The US first family’s visit to Asia has got off to an inauspicious start, after Ivanka Trump shared her views on sexual harassment and women’s empowerment in front of a half-empty venue in Tokyo.
Donald Trump’s daughter – already a familiar face in Japan thanks to her modelling work and fashion empire – did not mention her father by name during her brief address to the World Assembly for Women on Friday, focusing instead on her work with the US administration to promote women’s role in the economy.
Officials reportedly said her speech was the most registered event of the three-day assembly, but that tight security had meant not everyone had been able to enter the hall before the doors were closed for the duration of the speeches by Abe and Trump.
However, the Guardian arrived at the hall 10 minutes before the event began and witnessed no long lines of people waiting to get in. Another attendee who entered as the doors were closing said just a handful of people were milling around outside.
Earlier this year, she was greeted with boos and hisses at the W20 summit in Berlin when, appearing on a panel with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, she referred to her father as a “tremendous champion of supporting families”.
On Friday in Tokyo, speaking in a reference to an avalanche of allegations of sexual harassment in the entertainment and political worlds, she said: “All too often our workplace culture fails to treat women with appropriate respect.
“This takes many forms, including harassment, which can never be tolerated.”
The comments also revived memories of Donald Trump’s boast, in a leaked videotape that emerged during the presidential campaign, that he could get away with sexually assaulting women. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he said. “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Ivanka Trump, who has faced criticism for failing to relinquish all of her business interests while serving as an unpaid adviser to her father, said women should not be defined by whether they work inside or outside the home.
“Truth be told, on Sunday nights, after a messy and wonderful weekend with my children, I am far more exhausted than on Friday evenings, after a long week of work at the office,” she said at the venue, where those rows of empty seats brought to mind the large gaps in the crowd at her father’s inauguration in January.
“As a professional with three young children, and despite the help I was able to have at home, I too have experienced the struggles of balancing competing demands of work and family.”
Acknowledging her “fortunate” upbringing, she added: “Because of the opportunities I’ve had my whole life, I felt an obligation to seize this moment and join the administration.”
Earlier, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, lauded his own record on getting more women into the workplace and improving childcare provision, as part of the growth-oriented “womenomics” initiative he unveiled early in his premiership.
Noting that the number of Japanese women in managerial positions had doubled over the past five years – albeit from a very low base – Abe said his country’s male-dominated corporate culture was becoming more inclusive.
“We’ve put our full strength into creating an environment where it’s easy for women to work,” he said. “I really feel that Japan has come a long way.”
Abe, though, was speaking a day after the Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings showed Japan had slipped four places to 114th out of 144 countries, mainly due to the poor representation of women in parliament.
Japan fell three places overall from last year and remains at the bottom of the G7 nations. In the political category, it plunged 20 places from last year to 123rd. Last month’s election increased female representation in the lower house by only two seats compared with the last election in 2014.
Now, just 47 – or just over 10% – of the 465 MPs in Japan’s lower house are women. The upper house fares better, with women occupying about a fifth of the seats.
Men also dominate the upper echelons of Japan’s business world. Only 3.7% of executives at listed companies are women, according to government figures.
Ivanka Trump singled out the poor representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and maths, saying the male-dominated sectors were still “moving in the wrong direction”.
Donald Trump arrives in Japan on Sunday at the start of a 12-day visit that includes stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. His daughter had been expected to accompany him to Seoul and Beijing, but recently pulled out, saying she would return to the US to promoted the administration’s tax reforms.