The Asia Pacific Women thought leadership series brings focus to the status of women in the Asia-Pacific region through expert commentary on women’s social inclusion and economic engagement in several aspects of life.

Too often we consider leadership through only a political, management or a business lens. Of late, sadly, we are surrounded by examples of less than impactful leadership. Actually, not just less than impactful, simply woeful. So, who do we turn to for real leadership. Business? Government?

How do we keep leaders accountable and what is our own role in this process. How are we heard and does it help if we raise our voice. Certainly not in Japan. When there are hardly any women at the decision-making table their voices can’t be heard in any case.

So how does Japan go about bringing about change. Slowly. Very slowly. But when it happens it comes with a whoosh. And with that hopefully we will have the beginnings of a society where women are making decisions about their own future, and that of their children.

In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and his administration launched a new policy called ‘womenomics’ and announced that ‘creating a society where women can shine’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ were key pillars.

Yet COVID-19 has thrown another disappointing but ultimately unsurprising announcement our way last month, as the government announced it would be pushing back its original objective of securing 30 per cent of leadership positions for women by 2020 to 2030. A panel is meant to convene soon to rediscuss the plan for the next five years, with an aim to replace 2030 with “as quickly as possible”. It was hard not to feel despondent when this announcement was made.

It would be unfair to suggest the Japanese government has remained idle regarding women’s empowerment during the last decade. Significant budget has been allocated to the establishment of programs and policies. Australia’s Male Champion of Change program was considered, a range of models tried and tested, but without a bigger push and more specific and concerted leadership, without quantitative numerical targets and the creation of a model suited to Japan, it is hard to imagine things changing.

It is important to acknowledge that we cannot simply transplant a model that may or may not have worked in Australia, but look to what steps these champions within the Japanese environment took, what prompted them, what failed, and take steps to draw on that. The amazing examples are there, albeit not widespread. Corporations that have been highlighted once again during the COVID-19 crisis through making remote work permanent and offering more flexible work arrangements across the board, over and above their role as pioneers in HR practices that actively work in support of women include Shiseido, Calbee, Uniqlo, 7-Eleven, Daiwa Securities among others.

When we look at these examples, the question is did they apply targets or arbitrary quotas? When we look to Australia, there is a cohort of women present with the requisite leadership and corporate experience who have been active at senior levels of government or ownership of small business which means that there’s a pool of women who can take these positions on boards, advisory committees and panels.

In Japan, you will often hear the excuse that talent hasn’t been developed at that mid-management level and there isn’t a cohort to pluck from—but how does that then account for those leading examples of gender balance?

If we look at cosmetics company Shiseido—a well-recognised example of diversity and inclusion in the Japanese corporate scene, they consciously promote gender equality as part of their management strategies in order to establish an organisational culture that supports women. From 2005 to 2012, they actively worked on formulating a “Gender Equality Action Plan” that considered dynamic roles and worked to appoint women, whilst also being mindful of how to improve productivity and work life balance. As of January this year, the ratio of female managers at Shiseido Japan had risen to 33.1 per cent, in line with the Japan chapter of the 30 per cent Club campaign that Masahiko Uotani, Shiseido president, had signed on to.

Similarly, Managing Executive Officer of Calbee Group, Masako Takeda, has indicated that their diversity management measures have been targeted at improving and promoting women’s empowerment. Calbee realised in 2010 that while half their employees were women, the female manager ratio was only 5.9 per cent (April 2010), by 2019 this ratio had increased almost four times as much to 22.3 per cent.

Top leadership worked to promote female employees, conduct training and specific workshops and improve the overall working environment from the perspective of their female employees.

Beyond these brief examples, it’s clear there are many more companies, industry groups and peak bodies working towards gender parity—and wider diversity measures. That said, leadership is not an area that can be piecemeal, and true leadership would be to follow target setting with more scrutiny, more oversight and ultimately to have adopted measures a few years earlier. It is potentially a failing of leadership for the Abe administration to decide in June 2020 that these targets should be pushed back a decade, as it is not simply the global pandemic that has delayed their achievement.

An advisory board tasked with making decisions for society that only features men would only look at things from a male lens, and it would be very unusual for them to step out of the male focus—unless they were extraordinary, and relying on extraordinary in Japan won’t work. Every day the lack of women is obvious, just look at the NHK ‘manels’ or the cabinet.

While these pioneering examples have demonstrated leadership, they haven’t translated to the cabinet numbers or the tv panels and at the end of the day because women aren’t present in leadership, women’s perspectives are not represented in the outcomes of many boards.

There is no simple fix-all solution and ultimately a change has to come from using Japan’s good examples. To look abroad is helpful but it would be a slippery slope to suggest there is a ‘one size fits all’ or ‘right’ way to approach the issue that is securing leadership for women—across management and boards. 

As Japan steps forward to look at what Japanese society will look like ‘after corona’, my hope is that women are at the table giving their input and being a part of the decision making. That would be true leadership. Unlikely to happen though and so we need to be crafty and committed where we can make change. My sense is that visionary, smart business leaders, and there are many here in Japan, will help us get there. We need to support them and celebrate their efforts.


Melanie Brock is one of Japan’s best-known APAC specialists and CEO of Melanie Brock Advisory, a consultancy servicing the corporate, political and diplomatic sectors. She uniquely combines language skills, high level political, media and business networks, and practical commercial business leadership. Highlights of Melanie Brock’s 20 year plus experience include leading nationwide marketing campaigns, successful bilateral free trade agreement and architect of regional Japan CSR activities. Melanie is a passionate advocate for women in Japan and supporter of reconstruction activities in Tohoku post 3.11.