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Japan's Abe sets example for private sector, names five women to cabinet

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making good on his vow to get more women into positions of power and set an example for the private sector, naming five females to his 18-person cabinet on Wednesday.

Women currently occupy 10 per cent of the seats in Japan's parliament, the Diet, and a tiny fraction of senior business posts and directorships.

Other changes announced on Wednesday underscored Mr. Abe's determination to push ahead with reform of the massive $1.3-trillion public pension fund, as well as sending a clear signal that he wants to make nicer with Beijing, after years of deteriorating relations. He has also thrown more weight behind a drive to develop regional economic zones as part of a broader effort to liberalize key sectors of the economy and boost competitiveness.

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It's no coincidence that these moves come amidst flagging public support and growing signs that "Abenomics" – Mr. Abe's mix of aggressive monetary and fiscal policies and structural reforms designed to resuscitate the floundering economy and reverse years of crippling deflation – is failing to live up to all the hype and hope.

Just two weeks after we learned in mid-August that the Japanese economy fell off a cliff in the second quarter, plunging 6.8 per cent on an annual basis, the Cabinet Office reported that the economy remained on the recovery track.

About the same time, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda insisted that the underlying trend was solid, even though the bank is forecasting a mere 1-per-cent growth this fiscal year. But Mr. Kuroda also indicated that the central bank would shift policy gears if inflation failed to reach its 2-per-cent target level.

Bearish analysts now expect that the central bank will indeed have to do more pump-priming by the end of the year or sooner. For now, though, monetary policy-setters, who began their latest two-day deliberations Sept. 3, can be expected keep their hands off the stimulus lever.

The dismal second quarter partly reflected the fallout from a steep hike in the sales tax to 8 per cent from 5 per cent that took effect April 1. Some leading economists have since called for a delay in a further scheduled increase to 10 per cent planned for next year, because of the slow pace of recovery.

But Mr. Kuroda has urged the government to be fiscally prudent and retain the planned consumption tax boost. And the fiscal hawks remain firmly in control at the cabinet table.

Indeed, the key ministers (all of them male) responsible for a big chunk of the Abenomics agenda, in finance and the economy, as well as the powerful chief cabinet secretary, remain in their posts in the first cabinet shuffle since Mr. Abe put the group together after sweeping to power in December, 2012.

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The female cohort includes Yuko Obuchi, the 40-year-old daughter of a former prime minister and a rising political star, who was named Economy, Trade and Industry Minister, with oversight over the touchy issue of restarting nuclear-power production.

Now comes the hard part: persuading big business to improve its own dismal record on hiring and promoting women, as part of a concerted effort to tackle the worsening problem of a shrinking, aging work force.

"It's really the first time ever that we've seen the Japanese government elevate this issue to a level of national priority," says Kathy Matsui, a managing director with Goldman Sachs Japan in Tokyo, who coined the term "womenomics" in a 1999 report.

"I think it's because the demographic realities are very real," Ms. Matsui told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

She added that structural reform, which is critical to any long-term success, is no walk in the park. "There's no question that the very nature of any structural reform agenda in any country is going to come up against deeply rooted vested interests. Otherwise, it wouldn't be structural change."

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