Bill Emmott Talks About a More Female Future for Japan

Economy Society Gender and Sex Politics

Bill Emmott

Journalist and consultant. Former editor-in-chief of the Economist. Author of numerous books on Japan, Italy, and other global topics. His latest book in English is the 2017 The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea. In 2019 he published Japan’s Far More Female Future in Japanese. Chairman of the charity Wake Up Foundation and chair of the trustees for the International Institute of Strategic Studies. His website is

Former Economist Editor-in-Chief Bill Emmott has tracked the pulse of Japan’s economy and society since the magazine posted him to its Tokyo bureau. His recent trips to Japan have focused on a series of interviews with women active in business, art, politics, and other fields. These investigations were the basis for Japan’s Far More Female Future, translated into Japanese by Kawakami Junko and published as Nihon no mirai wa josei ga kimeru! We spoke to him about his latest book and his thoughts on Japan’s prospects for change and success in the future.

INTERVIEWER  What was your motivation in writing this book?

BILL EMMOTT  Well, first of all, I’m always looking for excuses to visit Japan as often as I can. [Laughs] But secondly, I realized that something important was developing in terms of the female role in Japanese economy and society. We have statistics showing increased female participation in the economy, with more women in prominent positions. And finally, I was trying to think about the future of Japan and about answering the question: How is Japan going to be in the next twenty to thirty years? Will it be healthy, successful, and prosperous, or will it have difficulties?

Perhaps the crucial question to help answer that is what will be the role of women and how will the gender issue develop over the next ten to twenty years. As I’m a journalist, going to do some reporting and talk to people seemed like the way to explore this.

INTERVIEWER  How is Japan perceived overseas in terms of this gender issue?

EMMOTT  I think the general perception is that Japan is much more male-dominated compared with European countries or the United States. Of course, we recognize that it is not an equal society there, but we see more women in leadership positions—German Chancellor Angela Merkel, IMF Chair Christine Lagarde, or Theresa May as prime minister. In America, secretaries of state have included Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Clinton. So the perception is that Japan is behind the curve in terms of gender equality.

In Tokyo, Governor Koike Yuriko has been a visible sign of change in Japan in this direction, along with leaders like the mayor of Yokohama, Hayashi Fumiko. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō made a big effort to talk about “letting women shine” and the importance of, echoing Kathy Matsui from Goldman Sachs, “womenomics.” This marked the arrival of gender issues and the female role in the economy as a central part of government policy and, I think, has altered perceptions.

INTERVIEWER  What surprised you during your interviews with Japanese women?

EMMOTT  Since I’m not living in Japan, sensing change on a day-to-day basis, I tend to take regular snapshots every time I visit or do a piece of research. One thing that has surprised me was the huge increase in female access to university education in the 1990s and 2000s. The closing of the gender gap in four-year university education was reflected in the kind of people I was interviewing—women in their twenties through forties who had been through university and therefore were charting a path through their careers that was different from their mothers or their even their older sisters. This great increase in the supply of university-educated women was, I realized, going to start emerging in leadership positions in the 2020s and 2030s as that cohort reached the leadership ages of fifty to fifty-five.

The recent admissions scandal at Tokyo Medical University has reinforced the perception that the system is essentially rigged against women. But the fact that this scandal emerged, and that even that people thought it was a scandal rather than just something normal, is a sign of change. Secondly, people have correctly perceived that blockages in the system to female advancement are global. This kind of systemic prejudice has also occurred in Britain, in the United States, in European countries. I think we’re moving away from the notion of Japan as exceptional and more toward the notion that Japan’s got entrenched barriers just like we have had, and that the fact that this was in the news and that people were angry about it symbolizes some sense of hope that things are changing.

INTERVIEWER  What do you view as the toughest barrier preventing Japanese women from being active?

EMMOTT  One of the biggest is the sense of total commitment that employees are expected to make to large corporations. You sign off your life to the large corporations in return for which you accept any posting or do any job. Of course, it’s difficult for men too, but for women there are more difficult choices about their career and their life, particularly their family, that a 100 percent commitment makes very difficult. The big issue is whether corporations are changing their human resources policies and their expectations of employees rapidly enough.

This is not unique to Japan; it’s been a problem that companies in the West have had to adapt to. At the Economist, we went through a similar evolution. When I was working there, I was posted to Tokyo. I don’t think my bosses paid much attention to whether I had a wife or whether she had any interests. [Laughs] Ten to fifteen years later, when I had to think about posting employees somewhere, it was in terms of essentially two career postings taking place. This shift takes place as companies feel the necessity to change the way that they deal with their talented, professional employees. As more of those professionals are now women, the number of companies thinking about the interests of the employees in a broader way is advancing also.

Those of us who have been writing about Japan over several decades have often predicted that it is going to have a labor shortage and that this will help boost the role of women because of the necessity, but it has taken a long time to happen. This is because Japan has had relatively slow economic growth. But now labor scarcity is really biting hard and it’s particularly severe in terms of competition for professional people.

INTERVIEWER  What do you think will happen as Japanese women get more and more active? What kind of bright future is waiting?

EMMOTT  I think for the bright future, two things need to happen. One is that more women get into leadership positions, reaching a critical mass in which some of the crucial decisions inside organizations of all kinds are being made by women. This is only just beginning. As more decisions, corporate culture, and human resources policies about how to organize working life have a female influence, that will make the culture change at an accelerating rate.

Secondly, I think the labor shortage should force government policy and companies to think more deeply about how to make all their staff, male and female, work productively. Human capital is the ultimate scarcity in a society where labor is short, and I think it is recognized that probably the deepest damage done by so-called lost decades has been in damage to the way in which human capital, both men and women, has been nurtured. The big increase in nonregular, precarious short-term work for both men and women that took place in the 1990s and the 2000s reduced the amount of training and career development that organizations were investing in their employees. This took away one of the great advantages that Japanese corporations had—the superiority of their human capital development processes.

What’s crucial is that organizations of all kinds work to restore those processes for both men and women by stepping up the training. If the career development and productivity skills of employees become a key target for public and corporate policy, that can produce a brighter future.

INTERVIEWER  Having interviewed a range of women for your book, what do you think is their strong point in terms of their management skills, way of thinking, or creativity?

EMMOTT  For this book, I interviewed a small sample of people. And all the subjects I chose were women who had achieved success in their own branch of work and life. So I chose them for the example they can give to other women—and to certain men—to show how things can work when you have a critical mass of women in leadership positions.

I think one characteristic of the people I interviewed was their willingness to shape their own reality: to design their own organization, their own career, their own life in a sometimes hostile environment. Baba Kanako, who set up a school uniform recycling business in Shikoku, was responding to her own single motherhood and her lack of resources and finding ways to create a new reality for herself and for mothers like her. Nishimoto Tomomi, the orchestra conductor, was reacting to a musical environment that was relatively hostile to women, but developed her own style. Hayashi Chiaki, founder of the creative agency Loftwork, was writing about Silicon Valley and East Coast startups and thought, “I can’t get where I want in journalism because of the rigidities of Japanese media organizations. Why don’t I start up a company?” This spirit of reacting to barriers by creating your own opportunities is the common thread across the people I interviewed.

We might start to see politics emerge as a real source of change for the gender issue in Japan. Even with the very male-dominated Diet, you are going to see women finding themselves in prominent positions, even perhaps a female prime minister within the next decade.

INTERVIEWER  Going back to economic issues, you’ve mentioned the tax system as applied to married couples as a problem area.

EMMOTT  Yes, the spousal tax deduction, which reduces the main earner’s tax bill only when the spouse earns under a certain amount. In fact, it acts as a kind of tax upon marriage and dual incomes. It discourages professional work by spouses.

The biggest source of the difficulty in boosting Japan’s birthrate is financial insecurity; it has a lot to do with the nonregular and part-time work and the loss of stable jobs. The important task is to reduce that level of insecure work over the next five to ten years. The Work Style Reform Act last year reduced some of the discrimination against part-time and nonregular workers, but it hasn’t had a material effect on the fundamental insecurity yet.

At the other end of the income scale, for higher income families the greater ability to bring in nannies, or au pairs, from neighboring countries will also help people who want to have children and combine it with careers. Currently, it’s very expensive to do that, and I’d like to see it become cheaper by opening up the immigration process.

INTERVIEWER  Diversity has been a key word in Japan in recent years. Some people really want to make diversity come through, but it feels like they aren’t the majority. Is fear of diversity at work here?

EMMOTT  Yes, and I think it’s an understandable fear. Ultimately, once you get beyond the case for diversity based on equal rights, the more positive case is that diversity is more creative and destabilizing in a proper, constructive way. But precisely because the diversity introduces new uncertainties, it’s troubling to many people. Traditional companies in some ways have prospered by not being diverse, by being conformist and predictable in the way in which they behave. Diversity is in direct contradiction to this simplistic description of what makes these organizations work well.

While I understand why it is difficult to really seize hold of diversity and get enthusiastic about it, its necessity will force change in this direction rather than the idea of diversity actually becoming popular.

INTERVIEWER  Do you have any advice for younger Japanese women?

EMMOTT  I don’t know if they want advice from some old English guy. [Laughs] But my advice would be to seriously think about starting your own organization, creating your own adventures by embracing the startup culture. Be willing to take risks and treat your life as a series of adventures. One great advantage for current generations, male and female, is that there are more opportunities in diversity in their lives than what was true thirty or forty years ago. They should embrace that. At the same time, they should be demanding of the people around them—particularly the men—to ensure that they also welcome that kind of adventurous, risk-taking spirit.

I don’t think there is a public policy that can encourage risk taking. I think it has to be through examples: people proving it works, and then the media highlighting the successes and the excitement of those achievements. It’s a question of reaching a critical mass of success that will help to encourage that risk taking.

(Originally written in English based on an interview by Sainowaki Keiko.)

equality diversity women womenomics