Unseen 'glass stones' litter women's path: Japanese minister

Masako Mori, state minister for gender equality.

This is the first instalment of a new commentary series based on interviews conducted in English in which prominent figures convey their "message" to Japan and the rest of the world. This instalment features Masako Mori, state minister for gender equality.

Active participation by women is central to the government's growth strategy, which is the third of the three "arrows" of Abenomics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is deeply attached to this notion.

The female labour force in Japan is its most underutilized resource. Yet there are massive stone barriers that stop women from being promoted or continuing to work after having children. It is not easy to drill through them.

To expand opportunities for women, the government has set a numerical target of increasing the percentage of women in leadership positions to 30 per cent by 2020. This means women should account for 30 per cent of directors at government agencies and private companies.

Prime Minister Abe has requested economic associations to appoint women to executive positions proactively. We've devised policies to empower women, including a plan to eliminate childcare waiting lists.

Women now account for only 3 per cent of directors and higher positions in Kasumigaseki [where central government offices are located], even though women account for 30 per cent of new hires.

Women often quit because it is difficult to balance childcare and hard work. Changing the mindset of men is essential here.

We have already introduced many systems since last year. For example, the Consumer Affairs Agency, which I supervise, started a new system under which officials would be promoted if they took childcare leave.

While almost all female officials [who had babies] take childcare leave, no male official had done so before I assumed my current position in December 2012.

This was because of reduced salaries and dim promotion prospects for breadwinning males. That's why I decided to promote both men and women who take childcare leave.

After I had my second child, I lived in Washington, D.C. as a homemaker. I was really happy in the US I was treated like a queen-just because I had a baby.

As soon as I encountered steps in front of me while pushing my baby stroller, guys looking like Tom Cruise would help me. I had no problem with stairs. On the subway, people would offer me their seats. One elderly woman told me: "It's great that you have a baby. She is so cute."

But after I returned to Japan, I was told, "You're in my way." Once I lodged a complaint after seeing a poster that said, "No baby strollers, please." The situation has gradually improved, but mothers still can't ride a packed train with their children even if their companies set up day care centers.

If our perceptions change so that child rearing is regarded as a noble and essential task, women will shine in our society, I believe. I want to support Abenomics by carrying out necessary measures to change people's perceptions and to create a better environment.

I've never tried to be a role model for women-not even once. Up until now, I have been frustrated by the world around me. My husband and I started our careers as lawyers together after passing the bar at the same time. But I'm the one who frequently runs into obstacles.

Why? There are many glass stones lying in my way, but they are invisible to my husband. "What are you doing? You're stumbling where there's no obstacle." That's how he sees it.

Therefore, I believe it is my duty to spray these stones with colour paint to make them visible. And I want to remove them one by one. I have endured hardships with tears in my eyes. But I don't want the women who come after me and are struggling to do their best, to go through what I've been through.