What is behind the miserable social status of women in Japan?
In October last year, the World Economic Forum, a prestigious independent organization based in Geneva, published a report on the gender gap in countries around the world. Japan’s overall ranking was 101, the worst outcome for this country in seven years of the survey.
Despite high scores on women’s health, longevity and educational level, the overall figure was brought down by Japan’s ranking as 102nd in terms of economic participation and opportunity, and 110th with regard to political empowerment.
The ranking for political empowerment is bound to go down next year, too. That’s because 54 women were elected to the Lower House in the 2009 general election, whereas in the election last month, only 38 of the 225 female Lower House candidates were elected — filling a paltry 7.9 percent of the total number of that chamber’s seats.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of working Japanese women who become pregnant now leave their jobs to have a family. Although some do eventually return to the workforce, it is not easy in this country for them to resume their former positions.
This results in unstable employment, lower pay than before, and, due to the discontinuity, a reduced retirement pension. Seeing as women live longer than men — of the nation’s 51,376 centenarians, 87.3 percent are women — they require more care and welfare support as well.
A host of experts in and outside the government has now come around to the realization that getting women into positions of responsibility in the workforce is a national priority if economic productivity is to be enhanced. So, what’s stopping this from happening? Is it that women are still seen chiefly as carers who are born to provide services to men, children and the elderly?
In 2007, marriage and family consultant Hiromi Ikeuchi published a new book with an old title, “Ryōsai Kenbo.” Coined in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), the term ryōsai kenbo means “a good wife and a wise mother.” However, Ikeuchi’s take on this is updated from the Meiji ideal of the self-abnegating servant. It includes advice such as “don’t wound your husband’s pride”; “be a parent who doesn’t spoil your children”; and “show gratitude toward your family.” She tells women that they don’t have to be “perfect at housework and childrearing.”
Admirable traits as these may be in either gender, I find the very use of the term ryōsai kenbo rather offensive. For one thing, it excludes women who are neither wives nor mothers … or mothers without husbands … or women whose partners are women.
Neither are the results of a Cabinet Office survey on gender equality released in October last year any more encouraging. Indeed, Japanese society seems to be reaching back to an old model of inequality.
More than half of the 3,033 men and women who responded to the survey — 51.6 percent, to be exact — said that wives belong in the home. Of the men surveyed, 55.7 percent said this; of the women, 43.7 percent.
The telling aspects of this survey, which probed people’s thoughts and feelings on gender roles, domestic life, issues of sex and violence as depicted in the media and “what you want and expect the government to do about gender equality,” deal with the reasons men and women attributed to disparate roles and inequality.
Among the areas in which gender equality was considered to be lowest, neither companies, schools, homes, workplaces — nor legislation — was deemed the worst by respondents.
The second lowest result registered “in the society,” with a mere 21.4 percent saying there is equality. Only in politics did people feel there was less gender equality.
In other words, the greatest obstacle to equality between men and women in Japan are the customs of the people themselves — and what they are willing to accept as “the new normal.”
To what can we attribute this semi-feudal social barrier? Could it be that Japanese people are locked into a Meiji Era stereotype, with women still valued for the service they give others rather than for their own abilities, talents and contributions to the nation? If this is actually the case, then the enhanced productivity from gender equality that has been seen in other countries — Canada and Norway notable among them — is not going to be achieved in Japan.
But there is something else at work here.
There has been a general disaffection in society away from engaging with the bigger issues facing the nation. Despite two decades of economic stagnation and political ineffectuality, people here have responded to issues with an all-too-characteristic social apathy. Even when they are roused by an issue, as with the demonstrations and petitions against the continuance of nuclear power generation, they become quickly disheartened by the po-faced intransigence of bureaucrats and the intractable self-interest of the corporate establishment.
The result is a throwing up of the hands in surrender and a shrinking back into the private world of small personal happinesses.
The results of the Lower House election last month, returning the Liberal Democratic Party to power in a landslide victory, show that Japanese voters are very good at the electoral recording of negativity — the vote for the LDP was really a vote against the government of the Democratic Party of Japan that failed to live up to its promises. In contrast, when it comes to registering what they want, the electorate becomes meek, nonplussed and fragmented.
It is clear that the greatest obstacle to gender equality in Japan lies in the social consciousness of the people. And with the political establishment, corporate culture and the media firmly in the grip of dominant males, prospects for the economy and for the rejuvenation of Japanese life are likely to remain utterly bleak.
A fascinating working paper by Chad Steinberg and Masato Nakane, both senior economists at the International Monetary Fund, was released in October last year. In that, the authors estimated that bringing female labor participation (FLP) to the average level of the G7 nations (excluding Japan and Italy) would raise gross domestic product (GDP) per capita permanently by 4 percent —and that in the event FLP was raised to the level seen across northern Europe, GDP per capita would increase by a further 4 percent.
Japan’s young women are more educated than their counterparts anywhere in the world except New Zealand. And yet, the report points out, “Japan has by far the lowest rate of female managers among advanced countries.”
It is all too obvious that what Japan needs — and in a hurry — is a societal consciousness of, and consensus on, a new socio-economic model that closes the gaping gender gap and recognizes the gifts that women can bring to the nation.
It is also obvious that this must come from the grassroots up. The men who rule this country can never be relied upon to relinquish power of their own accord.
Japanese people might be content today with their little happinesses close to home. Someday, however, they may find even those to be unattainable, since, in the words of the IMF study: “Japan’s working-age population … will fall (in 2050) to approximately the size of the workforce at the end of World War II. … By some estimates, (the economies of) Japan and Indonesia will be the same size by the middle of this century.”
Don’t count on Indonesians being content with this. As for the Japanese, whether they will be forced to settle for this may depend on how thoroughly they alter attitudes on the role of women in their society.
As of now, it doesn’t look promising.