Big Talk

People Should Fully Utilize Their Skills and Contribute to Society

Member of the House of Councillors Kuniko Inoguchi
Chairman, APA Group Toshio Motoya

Member of the House of Councillors Kuniko Inoguchi was the first minister of state for measures for declining birthrate and gender equality, and she continues working actively to help women balance careers and family life. An expert in disarmament diplomacy, before entering the world of national politics she was an academic who served as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Delegation of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament. Toshio Motoya spoke with Inoguchi about topics including her diverse education, experience in the Conference on Disarmament, and focuses as a politician.

Becoming an international political science researcher in an era when it was difficult for women to find jobs


(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today.

(I) Thank you for inviting me.

(M) I heard that you were an academic before becoming a politician. Can you tell us about your past career?

(I) I’d be happy to, starting with my education. My father worked at a damage insurance company and was transferred to Brazil when I was 10 years old. I attended an American school in Sao Paulo for five years. At that time it was still unusual for Japanese companies to expand overseas. When I first applied to the American school, it seemed like they didn’t want to admit a child from Japan, a country defeated in World War II. My father didn’t speak English very well, but he used an interpreter to tell the school that he believed Japan had lost to a country that didn’t discriminate in this way. The principal silently handed me a math test. I got a perfect score and was allowed to enroll. I think this was due not only to my number-one rank at my school in Ichikawa City, but also to the high level of arithmetic and math education at Japanese elementary schools. This discrimination gave me a keen sense that a country must be strong, which led to my interest in international political science. The school in Sao Paulo was excellent, and many graduates went to famous American universities. I learned a great deal during those five years. I went to Oin Senior High School when we returned to Japan, then had the chance to do a one-year study abroad program in Massachusetts through AFS. My English improved during that time, and I ended up at Sophia University.

(M) I imagine there were few Japanese professors specialized in international political science.

(I) That’s right. I did my undergraduate studies at Sophia University and went to Yale University for graduate school, where I got a degree in political science. I wrote a book, War and Peace, that was published by the University of Tokyo Press, and was the first female author to receive the Yoshino Sakuzo Prize. I decided to become a researcher and teach at a university because there were few opportunities for women to find jobs at private-sector companies in that era. I worked in research and education as a professor at Sophia University. Because disarmament diplomacy was my field of expertise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked me to become ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Delegation of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament, and I spent two years in that position starting in 2002.

(M) Was that an entirely different role from your work as a researcher?

(I) Yes, it was my first experience in practical business. I devoted particular efforts to the issue of anti-personnel land mines.

(M) Land mines are terrible weapons. I think they are so frightening because they are used to reduce the enemy’s military power by maiming, not killing. Not only do many people lose limbs, but lots of people are required to care for them as well. And while demining is necessary, people are often hurt during the process.

(I) That’s true. Japan developed mine-removal equipment that has helped return large amounts of agricultural land to people in Cambodia. It’s become a great exporter of foodstuffs.

(M) That’s a useful technology.

(I) It is. Although all war is inhumane, we absolutely must not allow the use of anti-personnel land mines. Japan and many other countries have ratified the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention that came into effect in 1999, but it has not been signed by countries like the United States, Russia, or China. When I was ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, we worked to stop non-signatories from manufacturing and using land mines, and on de-mining technology that makes land safe again. It was an extremely fulfilling job because I felt that I could help many people by applying my past studies and research.

Deciding to run for office according to a request from Koizumi


(M) How did you get involved in politics?

(I) Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called me and said he wanted to ask me something on August 8, 2005, the day when the lower house was dissolved to take on the issue of postal service privatization. I had a hunch that he would ask me to run in the general election. When we met in person, he said he read my international political science research. I figured he would say that I had done good research, but that it was time for me to put aside armchair theories and try actually applying them. That wasn’t what happened. Koizumi said I had done valuable work as a researcher. As a National Diet member, he said they did important things, too. I probably would have refused if he had spoken negatively about my past career. Instead, he appealed to me by recognizing the value of what I had done, and suggesting that I try doing something else important in the future. That’s why I accepted. By applying what I learned in the Conference on Disarmament to national politics – to the maximum degree – I thought I could have positive impacts on many people.

(M) It definitely sounds like you had a sense of pride, which I believe is of great importance. You were impressed by Koizumi’s statement that your work had value.

(I) Yes, I could tell he understood the feelings behind my research, and I felt like I could trust him. My father always told me, “Don’t give immediate replies to important questions.” I told Koizumi I would discuss it with my family, and acquiesced the following day.

(M) I tend to give prompt replies…

(I) I have to obey my father (laughs). That day, the morning newspapers were all writing about the “downfall” of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). They saw the election as an adverse event for the Koizumi government. I certainly wasn’t assured of victory, and I’m proud that I won. The Koizumi administration’s approval rating hit bottom, but after talking with him, I felt that we could work hard together. The newspapers were wrong; the LDP won a sweeping victory three weeks later. I saw for myself the growing momentum of citizen support.

(M) From the day the lower house was dissolved, I predicted a landslide victory for the LDP.

(I) I’m not surprised. It was an overwhelming victory, and I won my seat. During the campaign, I spoke with Koizumi about the topic of female students.

(M) What is that issue?

(I) Sophia University was famous for its talented female students – people nicknamed it the “University of Tokyo for women.” Its male students were equally outstanding, but women drew more attention. However, while male graduates found jobs at top companies, many female graduates were unable to do so. The Act on Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment did increase the female employment rate, but back then all those women got married and quit within five years because they couldn’t balance their careers with having a family. I discussed this with Koizumi. When forming his cabinet five or six weeks after the election, Koizumi must have been inspired by our conversation to appoint me the first minister of state for measures for declining birthrate and gender equality. He told me to make efforts to help women balance their careers and family life, and I replied that I would.

(M) So you became a minister right after entering the Diet.

(I) Yes, I did.

Establishing the four-day workweek system based on a spirit of mutual support


(I) I’ve focused on the issue of work-life balance for a long time. Two years ago, when I was director of the LDP Headquarters for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens, I proposed a system in which employees can opt to take three days off per week. This has become a national policy. I hope that, if a female employee says she wants to resign because two days off are not enough during her childbearing and parenting years, her company can suggest that she make use of this system. Some corporations have already implemented it, and discussions are underway about offering it to civil servants. I heard that many university students ask potential employers about a four-day workweek, which may become an essential way to attract talented human resources. Of course employees can work five days a week if they want to, but many women quit their jobs to deal with inevitable circumstances like having children or caring for elderly parents. Having the option of three days off would allow them to stay at their companies.

(M) It’s true that families go through many different life stages.

(I) It would be good for the national government to somehow supplement this lost income. Another issue is personnel shortages at preschools and nursing homes. Some people want to raise their own children or care for their own parents, and government support for a four-day workweek helps alleviate problems caused by labor shortages. I think it’s the most economical measure in terms of public finance. Japanese people are employed by the same company for many years until retirement, unlike Americans, who repeatedly switch jobs in the aim of finding better positions. Considering this, I hope major companies and small-to-medium enterprises will introduce this system. I’ve created many smaller-scale policies related to marriage and work, such as nursery school and babysitting. I think the four-day workweek is an ideal, cross-cutting solution.

(M) It does seem more affordable.

(I) Still, we must ensure that employees don’t face pressure when they want to use it. This system is for everyone – all employees need to take time off, whether it’s for caregiving, infertility treatment, university studies, or to help their parents with farm work. Elderly parents would feel happy if their child came home every week to assist with farming, which would help them live longer. Of course, companies are not allowed to ask why the employee wants to take leave. Even if it requires some time, I hope Japanese companies will introduce this spirit of mutual support.

(M) Many people don’t even use all their paid time off.

(I) That’s true. It is their right to have time off, and the company cannot turn down their requests. KEIDANREN (Japanese Business Federation) and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry have given their consent to this system, but one person told me, “We can’t take two days off in the construction industry, let alone three!” I replied, “If you advocate for three days, construction workers will become able to take two days off.” While Japan’s birthrate is falling, I believe we can maintain sustainability only if every citizen can utilize their abilities to the maximum degree and give back to their nation and society. We have to improve labor conditions through measures like the four-day workweek. I feel a responsibility to do all I can for Japan and our society, using the education and experiences I have been fortunate to attain. I will keep working as a politician to build national systems of this type, and I’ve also been involved in security issues and efforts to significantly improve English-language education.

(M) The Cabinet made a decision about the three defense documents last December, which was ground-breaking. For instance, they clearly specify that Japan will possess counterattack capabilities.

(I) Yes, I was involved in that process. The documents set forth a framework for peace, and are aimed at gaining deterrence to prevent anyone from invading Japan.

(M) Absolutely. Wars occur when the balance of power crumbles. We need military power to achieve deterrence.

(I) I agree. The balance of power concept was first discussed by major powers in the 19th century, and World War I broke out when that balance fell apart. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently passed away at the age of 100. He sounded a warning that a balance of power must be maintained in this situation resembling the time right before World War I. Japan must maintain its power as a Group of Seven (G7) member. In addition to enhanced deterrence, I think it will be important for Japan to use diplomatic means and become a driving force in the Asian economy.

(M) Many Japanese people used to think disarmament would bring peace, but lately more are coming to understand the importance of deterrence. If we have less power than our neighbors, we will attract nations with dubious ambitions.

(I) We must constantly show other countries that Japan is prepared. There are many Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) bases in Chiba Prefecture, my electoral district. I’ve attended JSDF events and given talks about the concept of genuine deterrence. There are two parts to this, the first of which is building a solid Japan-U.S. alliance. An alliance is more than just signatures; we must continuously maintain trust and effectiveness. The second is making everyone realize that Japan cannot be invaded. The whole world sees how the JSDF conducts intense training, sometimes resulting in deaths. Deterrence is built on dedicated, daily training to maintain a high level of proficiency as an armed force.

(M) I agree.

Using untapped skills to solve issues in Japanese society


(I) Some of my friends are frequent patrons of APA Hotels, which they appreciate for their comfort, affordable prices, and high quality. I can see why APA has grown nationwide. Shelter is an important thing for people fleeing from conflicts, and is the first step to rebuilding their lives. Many people provide food in those circumstances, but you can’t build large shelters without good policies, including the national government. Your APA Hotels across Japan could be used as shelters during natural disasters.

(M) After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, APA Hotels remained open for people who couldn’t stay at other hotels that were closed.

(I) I can sense your clear intentions behind using them as shelters. APA Hotel also took in positive COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. Having a hotel nearby provides peace of mind. I wish you would build more in Chiba, where there are still some cities without a single hotel.

(M) We are considering Chiba as part of our current growth strategy. Interestingly enough, hotel demand increases along with expansion.

(I) So you create demand by building hotels. I imagine some people stay in a hotel near their workplace instead of making a long commute home.

(M) Fundamentally, we focus on choosing the best locations to build hotels within three minutes of train stations and other public transportation. That’s why we have such high occupancy rates and profit.

(I) That’s wonderful.

(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.” Will you please share a message with young readers?

(I) I have a message for young people in Japan, and for everyone across the world who has worked hard and struggled: think about the other children who were born on the same day. Imagine how many of them have survived, how many of them have received the same type of education, and how many of them have found good jobs.

(M) They should be aware of their blessings.

(I) Yes, I think that few people are so fortunate. I want them to keep the less fortunate in mind as they make full use of their abilities and work hard to improve society. As I mentioned before, I am very grateful for my education, which is why I am a politician. You have to find your own abilities and unique qualities. I think the four-day workweek system could allow people to discover their skills and give back to society on their days off. I have a friend who has been obsessed with soccer from a young age, but he didn’t become a professional athlete. He works at a bank and takes one day a week to go back to his alma mater and help with the soccer team, which takes some burden off the coach. To give another example, someone who can’t use their calligraphy skills in their day job could teach lessons and contribute to their home region. My hope is that companies and society will allow people to make use of their untapped skills, which would help solve future social issues in Japan.

(M) They could also have time to volunteer.

(I) That’s right. Companies can’t immediately raise wages, but they could let employees take on side jobs for additional income. I also want to tell young men and women to be both ambitious and kind. I feel like kindness will be what saves our society in this era.

(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.

(I) Thank you.


Kuniko Inoguchi

Born in Ichikawa City, Chiba Prefecture. Graduated from Sophia University’s Faculty of Foreign Studies in 1975, then earned her PhD in Political Science from Yale University (the United States) in 1982. Taught at Sophia University from 1981 while working as an overseas researcher and visiting professor. Her past positions include assistant professor and professor. Was ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Delegation of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament from 2002 to 2004, and was member of the House of Representatives from 2005. Served as minister of state for measures for declining birthrate and gender equality until 2006. Was elected to the House of Councillors in 2010.