Recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy is busy navigating issues of Japanese dolphin hunting, Chinese territorial disputes and U.S. military bases in Okinawa—but she’s also discovering that feminism doesn’t end where diplomacy begins.
First, some background about the country she’s been sent to as an envoy: If the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report is any indication, Japan remains a troubling place to be a woman. Despite boasting the world’s third largest economy and routinely scoring high marks in education, the island nation still lingers near the bottom of the 2013 list, ranked 105 out of 136 in an index of gender equality that considers “national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria.” Though tied for first place in literacy and enrollment in secondary education, women still make up only nine percent of the National Diet, and for every Japanese senior official, manager or legislator who is a woman, there are 10 men. This, combined with serious concerns over national strength following a decade of population decline and enduring economic unease, means that gender equality is again entering mainstream Japanese political discourse.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, writing for The Wall Street Journal, announced in late September that he was ready to pursue “Womenomics” as part of the solution to Japan’s economic and demographic troubles:
Unleashing the potential of Womenomics is an absolute must if Japan’s growth is to continue… Japan is a country with a shrinking population caused by a seemingly intractable decline in its birthrate. But Womenomics offers a solution with its core tenet that a country that hires and promotes more women grows economically, and no less important, demographically as well.
Since then, Abe has elaborated on his new drive for women in the workplace, promising increased availability of childcare services and review of women’s roles in public companies while proudly declaring, with a note of paternalism, “I will create a society where women shine.”
This isn’t the first time there’s been a call for increased women’s involvement in the Japanese economy. In fact, Abe explicitly credits the development of “Womenomics” to a 1999 report by the chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, Kathy Matsui, that predicted 15 percent GDP growth if Japan brought women into the workplace.
With this renewed push for gender equality in mind, it’s fitting that President Obama tapped Kennedy to become the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, making her the first woman ever to hold the position. Even before Kennedy was confirmed in October of last year, the prospect of her nomination generated buzz in both countries. In the United States, commentators wondered if Kennedy’s nomination might throw a much-needed wrench into “Japan’s sexist politics” or at least serve as a role model for Japanese women.
Not everyone was so convinced. Writing for the Japanese edition of The Huffington Post, intercultural consultant Rochelle Kopp pointed out the obvious: Perhaps people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Though ranked 81 spots above Japan, the United States (ranked 23rd) is hardly the world leader in gender equality. Even first-place Iceland received an equality score of only 87.3 percent, a mere B+. The idea that Kennedy, as a white, American woman can (or should) become the champion of Japanese feminism might sound to some like an imaginary Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Prime Minister and I, a vision of advocacy grounded more in orientalist fantasy than feminist solidarity.
Regardless, Kennedy, as a vocal advocate of women’s rights, has become an important ally in Abe’s plan to finally fill in the gender gap. Late last month, she spoke beside him at a symposium in Tokyo, emphasizing that “women with children are effective managers and compassionate leaders.” In a country deeply worried about population and economics, Kennedy continues to ground her feminism in mothers and money. Speaking recently to the English edition of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi, Kennedy reaffirmed her stance:
I’ve met so many dynamic women here in Japan, in business, in the arts—conductors, movie directors as well, scientists, people who run robotics companies and do research science, astronauts—so there are so many inspiring role models here in Japan, and those women, I think, set a great example. But now what we’re seeing here is that there’s an economic argument as well as a personal argument for empowering women in the workplace and allowing them to make the choice about how they want to raise their family, what kind of career they want to have.
Ever the diplomat, Kennedy has adopted a decidedly pragmatic approach to pushing for gender equality in Japan. Her message, expressed more in economic and demographic data than feminist theory or political ideology, is unlikely to secure her the title of revolutionary feminist leader. Still, Kennedy’s vocal support for gender equality could become an important part of the political process that helps women in Japan achieve their own justice.
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.