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,
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