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Japanese women strive to empower themselves

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

When it comes to gender equality, Japan has never failed to disappoint.

The world’s third-largest economy never runs short of statistics that point to disadvantages for its women, whether that be work opportunities, wages or participation in politics. The Global Gender Gap Report 2012, released by the World Economic Forum in November, puts Japan in 101st place out of 135 countries. Other numbers help explain why.

In Japan, 70 percent of women have jobs before they get married, but 62 percent of them quit after having their first child. The numbers of female university researchers and doctors are on the rise, but they still make up only 13.8 percent and 18.9 percent of those categories, respectively. Politically, women occupy only 7.9 percent of Lower House seats and 18.6 percent of Upper House seats, and only three of Japan’s 47 prefectural governors are women.

Likewise, women account for 70.2 percent of the nation’s part-time or non-permanent workforce, receiving less pay, benefits and job security than their full-time counterparts. But for at least some of them, their working hours and responsibilities are not much different from those of full-timers. And then, even among the full-time workers, women earn 30.7 percent less than men — marking the second-greatest gender income gap among OECD countries after South Korea’s.

The same old reasons have been cited for the dismal status quo, which has changed little since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was enacted in 1986, banning discrimination against women in the workplace. Japan’s long working hours make it hard for many women to have a full-time career and a family at the same time. Though slowly improving, men’s participation in housework/child-rearing is still limited — men with children younger than six spend an average of only 60 minutes a day helping around the house. Furthermore, only 2.63 percent of the nation’s dads took child-care leave in 2011, compared with 1.72 percent in 2009.

Above all, it seems Japan’s biggest problem is the lack of role models presenting diverse lifestyles and work styles that are free of fixed gender roles and different from the traditional “men at work, women at home” family model. Meanwhile, the argument often put forward by skeptics is that Japan is a society where “women themselves don’t want to work” and that “women aren’t fighting hard enough” for equality. Indeed, a 2010 survey of 568 single women released by continuing-education company U-can shows that 53.9 percent said they “would rather become a full-time housewife after marriage or childbirth” to “focus on housework or child-rearing,” “spend time on their hobbies” or because “they don’t like their jobs.”

So are women partly to blame for the problem? Are they doing anything to change the situation? This month’s Close-Up interview, in recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, is aimed at answering such questions. The three interviewees here — postpartum fitness trainer Maco Yoshioka, filmmaker Yu Negoro and work-life balance consultant Yukari Horie — are all actively engaged with women, trying to make life easier for their sisters, though their perspectives and approaches vary. Together, they present the reality behind the statistics, illuminating the everyday challenges and hardships women face — as well as offering some rays of hope for them.


Battling the postpartum blues

Documenting the gender imbalance

Making life easier for working moms

  • WithMalice

    Given that the people largely responsible for passing legislation within Japan are old, male, and lean towards being extremely conservative… the numbers presented in this article come as no surprise.

    • itoshima2012

      @worhmalice – spot on!

  • Marty

    Japan’s youth need to become more involved in politics; both male and female. Apathy flows like molasses when it comes to politics in this country. Women deserve the same rights (salaries, opportunities, etc) as men but because the country is run by old men with anachronistic ideas and where nepotism is rife how can things change except cosmetically. Japanese women need to stand up for themselves and start shaking their fists for equality.
    Sadly, the plight of Japanese women will not change. The country, as a whole, doesn’t like change. Perhaps, in the future, we’ll see more women rising up to challenge the dominant males in this society. When they day arrives I, for one, will applaud.

  • http://twitter.com/regisarnaud regis arnaud

    Dear all,

    A conference on March 12 regarding this topic that I will have the honor to moderate at the French Institute in Tokyo. Please join us.

    Best regards,

    Regis Arnaud

    Can Women Save Japan?

    Tuesday, March 12, 2013 from 19:15

    Organized by French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan (CCIFJ) and Femmes Actives Japon (FAJ)
    With the kind support of Institut Français du Japon

    ** Schedule:

    Is “Japanese working mum” an oxymoron? : Regis Arnaud, moderator, Chief Editor of France Japon Eco, the magazine of the French chamber of Commerce

    Womenomics, Japan’s hidden asset: Kathy Matsui, co-head of Economics, Commodities and Strategy (ECS) Research in Asia, Goldman Sachs, author of the report “Womenomics 3.0: The Time is Now”

    What women can provide to Japanese companies: Georges Desvaux, Managing partner, McKinsey & Company Japan, and co-author of the “Women matter Project” initiated in 2007 by McKinsey and revised each year

    Overview of the current legal issues concerning women in the workplace from a French-Japanese perspective: Davy Le Doussal, French attorney-at-law, registered with the Tokyo Bar Association (gaikokuhôjimubengoshi), TMI Associates

    Round table:
    French and Japanese examples of integration and promotion of women in companies
    - Etsuko Katsu, Vice-President International, Polical and Economy Sciences Chair, Meiji University
    - Emmanuel Blin, President & CEO of Bristol Meyers Squibb Japan
    - Serge Goldenberg, President, Schneider Electric Japan
    - Jean-Louis Laurent Josi, President & CEO, AXA Japan Holding
    - Scott Sato, President, Pasona Inc

    Networking dinner buffet

    ** Information:

    Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
    Schedule: conference from 19:15 to 20:30, followed by a networking dinner buffet from 20:30 to 21:30 (at La Brasserie de l’Institut)
    Reception desk open from 18:45

    Venue: Institut français du Japon – Tokyo, Espace Images
    15 Ichigaya-funagawara-machi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-8415
    Access map: http://www.institutfrancais.jp/tokyo/fr/about/contact/
    Langage: English

    Fees: 4.500 yens to pay at the door
    Deadline for registration: March 5th
    Payment will be required for cancellations or no-show after this deadline

    To register to this event, please send an e-mail to reservation@ccifj.or.jp with your name, company name, title, address and phone number.

  • zengoku

    It is important for women to have money, resources and power available for their equality and equal treatment.

    But at the same time, I think many people forget the great effort necessary in raising a good child, and running a good household. People who think getting a job and more money as the only answer, in my humble opinion, is wrong; for the effort and love women put into raising a good family cannot be measured by money alone. Being a good mother is as important as having a good job, for it is the mothers of the world that determine the strength and virtues of the next generation.

    Several studies done in the US show that children who’s mothers returned to work very quickly were found to have behavior problems, involved in more crime, and risked causing serious damage to the child’s prospects in later life. Although at the same time women who did work tended to have better skills for raising a family due to higher education.

    One thing that is often overlooked is many successful women who were good mothers actually were entrepreneurs which developed their own businesses that carter to their own needs, as well as their customers. Women are the majority of some of the most successful direct marketing and homes based businesses.

    I think what is more important is how women can get access to money and resources, so they have better treatment, and placing more value on motherhood which it so greatly deserves. That IMHO is the way to empower women, by giving them the means to do what women do best, and not trying to fit women in a system designed more for men.

    • irairaneko

      Indeed. Forget the briefcase and power suit. It was tried and largely failed. If one looks at the blogs and online selling sites in Japan, there are many women using their skills and knowledge to good effect.

  • irairaneko

    Japanese women have good support compared with women in many other industrialised countries. There is no shusangaeri in many other cultures, and nowadays no such thing as a 5 or 10 day stay postpartum in a maternity clinic or hospital.
    Feminism has been used in these situations against women’s own best
    interests; check women out of maternity clinics early, in the name of
    womens’ lib, and health care gets cheaper to fund (yet see the rates of
    PPD skyrocket). In many municipalities in Japan it is much easier to get
    daycare than in, for example, Australian cities. Kindergarten starts at
    age 3 and is often available full time. If it is a private provider the women don’t
    have to be working and can still access full time childcare/early ed.
    This is unheard of for many outside Japan! As for paternity leave, it is
    not the fathers’ fault that they can’t access what is their legislated
    right. Employers, even the public service, simply won’t have it; no
    different than trying to take all your holiday leave at once – nice in theory, impossible in practice.
    Yes, Japanese women have a ways to go in terms of equal opportunity and a
    greater role in business and public life, but they already have many
    good things. I hope they can make the necessary changes to further their
    role in society (and for that matter their husbands’ role at home)
    without losing those things which are the envy of women in other industrialised societies.

    • Laire

      Totally agree!

      Women in Japan have much better support than in other countries. I also agree that employers look down on Japanese people when they want to use holiday time, paternity leave, work 9-5.

      • irairaneko

        My husband applied for 4 months paternity leave which is his right. After being kept waiting month after month for a decision, he got 3 1/2 weeks from when the baby was 1 month old. This came as extraordinary news for many friends and acquaintances whose husbands knew better than to even ask. As it was, he was somewhat ostracised in the workplace (the silent treatment), not least of all by female workmates who felt it was all so unfair as they had never had such a thing in their own child-rearing years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.takada Jeff Takada

    It should be pointed out that women leaving the workforce after their first child (the element of personal choice is not non-existent in this decision) is a godsend for unemployment figures. The oversupply of labor would be even more imbalanced than it is. What’s the goal? Poverty for everyone and absentee parenting? Yay, Japan can be just like the Europe and the US if it gets this “right.”

  • http://twitter.com/dahliapham Dahlia Pham

    I think this is a timely article bringing into light a very serious issue in Japan. As a foreigner who wants to work in Japan, but does not want to be an English teacher, I’m hoping that foreign female co-workers can influence and encourage Japanese women to fight for more equality in the work force. Japanese youths’ enthusiasms are being crushed from the start in seeking different ways to live their lives. I definitely agree that there needs to be more role models and that sometimes thinking as an individual will do greater good not only for the person but for groups as well.

  • Steve

    Check out what Planet Financea and Kesennuma Shinkin bank are doing. The beneficiaries of economic recovery grants are mostly women. The gap can be closed.

  • Adam

    I hope you develop this into a longer multi-part series.

  • Guest

    sometimes you just have to ask which job is more important overall.
    The fact is that most men just don’t make very good mothers, physically or psychologically.
    But the real, deep down problem is not that, it’s male jealousy and pride that leads them to be cruel to women….Now, if you can get over being mean to each other, most of the rest of the problems can be compromised or even solved.

    • Laire

      I think that many men are brought up this way. I know many men who would be better to stay at home and look after the kids than their partners. ;)

  • Laire

    Based on my experiences from living in Japan, I have to say that this article is a seriously westernised view. While in some ways, I totally agree that for gender equality Japan has a long way to go. But in other ways, I can totally understand why many women feel the importance of staying at home and bringing up their families.

    From what I found, in the workplace both men and women are expected to work unreasonable hours because it looks good to the employers and because the demands of the work life are extremely high. (I would the first one out of the office at 8pm and the last one in at 7:30am.) I can understand that from a teenager’s point of view, the girls can see a life of long hard work ahead of them if they choose to go into employment and they are lucky enough to have a way out of it, whereas the boys don’t really have any other option.

    I also found (from my understanding anyway), that a lot of women can start on a career path, take a break to have their families and then continue once they are ready. They never seem to lose their “place” working in the company, it just gets filled by temporary staff, so it is a lot easier for women to come back to the work place. Especially in the countryside where families are closer together, you’ll find that after having children, more mother’s will go back into work because they can leave their children with the grandparents.

    I think before making this issue about gender, Japan should first look at employment and making the work place more manageable for both men and women, more restrictions on limiting over time working and placing importance on staff to take the holidays they are allocated in a year.

    I think gender roles in Japan are changing, but they are not changing as quickly as in other countries. I also think that women aren’t being forced into these roles, I think they are looking at the options and picking the one which they find more important to themselves.