As Yuka Takeda sat down with members of Kazakhstan’s government earlier this year in the capital, Astana, to discuss poverty levels, the Japanese economist noticed a stark contrast with her experience back home.
It was not the difference in culture or the gap in economic development; it was 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.
She 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 in Tokyo. She had no female role models in Japan, “absolutely zero,” she said.
So she began applying for jobs in business while still a student at the University of Tokyo. Then she learned she had won one of the top awards for her thesis, giving 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 former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1938. Larina was separated from her one-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.
Poverty analysis is a relatively recent field of study in Russia because Soviet-era propaganda claimed it did not 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. In 2001, she moved to Moscow to better learn the language and deepen her postgraduate studies.