Japanese women could bolster the economy greatly, but not until attitudes change. Photographer: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese women could bolster the economy greatly, but not until attitudes change. Photographer: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Ayaka Shiomura's tears show why Shinzo Abe's talk of empowering Japan's women is still more hot air than policy.

The Tokyo assemblywoman two days ago urged colleagues to budget assistance for women struggling to balance work and childrearing, and to offer funding for fertility treatments -- sage advice one would think in a fast-aging nation where pets now outnumber children. The response from male members of Abe's own Liberal Democratic Party? Sexist jeers. “You're the one who needs to get married,” shouted one member, the Asahi newspaper reports. “Can’t you even bear a child,” yelled another.

Truth is, Abe’s embrace of the Womenomics concept championed by Goldman Sachs economist Kathy Matsui is window-dressing, not reality. His proposals to increase access to daycare, extend maternity leave to three years and encourage companies to name female board members lacks imagination and teeth. It’s more a best-practices guide for CEOs than a workable plan to harness Japan’s most-untapped resource.

But Wednesday's sorry spectacle, one that reduced Shiomura to tears, demonstrates why Japan faces such an uphill climb in empowering half of its 126 million people. Policy changes are just one part Abe's challenge. The bigger one is attitudinal.

The verbal pile-on following Shiomura's speech came from the section where members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party sit. That prompted the secretary general of her party (named Your Party) to lodge a protest to the LDP over a scene that a female lawmaker from a third party called “monstrous sexual harassment.” Yet the LDP has a long and sordid track record of sexist remarks.

Hakuo Yanagisawa is a case in point. He was health minister during Abe's first stint as prime minister in 2007 when he described women as "baby-making machines." And there's sexist-in-chief Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister who's heading the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee. In 2003, as I've discussed in a previous column, Mori called career women who put off childbirth selfish and challenged whether they should be eligible for pensions. In 2009, while in a tough local-election race with a 33-year-old female travel agent, Mori warned voters not to be won over by her "nice body" and "sexiness."

On February 10, I explored a pattern of inopportune comments from Yoichi Masuzoe, Tokyo's newish governor. They include whether humans who menstruate are fit for public office and deriding female lawmakers as "middle-aged hags." This history of misogynistic rants didn't stop Abe from endorsing and campaigning for Masuzoe this year -- or letting Mori be the global face of Tokyo 2020. And people call Abe a feminist?

Abe should toughen his policies and even consider imposing quotas on the number of female executives. After all, studies from McKinsey and the World Economic Forum show that companies that tap female talent tend to be more innovative, productive and profitable. Abe also should prod and incentivize companies to give men as well as women more flexible work schedules, so they'll have more time to spend with their families -- or to start one.

But as Shiomura's tears demonstrate, the real challenge will be convincing a deeply paternalistic society to stop living in the past. In such a top-down political and business culture, it's up to Abe both to have a national dialogue about the costs of sexism and to raise the level of discourse in Tokyo --starting with his own party. It's time for the gray-haired men who run Japan to lean in, too.

To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net