Ms. Kazuko Shiraishi
Japanese Ambassador for Women, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and Ambassador in charge of Arctic Affairs.
JAPAN and the WORLD magazine presents an exclusive interview with Ms. Kazuko Shiraishi, Japanese Ambassador for Women, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and Ambassador in charge of Arctic Affairs about a historical overview of women struggling for their empowerment based on her life experience.
—Shiraishi-san, you started your diplomatic career in 1974 as one of the very few women entering the Japanese political field. What made you undertake such a career path?
When I entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) it was before the introduction of the Gender Equality Employment Law. All companies were allowed to employ only men or only women. I got an official job offer from a trading company just before my graduation from my university. My work offer was to be an assistant to male colleagues without any prospect for promotion. I could not understand why I could only be an assistant to men with whom I studied the same modules at university. I thought that it is because of the reality of Japanese society. Additionally, I studied Russian so I wanted to use this language ability in my work. In 1974 I found a poster on my university campus with a job offer in the MOFA for men and women. I applied and successfully enter the Ministry. There were 4 more women entering the Ministry at the time with me.
I am the 16th female representative ambassador in the history of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first Ambassador, H.E. Nobuko Takahashi, was appointed in 1980 to Denmark. She signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
In 2014 I was the only woman ambassador posted from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs abroad. However, as for today, there are 10 Japanese women ambassadors. So, there is a great improvement in that regard.
—Your first foreign post was Poland. How did the experience gained there help you to establish your professional etiquette given that Poland at the time was under a very difficult political transition?
I was the first female diplomat to be posted to a non-Western developing country, which at the time was Poland. During the first two-year period of my stay in Poland, I undertook a one-year Polish language course in 1975 in Lodz, after that I studied History in 1976 in Warsaw. Poland was still in the communist era. The most challenging part was to survive. I had a government scholarship but there was nothing to buy in the shops. That was a cultural shock especially because Japan was experiencing an economic boom in the 70s. So I wondered, how can I survive in Poland? I succeeded because of kindness of the Polish people.
The most impressive thing for me was the fact that Polish people, despite not having enough provisions, could appreciate culture, music, and art. They knew how to enjoy their lives. I had an immediate respect for the Polish people. I enjoyed my post to Poland very much because I got to know the Polish culture and Polish people. This understanding became my guidance in the future posts.
—You served in many places such as Poland, Lithuania and USA. Have you experienced any challenges in particular based on your gender?
I had moments of embarrassment because of the fact that I am a woman. Despite the fact that at the time there was no terminology for sexual harassment or maternity harassment, I experienced such acts at my work place. However, I received at lot of support from my superiors that helped me get through this difficult time. So this is my experience at Japanese workplace. I have never faced any gender-based discrimination working with foreigners.
—Can you update us with the latest progress and outcome of Womenomics?
I would like first to talk a bit about Womenomics. Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe stated that “Abenomics is Womenomics”. Womenomics is at the core of the Japan revitalization strategy implemented in 2013. The Government of Japan set a target of increasing the number of women in leading positions to 30% by 2020 and increasing the employment rate of women (aged 25-44) to 73% (2014: 70.8%). Under this strategy there will be a growing number of women-friendly companies through favorable incentives. In addition, women will receive support according to life stages (childrearing, reemployment, entrepreneurship), and conditions for work-life balance.
Thanks to the revitalization plan, the government has successfully increased female employment in management positions from 69% in June 2012 to 8.3% in June 2014. On a top of this, the number of females in the work force increased by about 900 000 in the two and a half years under PM Abe’s administration.
Government of Japan set a target of increasing the number of women in leading positions to 30% by 2020 and increasing the employment rate of women (aged 25-44) to 73% (2014: 70.8%).
I personally think that Japanese society is progressing in terms of women’s issues. This is not only because of the government actions but also due to the changes in the business environment and society itself. Gender mainstreaming is visible in Japanese society.
Womenomics also applies to support of developing countries to tackle women’s issues.That is the reason why Prime Minister Abe has already called twice for the organization of the World Assembly for Women. Therefore, Womenomics is not only a strategy for Japanese society but for societies in the whole world for women to shine.
We have run women related projects (such as “School for all”) since 2006 in Palestine, Sudan, Pakistan Burkina Faso, and Niger. So that is the Japanese government position to support girls’ education and women’s vocational training.
—What would be your advice to encourage young Japanese women to enter diplomacy?
I have never objected to or hesitated on a task I was given to fulfil. A completion of any assignment gives a feeling of achievement, and at the end it is pleasurable. On-the-job training in my opinion is the most important way of achieving the task. Many young girls are lacking self-confidence, which is a serious barrier especially in professional life. Therefore, support from colleagues is very crucial in overcoming any difficulties. In my life, I did not have any female role-model but a group of male colleagues who encouraged me in the work place. So my message to a young woman would be: Do not be afraid of lack of self-confidence. During your work you will gain knowledge and ability to overcome any challenges and difficulties.
In my life, I did not have any female role-model but a group of male colleagues who encouraged me in the work place.
—If you have an opportunity to speak out to all women in this world, what would be your message?
Every woman has a right to live as she wants. Creating a society where women shine is not only for working women but also for housewives. The goal is to be happy. I am not an advocate of promoting women in business or government. I wish to have a society in which each woman can live in a way that makes her happy.