male-to-female ratio of 1 to 1 by 2028 among all U.N. staff -- a target that has already been reached among senior officials. All departments and bureaus have set plans, and at the Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), which I head, we plan to achieve a 1-to-1 gender ratio by 2023 at the earliest. If a department is falling behind, that fact is announced at our biannual meeting of senior officials. Senior officials promise Guterres, in a format not unlike a contract, the achievement of their work goals. If they are unable to accomplish those goals, they are subject to point deductions. If no progress is made, there are impacts on whether the senior official's employment contract is renewed.

Simply setting non-binding goals is not enough. You must establish numerical targets accompanied by penalties, monitor progress, and seek accountability, or nothing will change.

Mainichi: Is there a possibility that there are few women who seek these positions?

Nakamitsu: There is talk in Japan that qualified women are few and far between, but that's a lie. In a meeting about cyber security, for example, those who actively speak up and propose interesting ideas are young women. They aren't caught up in ideology, and do not speak from a rigid position or way of thinking. They understand "cyber" in the real sense of the word. The entry of such women into our ranks has made possible debate with new potential.

Mainichi: You are a mother raising two daughters. Have you had a lot of struggles?

Nakamitsu: Looking back, I have no memory of having gone through the kind of struggles that women in Japan are experiencing. My husband is from a family-friendly country, and it is natural for him to share housework and child-rearing with me. When he was away by himself at his post in Stockholm, it was definitely rough. It was a balancing act, especially when a busy time at work coincided with my children having to go to the hospital.

But I don't have the sense that I really struggled. It is part of the organizational culture at the U.N. to raise children while working. Taking child care leave and reminding someone that "so-and-so is working remotely today so hook them up through Skype" is just the way things are done.

Mainichi: What do you think is a major reason why you feel you haven't struggled?

U.N. Under-Secretary-General Izumi Takamitsu speaks at the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 2, 2019. (Photo courtesy of the U.N.)

Nakamitsu: The fact that I didn't face any emotional pressure. When I was in Japan, I was shocked to see an expectant mother apologize to her colleagues for "causing trouble." If something like that happened at the U.N., her supervisor would be talked about behind their back. I think that the biggest challenge for Japanese women raising children while working is this pressure.

When I talk about the division of child-rearing with my husband, he says that it's not right to let just women experience the joy of raising children. The time one can spend with one's children during a lifetime is not that long, but it's the happiest time. Isn't it extremely detrimental for men to give up that time to women and not have the opportunity to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with their children?

Mainichi: You tweet things about your family, like the lunches you make for your daughters.

Nakamitsu: Previously, I tweeted primarily about disarmament and U.N. activities, but my thinking changed about 1 1/2 years ago. There was something that former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata used to say on occasion during her years in Geneva. She said that she disliked being asked by reporters for women's magazines from Japan to allow them to take photos of her in the kitchen wearing an apron. I remembered telling her, "I understand, but for women who read those articles in Japan, it might be encouraging."

That's why recently, I've been tweeting about my family, and not just my work. It's a message to Japanese women that even while I do work like this, I'm also leading a normal family life.

I think it's only in Japan that people are forced to choose between work or family. In Japan, having both is still considered something out of the ordinary. Among my friends from university, some are working really hard at their careers but are single, while others are married but do not have children. Doesn't it mean that Japan is a defective society, if people must choose one or the other? I strongly suggest that women who want to both work and have children to do so overseas.

Mainichi: Increasingly more media are covering gender equality. What do you think of the media's coverage?

Nakamitsu: I think that there is a lot about Japanese society that we are made to believe is the norm by the media. Take, for example, a news analysis debate program. The participants are mostly men, as is the main MC. There usually is a female sub-MC sitting next to him. It's the same with dramas, too. In scenes of company board meetings, only men are sitting at the table. Young women watching such scenes are led to believe that that's the way things are. Such scenes are wrong to begin with, but people haven't realized it, have they? It is very important to change customs and people's ways of thinking, which are everywhere across Japanese society.

Mainichi: Although opportunities to think about gender equality have increased, there still are people who are fundamentally wrong in the way they think about the subject.

Nakamitsu: It's important to have doubts, and to continue debate. There was an incident when my younger daughter was attending a Japanese school here. It's a very good school. But one day, she came home and said that when they were playing dodgeball, one boy said that because girls are weak, they should be allowed to be hit twice before they're out -- but that she felt that was wrong. This is dodgeball we're talking about. Boys and girls have to compete and cooperate under the same rules. Things have to be considered not according to gender differences, but to individual differences. I advised my daughter, "That sounds odd. Why don't you talk about it as a class?" It's important to have questions and discuss them.

Mainichi: How would you like the next generation of children to think about gender equality?

Nakamitsu: I would like them to know and to believe that there is nothing that one cannot do because they are a girl or a boy. There are more and more women who are becoming astronauts, and it has become common for men to work at day care centers. Just pursue what you want to do regardless of gender. And that's not impossible. It's possible.

The world is at a major turning point, but looking at Japan, it doesn't seem to be adapting well. In order to ride out this time of transition, Japan must mobilize the various capabilities that it has domestically. Japan has overcome major waves of change in the past, including the Meiji Restoration. I hope it will make efforts without fearing change. The issue of gender is likely one of the issues that are among those major changes.

(Original Japanese interview by Toshiyuki Sumi, New York Bureau)

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