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Friday December 9, 2005

Japan's 'Womenomics'

William Pesek Jr.

In August 1999, Kathy Matsui raised many a male eyebrow in Japan with a report on how the future of the No. 2 economy was in women's hands. Goldman Sachs (Japan) Ltd.'s chief strategist called the phenomenon "womenomics." Part of Matsui's analysis was that tapping just the male half of Japan's population lowered the quality of the national labor pool and, ultimately gross domestic product. It came out at a time when politicians were deriding career women who don't bear children as selfish and overeducated. Young women refusing to marry and have kids -many of whom live with their parents- were labeled "parasite singles."

Yet six years on, Matsui senses some cracks in Japan's glass ceiling, especially now that the economy is on the mend. "While much more progress still needs to be made at both the public- and private-sector levels to foster greater female labor participation, we believe Japan is finally moving in the right direction," Matsui says.

In a new report, Matsui recommends a basket of 115 companies that may get a boost from increased female purchasing power. They include industries related to day care, nursing care, real estate, financial services, beauty, prepared foods, apparel and accessories, furniture, entertainment and placement agencies.

Japan's glass ceiling still keeps many well-educated women out of corporate boardrooms, unless they're serving tea to the men sitting around the table. Also, the lack of an affordable infrastructure for women who want to work and raise children means motherhood is often a career-ending prospect. Until more mothers can have careers too, the birthrate won't increase, leaving Japan with a long-term labor shortage.

Quietly, though, things may be improving, a trend personified by Fumiko Hayashi and Tomoyo Nonaka. In 2005, Hayashi, 59, was named chief executive officer of retailer Daiei Inc., and nonaka, 51, became CEO of Sanyo Electric Co. They're the first women to run major Japanese companies. Anecdotal data also tell the story. "Out of economic necessity or as a result of lifestyle choices, an increasing portion of Japanese women are actively participating in the workforce and becoming a very important source of income and consumption growth," Matsui says.

Women have been a powerful economic force for some time. Because many single females live with their parents, they pay little rent and have a disproportionate amount of disposable income. Take away their spending at department stores, travel agencies and fancy eateries, and some of the men standing in the way of gender equality probably wouldn't have jobs.

As of 2004, the percentage of Japanese women in the labor force was still low by even developing-nation standards, at 55 percent. That compares with 62 percent in the U.S. and 61 percent in the U.K. If female labor participation rose toward U.S. levels, Matsui says, Japan would add 1.2-1.5 percent to its GDP.

All of this has more to do with Japan's debt woes than many economists acknowledge. During the 1990s, Japan built roads, bridges and dams to create jobs -all of it financed with public borrowing. Politicians used taxpayer funds to bail out deadbeat companies and support the banks propping them up. The result wasn't rapid growth or surging stocks but deflation and a debt load of roughly 150 percent of GDP.

Things might have turned out differently if Tokyo had tried a solution many international economists -including those at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development- said might help: empowering women. Were Japanese female labor participation rates to hit U.S. levels, per capita income would be 5.8 percent higher, Matsui says. Such women power would provide a nice boost to Asia's biggest economy.

William Pesek Jr. is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was published in the January 2006 edition of Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Copyright 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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