Japan's Change Generation

Letter from Tokyo

Japanese college students during a job-hunting rally in Tokyo, January 2014.
Japanese college students during a job-hunting rally in Tokyo, January 2014. (Yuya Shino / Courtesy Reuters)

Four years ago, Hiroki Komazaki came up with a novel way of making up for Japan’s striking lack of child day care centers, which has long been an obstacle to Japanese women pursuing careers. His innovation was to turn vacant space in Tokyo’s apartment buildings into small-scale nurseries. But Komazaki’s plan violated government regulations that protected existing providers from new competition -- a familiar problem in Japan. Instead of giving up, however, he did something uncharacteristically Japanese: he did it anyway. 

In setting up his first “home care” nursery, Komazaki demonstrated that his idea could work, and ultimately found a political ally in Atsuko Muraki, the vice minister of Japan’s health ministry and the second woman to hold the position. With Muraki’s support, Komazaki persuaded the government to pass a revised national child care law that will go into effect in 2015, allowing entrepreneurs to establish nurseries of fewer than 20 children.

Muraki is a prominent advocate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s effort to revitalize the Japanese economy by increasing gender equality, known popularly as Womenomics. Progress is indeed badly needed: last year, Japan fell to an embarrassing 105th out of 136 countries in a gender equality ranking by the World Economic Forum. According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, fixing the problem -- particularly by getting more women into the workforce -- could increase Japan’s GDP by 15 percent.

For the past two decades, observers have pointed to such problems in describing Japan as stagnant, glacial, and arthritic. Experts inside and outside the country have called in vain for reforms on par with the country’s Meiji Restoration and its post-World War II recovery. Meanwhile, political leaders have failed to knock Japan out of its stupor, and Abe’s economic reforms have yet to bring about a significant economic recovery or major structural changes. But all that is only part of the story. Outside the government, a new generation of liberal reformers like Komazaki is bringing about real change.

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