Meet the woman who might be able to save Abenomics

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Japan's new Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda arrives at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Toru Hanai

Tokenism continues to plague Japan’s efforts to empower the female half of its population. Look no further than Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle, in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to entrust a top portfolio to a woman. And the number of women, all in, on Team Abe? Two of 19.

Even so, one of those women, Seiko Noda, bears watching. Abe’s choice for internal affairs minister challenged him for the Liberal Democratic Party leadership in 2015, and might do so again in 2018, putting herself on a path to become Japan’s first female prime minister.

There would be nothing perfunctory about a Noda premiership. The 56-year-old lawmaker from Gifu Prefecture has been a feisty trailblazer her entire career. In 1989, at 37, she became the youngest post-war cabinet member. She gave birth at 50, sparking debate about in vitro fertilization in conservative Japan. Later, she fought institutionalized sexism, one of Japan’s most pressing challenges, in ways Abe’s cabinets haven’t. And in 2015, she challenged the then-wildly popular Abe for his job.

Japanese media is preoccupied with Abe’s pick for foreign minister, Taro Kono. An intriguing choice, indeed, considering Kono, 54, also is an Abe critic. He’s a blunt, fluent-in-English, anti-nuclear-power maverick who wrote a landmark 1993 apology for World War II sex slaves. Kono’s strong Washington ties could come in handy amid the chaos of the Donald Trump White House. In both cases, though, Abe seems to be reading more from the keep-your-enemies-close playbook than building a team of rivals.

Noda’s return to the spotlight could, though, be a pivotal moment for Abenomics, a revival scheme in serious need of a reboot.

Japan's new Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda (R) and new Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Ken Saito (C) leave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence to attend an attestation ceremony by Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo, Japan August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan’s new Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda (right) and new Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Ken Saito (centre) leave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official residence to attend an attestation ceremony at the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Toru Hanai

In December 2012, Abe talked big about firing “three arrows” at a decades-long malaise: monetary easing, fiscal loosening, and structural change. He articulated it with a samurai metaphor. Three arrows fired separately do some damage. Three fired together – using overwhelming force – ensures success. Abe shot the first in 2013, when the Bank of Japan pushed quantitative-easing to new extremes. Construction for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics arguably provides the second. But the third, and most vital arrow – a deregulatory big bang – is still in the quiver. As such, wages have barely risen.

The most obvious element of phase three is better utilizing Japan’s long-suffering female workforce. Abe himself often cites this Goldman Sachs estimate: if female labor participation matched that of men (about 80%), Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15% boost. Sadly, Abe’s milquetoast policies are resigning many women to “irregular” jobs that pay less, offer fewer benefits and seldom entail career tracks. Nor has Abe’s pledge to put women in 30% of management jobs fared well.

Tokyo – by luck, tokenism or design – has a minister fully committed to tapping female brainpower in the right job at a pivotal moment

Enter Noda, whose remit includes gender-empowerment efforts. Did Abe just signal that “womenomics” is now a true priority, not a talking point? Noda is sure to get to work immediately to put the number 111 squarely in Abe’s face. That’s Tokyo’s dismal ranking in the World Economic Forum’s latest gender-equality index, which for all Abe’s pledges, marks a deterioration from 98th in 2011.

As a lawmaker, Noda managed to navigate around the contempt and jeers of peers in patriarchal Tokyo to champion issues like gender pay-gaps, increased access to affordable health care, maternity leave and flexible work schedules. She also irked conservatives – including Abe – by arguing women should be allowed to keep their maiden names after marriage.

By taking half its workforce for granted, Japan has long effectively tied one hand behind its back. Studies from the International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Goldman all agree gender parity leads to more innovative, productive and competitive nations.

It would help if Abe entrusted the biggest cabinet jobs – foreign affairs, finance, chief cabinet secretary – to women. Nevertheless, Tokyo – by luck, tokenism or design – has a minister fully committed to tapping female brainpower in the right job at a pivotal moment. It could be the best news Abenomics has had in years.

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