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Japanese economist Yuka Takeda’s book on poverty re-examined economic thinking on the development of wealth gaps.

Japan’s female economist makes a mark

– As Japanese economist Yuka Takeda discussed poverty with members of Kazakhstan’s government this year in the capital, Astana, she noticed a stark contrast with her experience at home.

It wasn’t the difference in culture, or the gap in economic development. It was the fact that seven of the eight lawmakers attending the meeting were women. Coming from Japan, where men outnumber women at universities by almost six to one in her discipline, Takeda had almost abandoned the idea of a career in academia when she was studying economics in college.

“I wanted to go to grad school, but I just couldn’t imagine how I could build a career in the field,” Takeda, 41, said in an interview. “I had no female role models in Japan, absolutely zero.”

So she began applying for jobs in business while still a student at the University of Tokyo. Winning a top award for her thesis gave her the courage to pursue her dream of post-graduate studies on Russia at the college. It was the first step in a career that led Takeda to the former Soviet states and to write a book on poverty that re-examined economic thinking on the development of wealth gaps, winning her the Masayoshi Ohira Memorial Prize last year.

The award, named after a former Japanese prime minister, recognizes books on politics, economics, culture, and technology that advance the development of the Pacific Basin community.

“Before her, few scholars did statistical analysis on how Russia’s households were financially affected in the transition and suffered poverty,” said Toshio Watanabe, chancellor of Takushoku University in Tokyo and a judge for the prize. “Her work was quite an achievement. I wish there were more young scholars like her.”

Takeda’s interest in Russia had been sparked as an undergraduate by the memoirs of Anna Larina, wife of revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed under Joseph Stalin in 1938. Larina was separated from her 1-year-old son and spent two decades in prison camps and in exile.

“I was deeply touched by her life, which was overwhelmed by circumstances and at the mercy of events that she could not resist,” Takeda said.

As a new era of turmoil overtook Russia in the 1990s, Takeda wondered how Russians were coping with unemployment in the post-Soviet economic meltdown.

“I got hooked on the topic from that simple question,” said Takeda, a research fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo. “In economics as in other fields, we’re attracted to the issues of the time we live in.”

When she enrolled at graduate school in 1997, her knowledge of Russian “was non-existent,” she said; she had chosen French as her foreign language as an undergraduate. To catch up with her classes, she spent a fortnight in the library beginning to teach herself Russian grammar from books, she said.

Poverty analysis is a relatively recent field of study in Russia because Soviet-era propaganda claimed it didn’t exist. After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, the country’s wealth gap expanded rapidly as oligarchs profited from the nation’s natural resources, while many pensioners and unemployed saw their assets vanish with the currency’s collapse.

As the Russian government began to publish more economic statistics, including data on household spending and finances, Takeda’s research intensified.

“We are still far from understanding the ways in which individuals and communities find themselves being trapped into poverty,” said Vladimir Gimpelson, director of Moscow’s Centre for Labour Market Studies at National Research University – Higher School of Economics. Gimpelson, who was Takeda’s academic adviser in Russia, first met her when he taught at Tokyo University in 1998.

“Takeda made a significant contribution to this research. Her work puts into question the issues that have been treated as stylized facts by other researchers and finds that reality is more complex.”

Takeda’s book, “Economic Analysis of Poverty in Transitional Russia: A Microeconometric Approach,” argues from data collected in Russia that households whose economic conditions are declining reach a tipping point beyond which they fall rapidly into poverty.

She also argued against the prevailing belief that the country’s economic expansion was “pro-poor,” demonstrating that most of the benefits accrued to the rich because there were few mechanisms to let growth trickle down to lower-income households.

“Backed by her language skill and experience of living in the country, she succeeded in conveying perceptions of Russian people’s daily life of the period, which bleak data analysis can never provide,” said Watanabe, the Ohira award judge.

Despite her library studies, Takeda could barely speak Russian when she arrived in Moscow and learned by staying in the apartment of a radio journalist and his family.

She also got a taste of some of the hardships Muscovites endured at the time, such as having no hot water for weeks and being trapped in a faulty elevator.