One morning in February, Japan’s government personnel department began an experiment in a nondescript building in a Tokyo residential area that could end up rewriting the rules of the nation’s powerful bureaucracy.
For the first time, it invited 19 women from different ministries to an all-female training course designed to groom them for senior government positions. The four-day program inspired a 30-page blueprint, submitted to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, on how to fix a system that keeps government staff at work till late at night, sacrificing family life.
“We shared each other’s sufferings, fears about our future, guilt about putting the burden on colleagues” when we left on time to care for children, said Noriko Kawamura, 38, an assistant manager at the Health Ministry. “We began to realize that it was no good just grumbling about it, we had to do something. I never thought it would turn out to be such a big thing.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leads a global forum today in Tokyo on women’s leadership, appointed a record-equaling five women to his 18-person cabinet last week, part of a goal to triple the proportion of female managers to 30 percent by 2020. As Abe hosts a reception for delegates this evening, civil servants in the capital are preparing for months of late-night overtime to prepare for the budget in December.
Losing women from the workforce in their 20s and 30s to look after children is no longer an option for Japan as its workforce ages and there are fewer men to fill posts. In 1975, during the boom days, the country had three times as many people under 15 as over 65. Now there are twice as many in the older group.
“Working behavior will have to change, there’s no other way,” said Kato, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, who is also head of the personnel department, on an NHK television broadcast on Aug. 17. “I recently received valuable proposals from career women and would like to put them into concrete action.”
About 3 percent of management positions in Japan’s bureaucracy are held by women, a third of the level in South Korea and less than one-tenth of the rate in the U.S., according to government data. The imbalance was highlighted for those who attended the February course at the Training Center for National Public Employees.
“It was weird to see only women at first,” said Fuyumi Naito, 40, an assistant manager at the Environmental Ministry, who has a 7-year-old son. “But in the end it was really fruitful. There was a momentum to put this into action, to make a proposal to the government.”
To identify barriers to success and how to overcome them, they e-mailed a survey to other career women in Japan’s bureaucracy, known as Kasumigaseki after the Tokyo district that houses most of Japan’s cabinet-level ministries.
They got 123 replies. After four months of discussions and revisions, the group sent the finished document to Kato.
The proposal targeted the “three vices” of Kasumigaseki that require bureaucrats to work overtime: preparing for the Finance Ministry’s budget-related hearings; drafting briefings for ministers facing questions in parliament; and dealing with the technical wording in drafts of bills.
“We spend an enormous amount of time just waiting -- sometimes up to midnight -- for communications from other ministries,” said Ikuko Shirota, who joined the Ministry of Finance in 2001. Work related to parliament can go on until to 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, she said.
Crunch time is the annual budget negotiations that started this month -- a flurry or bureaucratic activity each year that typically separates women who have to go home to care for children, from male colleagues who have to stay and work through the night.
“This isn’t just for women, it’s universal,” said Naito. “It’s an issue for everyone working in Kasumigaseki.”
The proposal includes a mix of traditional steps to help working mothers -- like flexible career paths and teleworking -- to dealing with issues more particular to Japanese work culture.
In the second group, a key target is point No. 6: Getting rid of those all-nighters.
That’s already being tried is some cases, thanks to Yuko Obuchi, daughter of a former premier and Abe’s new trade and industry minister. She persuaded the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to hand out questions to bureaucrats for parliamentary debate by 6 p.m., two days before the debate.
Obuchi, 40, is the first woman to get the powerful trade and industry portfolio. She won her father Keizo Obuchi’s seat at the age of 26 after he died in office.
“It’s been difficult to combine my work with taking care of the family,” said Obuchi, mother of two young boys, in an interview last month before her cabinet appointment. “The system is set up for men.”
Abe wants women to make up about 5 percent of officials at deputy rank or higher by the end of March 2016. Today, he will open the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo, a forum for women’s issues in Japan whose keynote speaker isChristine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Other participants include Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, and Cherie Blair, a barrister and wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Leveling the field would also set an example for the private sector, said Satoshi Osanai, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo. Women hold 11 percent of all management-level posts in Japan, half the level of Malaysia and a quarter of the proportion in the U.S.
“The wind is blowing in their favor, but it won’t be easy to change, it will take time,” said Osanai. “We can expect a spill-over effect to the private sector.”
Women who pass the national exams to join the elite sphere of Kasumigaseki soon find themselves in a world where dedication is often judged by work hours.
“The toughest time was in my 20s when I was single and worked around the clock,” said Kawamura, who remembers holding her elder sister’s newborn baby and fretting that she would never have the same chance. “I just didn’t have the energy or time to look for a partner after work. I was lucky if I could go home on the last train.”
Kawamura was one of four women out of 22 career hires who joined the Health Ministry in 1999. The other three quit before they turned 30. At 29, she also went to the personnel department to resign.
“My bosses said: ‘We’ve overworked her and she’s really tired and has gone slightly mad. We should find her a post where she can rest.’”
There was no such post within the ministry. So Kawamura was sent to a local government office in Saitama, north of Tokyo, where she spent two years overseeing a policy to care for the elderly.
“Exhaustion has very serious consequences,” she said. “Being overworked makes you depressed. I understand that now.”
After her return to the ministry, she survived partly thanks to the support of her husband, who did most of the housework and helped collect their two children from pre-school.
She said the February meeting helped form a bond between the participants because most of them had never been able to discuss their problems before with women in the same boat.
Even with the support of the prime minister, change will take time, especially in the traditionally male-dominated bureaus like the Finance Ministry. Women account for about 20 percent of those who pass the national exams for career public servants but make up only 6 percent at the MOF, said Yasushi Kinoshita, who retired in July as the ministry’s top bureaucrat after a 35-year career. The MOF hired a record number of female career bureaucrats in fiscal 2014 -- five out of 22. That’s better than last year when it only hired two.
In the past year the MOF set up a lounge for female staff in a converted smoking area, and introduced mobile terminals so women can work from home. Departments have been asked to avoid unnecessary after-hours work so that staff can leave by 8 p.m.
“We need to hire more women to get the best staff,” said Kinoshita. “We have to close the gap.”