Ms. Watanabe’s Profession

TOKYO – Ms. Watanabe, age 40, is hesitant. Her mother, Mrs. Watanabe, is known for moving the world’s markets with the financial trading that occupies her breaks from housework.

Mrs. Watanabe is the generic name for Japan’s housewife speculators, who have wielded significant influence on foreign exchange and other markets through their trading. After graduating from university, Mrs. Watanabe quit her job when she married Mr. Watanabe (who worked in the same office), became a housewife, and raised one daughter. She did this because, in Mrs. Watanabe’s day, marriage was the final workplace.

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Times are different for her daughter, Ms. Watanabe, who majored in economics at a famous university and was hired by a well-known trading firm. But, though she outperformed the men in her recruitment class academically, she was unable to compete for promotion. She could not even have an official business card (which is more important than a passport in Japan); she had no choice but to make one on her computer.

She resolved to hone her skills by following her mother’s example. After work, she would attend night school to become an international accountant. She didn’t like going out drinking with colleagues to complain about their boss; communication through drinking neither improved one’s skills nor helped one to rise through the ranks.

Ms. Watanabe’s story helps to illustrate a remarkable disparity. While productivity in Japanese factories is the highest in the world, owing to robots and other types of automation, the productivity of Japan’s white-collar workers is the lowest among OECD countries.

In 1999, Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act was amended to provide equal employment opportunities for men and women by prohibiting discriminatory labor practices. But the legislation has had little impact on the workplace atmosphere for women.

The other women who joined the company at the same time as Ms. Watanabe married colleagues and quit to devote their time to raising children. The only difference from her mother’s era was that today’s generation quit, married, and gave birth later. Women account for more than 80% of those who use childcare leave in Japan; in reality, more than 60% of Japanese women leave the workplace and don’t come back when they have children.

Before she knew it, Ms. Watanabe was in her thirties. Her mother, Mrs. Watanabe, used the money she had made through financial trading to fund her daughter’s study abroad. Companies pay for men to study abroad, but will not invest in female employees. Without other options, Ms. Watanabe took a long-term unpaid leave of absence (which her company typically does not grant to women) to study for an MBA in America. Although she returned with excellent grades, her position within the company worsened, because she did not have a boss who could use her skills.

One day, Ms. Watanabe received a call from a headhunting firm. She was recruited to work in the accounting department of a Japanese import-export company. Encouraged by her mother, Ms. Watanabe set her sights on new shores. It was a completely new working environment, but her English skills and MBA proved to be invaluable. Her work was interesting, and she played an important role. At times, though, she thought about marriage and children when planning for the future.

Last year, Japan’s government changed, with the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to power. Previously, the LDP had given barely a second thought to women’s issues, focusing only on the needs of business and dealing with an aging society. Now, to Ms. Watanabe’s surprise, it has made women’s policy one of the key aspects of its long-term strategy.

To top it off, exchange-listed companies must now appoint at least one female officer. Ms. Watanabe had heard that companies in Norway or France face delisting if their ratio of female officers falls below 40%, and she joked with her friends that Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation) would vanish under such a law. Nonetheless, with each public company in Japan to appoint at least one female officer, it might be her turn someday.

But she already is 40, and is thinking of marriage. Would maternity leave be possible if she were appointed as an officer? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government says that it will establish daycare centers, but is this really true?

Ms. Watanabe is hesitant. Should she take up an important role at this stage? Or should she pursue happiness as a woman?

Mrs. Watanabe gives her daughter the nudge she needs. Mrs. Watanabe has a talent for seeing how the tide turns. Her advice is to grab the opportunity at work, and also find happiness in marriage and children.

According to an estimate by Kathy Matsui, Chief Japan Equity Strategist at Goldman Sachs, the country’s GDP could rise by 15%, and 8.2 million new jobs could be created, if Japanese women gain equality of opportunity at work. Abe has said that “womanomics” is the most important pillar of “Abenomics,” his government’s growth strategy. Mrs. Watanabe and her daughter have much at stake in its realization.