When I recently visited Sayaka Osakabe at her sunny apartment in the quiet suburbs of Kawasaki, Japan, she spoke at length about her plans to transform Japanese society.

Osakabe, 37, has become something of a national symbol of women’s rights, leading a highly publicized campaign against “matahara,” a term she has turned into a buzzword for pregnancy discrimination. Two years ago, as a contract editor for a quarterly newsletter in Japan, Osakabe says she was taking time off in the middle of a trying pregnancy when her boss knocked on her front door and asked her to resign. (Her absence, she recalls him saying, had “caused trouble.”) She returned to work soon after, only to suffer a miscarriage. Following her recovery, she says, her boss asked her if she was still having sex.

Although Japanese law forbids this type of harassment, Osakabe’s story is strikingly common. According to a recent report by the human resources company Recruit, a majority of Japanese women quit their jobs after having a child. And that reality has exacted a heavy toll on diversity in the top echelons of corporate Japan: whereas women occupy 14 percent of executive posts in the United States, they hold only 1.1 percent of comparable positions in Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as part of his larger effort to revitalize a stagnant Japanese economy, has responded to the problem with a set of policies known as Womenomics. The government has pledged, for example, to ensure that all parents can access childcare. (Currently, more than 20,000 Japanese children are on waiting lists for a place in nursery school.) It has also aimed to boost women in leadership positions from ten percent to 30 percent by 2020, is debating tax incentives that would encourage women to work full-time, and is planning to allow more foreign laborers into the country to work as housekeepers.

Tokyo is taking its time, however, and so individuals have begun to take matters into their own hands—a rare sight in consensus-minded Japan. Osakabe, for one, has quit her job, settled a harassment case against her employer in a labor tribunal, and become the public face of a highly publicized campaign against matahara. And she’s not alone. Over the past year, I have interviewed nearly 100 people who are campaigning for change in Japan or are seeing it happen up close. Like Abe, whose administration just completed its second year in office, a majority of them described female empowerment as a key to economic and societal revival. And almost all the interviewees—even the most cynical—pointed to positive developments already taking place.

By and large, these advocates aren’t challenging prevailing structures so much as tweaking them, trading the language of feminism for that of the larger social good—an ethic of pragmatism. Bringing more women into the workplace, they argue, could transform what it means to live and work in Japan, leading to shorter but more productive work hours; new business opportunities that cater to working women; a larger available talent pool; a more equitable division of labor between husbands and wives; and as Japanese society ages, more flexibility to care for elderly family members. So far, the pitch is resonating.


Abe has said that he wants “to create a society in which women shine.” But like many of the people I spoke with, Osakabe takes exception with the slogan. “The word ‘shine’ does not resonate with me. Before ‘shining,’ let’s just be allowed to work,” she said. “If my dream comes true, the majority of women will be working and housewives will be a minority."

Osakabe’s miscarriage had the unexpected result of giving her the spare time to advocate for working mothers and found Matahara Net, a nonprofit that seeks to “create a society where all women can give birth and work if she wishes.” Since her last encounter with her boss, she has collected 8,000 signatures to petition the government for stronger maternity protection laws and compiled 70 stories from working women that she plans to turn into a book. And in a society that reveres authority, she has gained national notoriety for her willingness to fight back. “I am the first one to speak up,” she told me. 

Osakabe in her apartment, November 2014.
Devin Stewart

A few days after speaking with Osakabe, I met with a group of female bureaucrats in Tokyo who have banded together to reform the way work is done in the Japanese capital. In early 2014, the central government’s personnel agency selected 19 women to undergo a management training program with lectures from female executives such as Yukako Uchinaga, of IBM Japan, who encouraged them to stick to their convictions. “At first I thought it was weird to see all these women in [the government district] Kasumigaseki together. When we go to meetings, we tend to be the only women in the room,” one of the participants told me.

After the training program, the women kept in touch, and in the pre-dawn hours before work, they produced a report on the needs of working women in the government. After reading the report, a senior cabinet official championed their cause, asking every government ministry to draw up plans to incorporate their proposals toward transforming work life.

The report’s central message was simple. “Being a mother and family obligations prevent us from experiencing essential posts for career advancement,” Ikuko Shirota, a finance ministry official, told me. “We must work dramatically less. The essential point of our proposal is to change all of Kasumigaseki [the Japanese bureaucracy] to streamline work and lessen overtime hours.”

To bolster its case, the report pointed to trends that will force changes in the way work is done. The total percentage of female officials has steadily grown from three percent in 1988 to 20 percent in 2004, and it is now approaching 30 percent. The percentage of female government officials of childbearing ages, meanwhile, is set to double from 15 percent today to 30 percent in the near future. The long work hours—a majority of female government officials work between 40 and 80 overtime hours per month—that have been the norm will no longer be tenable. As it welcomes more women into its ranks, the government will have to end the everyone-stay-until midnight mentality and allow more flexibility and telecommuting.

Shirota and her ally in the environment ministry, Fuyumi Naito, do acknowledge that they have seen significant progress—more sensitivity toward women, fewer dirty or sexist jokes, and more consciousness about power harassment. It no longer resembles a “boys’ school,” they said.

When I worked in Kasumigaseki 15 years ago as a researcher, it was still common for offices to have a team of women, or “office ladies,” devoted to menial tasks like paperwork or making and serving tea, a practice that has since faded. “If people want tea, they have to get it themselves from the vending machine,” Shirota added. “Now with Womenomics, it’s the time that true change might happen. If we miss this chance, there won’t be another one in the future.”


My trip coincided with the release of a viral video about the trials of being a working mother in Japan. It was created by a group of mothers who work at Cybozu, a socially minded technology company that produces groupware, technology that enables employees to work remotely, with the backing of the company’s CEO, Yoshihisa Aono, who is known for showing up to events dressed as his company’s mascot—Bozuman, a caped superhero—and made news in 2010 when he took childcare leave, the first CEO of a Tokyo Stock Exchange–listed Japanese company to do so.

The video depicts a Japanese working mother who must leave the office early to pick up her sick son, since her husband is unable to. On the train, she wonders when it became her job to pick up the child from nursery school. As she walks home with her son in her arms, her mind turns to the overwhelming balancing act of caring for a sick child while fulfilling her duties at the office and home. “I guess I’m not sleeping again tonight,” she thinks to herself, sighing. 

Then, her son, in her arms, speaks up. “Mommy, are you OK?” he asks. She pauses. The music resumes, and a list of questions runs in her head: Am I OK? Am I doing my best at work? Am I loving my son enough? Am I loving myself? She pats her son's back, saying, “Yes, I'm OK. I'm OK,” as if reciting an affirmation. The video ends with mother and son walking home together, chatting happily.

On a screen in the lobby of Cybozu’s Tokyo headquarters, the video has been playing on a loop. “Public feedback from the video has been 70 percent positive, 30 percent negative,” Aono told me. His initial goal, he said, was to promote his company while sparking a debate about working mothers. But he was surprised by the strong public reaction.

“I figured men might feel nothing from this video and women would become emotional before we launched it,” he said. “But there is a change in Japan because many men cried and tweeted about our video. Men feel guilty because they have imposed their lifestyles on others and let wives do housework without feeling empathy and without an idea they needed to help out—that was our fathers’ generation,” Aono said, echoing the sentiments of many other interviewees.

Like many, Aono has seen a receding of the values of the so-called showa period, lasting from 1920s to the 1980s, when society encouraged personal sacrifice to fuel Japan’s economic growth. Taking their place is the ethic of ikumen—a variation of ikemen, which means “cool guy”—or men who help out with childrearing. The archetype is a young father with a baby strapped to his chest—an image that has become the latest symbol of masculinity in Japan’s cities and is spreading throughout the country.

Ikumen three years ago was only a buzzword, but now 95 percent of Japanese today know this word, according to a nonprofit survey,” Aono said. “Therefore minds are changing. The next key word will be ikuboss—bosses who change their management style.”

Megumi Taoka, who teaches leadership training at Globis University in Tokyo, was baffled by the men who cried while watching the Cybozu video and worried about it creating a feeling of victimization among mothers. “I have a male friend who describes himself as ‘femio’ (feminine) who burst into tears when he saw that video,” she said incredulously. Vanity, she argued, will push men to embrace the ikumen mindset. “All men want to be cool, and CEOs who embrace diversity are seen as cool.” 

One of the biggest obstacles to change in corporate Japan is the bloc of senior, and usually male, managers just below the CEO who feel they have paid their dues and covet top positions. They often feel threatened by rapidly ascending female colleagues who will compete for prestigious titles. It remains up to company leaders to keep those attitudes in check.

And increasingly, they are. Akira Matsumoto, the president of Japanese snack company Calbee, is well known for his conviction that diversity is critical to growth. “Matsumoto knows the importance as well as difficulties of diversity in Japan,” Calbee executive Chisa Hayakawa told me. “Japanese men look down on women and don’t think they are capable. Calbee’s customers are women, so we need their perspectives. Matsumoto made a strong commitment, saying to employees that if you don’t like diversity you should leave the company.”

Other executives I visited during this trip, including from Nissan, ProNova, Sharp, Hitachi, Recruit, and Oisix, spoke of the urgency and centrality of promoting women in the workplace. Two female executives—Izumi Kobayashi, a board member of ANA Holdings and former head of Merrill Lynch Japan, and Junko Nakagawa, the first female CFO of Nomura—told me in separate meetings that gender diversity has become the most important issue in Japan over the past two years, since it provides a litmus test for a company’s ability to adapt and compete globally.

At the same time, companies that resist change are encountering increasing pressure from the outside. The country’s two most powerful business lobbies—Keidanren, which is now headed by Toray Industries CEO Sadayuki Sakakibara, and Keizai Doyukai, headed by Takeda Pharmaceutical chair Yasuchika Hasegawa—have taken up the cause, cajoling their corporate members to publish targets for promoting female employees and plans to address the discrimination. Both are anticipating government legislation that is expected to come before parliament this upcoming spring. 

Norms in wider society are shifting, too. Junko Hibiya, a linguist who became the first female president of International Christian University of Japan, says that people are increasingly speaking in ways that are gender neutral. “If you look at middle-school girls, they are using gender neutral words. “‘Uchi’ [a variant of the first person pronoun “I,” which is gendered in Japanese]—that’s an emerging word in the past ten years. Girls said they used ‘uchi’ because it is more neutral and not too female. Boys and girls are merging a bit. It reflects a less male-female dichotomy,” Hibiya said.

Hibiya has also noticed this linguistic change among adults, including politicians. “Men and women are sounding more similar because men are dropping extremely masculine traits,” she said. “It’s a feminized environment. Trends like this will eventually spread out into the countryside.” These developments, Hibiya suggested, reflect a broader shift toward individualism. “Culturally, we need to find our identity in something different beyond a company. You should be able to be yourself, based on your interests,” Hibiya said.

Japanese society is in the midst of a social experiment, and the stakes are nothing less than the maintenance of the country’s economic and social dynamism. If it works, it could buffer Abe’s plans for economic revival and propel Japan forward. If it doesn’t, Hibiya is categorical about the consequences: “We are doomed,” she said.

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  • DEVIN STEWART is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
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