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Friday, Feb. 1, 2008

Women key to fixing demographic crunch

European forum points to Japan's underutilization of female workforce

Staff writer

KYOTO — Japan, the world's most rapidly graying nation, can learn from Europe how to cope with an aging society, especially in such areas as increasing the participation of women, according to experts and journalists at a recent conference.

News photo
Participants in the European Union-Japan Journalists' Conference kick off their two-day meeting in Kyoto on Jan. 19. PHOTO COURTESY OF DELEGATION OF EUROPEAN COMMISSION TO JAPAN

During the EU-Japan Journalists' Conference held in Kyoto by the Delegation of the European Commission to Japan, some 30 journalists and policymakers from the EU and Japan discussed how to sustain social and economic systems as they grapple with longer-living populations and declining birthrates.

Vladimir Spidla, the European commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, said in his keynote speech that the EU has taken various steps to cope with an aging population, although compared with the situation in Japan, Europe still has a "10-year window of opportunity" in which to prepare.

By getting more women and the elderly to work, the EU is hoping to push back the decline in the working population until 2017, he said.

With that in mind, the EU has set numerical targets for raising employment rates. The EU is committed to raising overall employment to 70 percent by 2010. The rate for women should be more than 60 percent and the rate for people aged 55 to 64 should rise to 50 percent.

Spidla said Finland, Denmark and France, which have higher birthrates than the EU average, have achieved a "work-life balance" by increasing flexibility in the way workers take time off and by improving child-care services.

Kuniko Inoguchi, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former minister for gender equality and social affairs who served as a moderator for the two-day conference, stressed that Japan's priority is utilization of women, many of whom, despite their high education, are compelled to leave their jobs to take care of their children or ailing family members and then find it hard to get back into the workforce on a full-time basis.

Among many factors, Inoguchi pointed to the extremely small amount of time — an average of 48 minutes a day — that men help with housework and child care among households with children under age 5. She said that if women can balance work and family, the fertility rate will go up.

While Europe has coped with the impact of a graying society partly through immigration, Japan should increase the participation of women before it imports labor, Inoguchi said.

She cited U.N. Development Program statistics on gender equality for 2007, which ranked Japan 54th out of 93 countries in its gender empowerment measure index. The index tracks women's participation in politics and business, and their decision-making power.

Some participants, however, voiced concern about the idea of "positive discrimination" as a means to help speed up promotion of women in the workplace.

A participant from a major Japanese-language newspaper said his company's recent move to appoint more female reporters as foreign correspondents has invited criticism from their male colleagues. The move is apparently aimed at boosting the paper's women-friendly image, because only foreign correspondents can get bylines at most Japanese newspapers. But the male reporters feel that the women are unqualified for these posts, often considered the most glamorous among newspaper journalists.

Naohiro Yashiro, an economics professor at International Christian University in western Tokyo, echoed Inoguchi's view, saying Japan should push harder for a work-life balance so both women and men can participate in child-rearing.

"Women are forced to choose between work and family; that should change," Yashiro said. "Men should also be allowed to go home early. The key is to ensure job protection for those people."

In this regard, Japanese corporations could learn from some of the family-friendly policies in place at European companies. Dieter Weirich, senior vice president of corporate communications at Fraport AG, a Frankfurt airport operator that employs more than 11,000 workers, said his company helps employees balance work and family through such measures as telecommuting and psychological counseling for those facing marriage, partner or family-related problems.

The firm also has a "life-work hours account," which allows employees to build up overtime hours over many years so they can retire early.

On the other side of the coin, some of the European participants said the EU could learn from Japan on motivating the elderly to stay in the workforce, because many people in Europe retire at around 55.

Yashiro said elderly Japanese men continue to work partly "for health reasons."

"Japanese elderly feel they would damage their health if they left their jobs," he said.

But Japan's seniority-based wage system — in which age, not performance, determines salary — should be changed, Yashiro argued, saying this is a major source of pay disparity among workers.

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