International Women’s Day, commemorated March 8, was a chance to celebrate women’s achievements. But it also highlighted the fact that discrimination continues to be a major problem for women around the globe — and Japanese women, unfortunately, are no exception. In fact, the world’s second-largest economy ranked 43rd in the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Empowerment Measure in 2005, the lowest of all the developed nations and most second-tier countries, too.

According to this index — which incorporates the male-to-female ratio in parliaments and among professionals, technicians and managers, as well as income disparities by gender — Norway rates as the world’s most women-friendly nation, followed by the other Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. Japan ranked below the 12th-placed United States and 18th-placed United Kingdom — and was also outperformed by Latvia, the Czech Republic, Namibia, Panama and Tanzania.

And while Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party brought in a swath of high-profile women to run for it — many successfully — in the Sept. 11, 2005 general election, it is questionable how serious the party or its leader, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, are about the advancement of women overall.

“Koizumi has been picking one woman after another for Cabinet posts,” the major national newspaper Asahi Shimbun wrote in its Sept. 8 editorial. “But it was also Koizumi who said mindlessly that a woman’s tears are a weapon. We doubt Koizumi ever regards any woman as a real professional and an equal work partner.”

Attitudes that prevent women from realizing their full potential in public life are deeply rooted in Japanese society. And the idea that a woman’s place is in the home was reinforced during Japan’s period of meteoric economic growth from the mid-1950s through to the early ’70s, when millions moved into the cities and men’s role became that of corporate warriors — while women were expected to stay home and look after their families.

Although a Cabinet Office public opinion poll in 2004 found — for the first time — more people opposing such a rigid division of labor than supporting it, the everyday reality is that women still undertake most of the household duties.

This is clear from the results of the latest survey by public broadcaster NHK, which found that in 2005 the average time men spent homemaking each weekday had only risen to 46 minutes, from 32 minutes in 1995. Over the same period, the time women spent homemaking per weekday had only fallen by 5 minutes, from 4 hours 32 minutes in 1995 to 4 hours 27 minutes in 2005.

Nonetheless, the position of Japanese women has improved in some fundamental ways in the postwar era. In December 1945, for instance, they were granted suffrage, and prostitution was outlawed in 1956. Meanwhile, though on a much smaller scale than in the United States or many other developed nations, Japan did have its own women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, in which women organized demonstrations to protest against the country’s ban on contraceptive pills and also lobbied on other issues affecting their lives.

Although the ban on the pill was only revoked in 1999, back in 1985, the passage of the landmark Danjo Koyo Kikai Kinto Ho (Equal Employment Opportunity Law) significantly improved working conditions for the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce. In fact, married women with jobs outnumbered full-time housewives for the first time in the year before the law was passed.

Just last week, another important government bill was submitted to the Diet aiming to reinforce the 1985 law. The aim this time is to prevent employers from treating female employees “unfavorably” — such as pressuring them to quit, demoting them or switching from full-time to part-time contracts against their will — during pregnancy or within a year after they give birth (unless the company can prove that the decision was motivated by neither factor). In addition, the bill includes tougher measures against sexual harassment.

These advances, however, do not necessarily reflect a commitment to achieving real equality for women.

Reactionary tendencies have been apparent, for example, in recent moves by some conservative members of the LDP to revise Article 24 of the Constitution, which stipulates that men and women must be equal partners in marriage. Also, in a move that strains all modern credulity, Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of Emperor Akihito, reportedly wrote in an internal newsletter of the Imperial Household Agency in September that Japan should consider a concubine system before allowing a woman to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

In the commoners’ world, meanwhile, workplace equality is hindered by long and inflexible working hours and a lack of sufficient childcare and social welfare support, which make it impossible for those responsible for raising children or caring for ailing parents — tasks still shouldered primarily by women — to be fully active in society. Yumiko Ehara, professor of sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, notes that as a result, many working mothers have opted for hiseiki (non-regular) employment — with many jobs paying a paltry 800 yen per hour, far less than is paid to seiki (regular) workers.

Commenting on hiseiki jobs, which came into being around 1960 as a means of dealing with labor shortages during the period of explosive economic expansion, Ehara said, “Such jobs were only invented as an employment system for women who were supported by working men.”

She continued, “Sony was among the first companies to introduce it. They found that those women make a surprisingly great workforce. They were high performers, and they never demanded higher pay or asked for health insurance coverage [because they were covered by their husbands’ plans]. They couldn’t be more convenient for businesses.”

Ehara points out, though, that there is no other country in the world that has kept the wages of part-timers so low.

“In Europe and the U.S., part-timers might work fewer hours, but they are entitled to the same hourly rate as full-timers,” she said.

Even though a small percentage of college-educated, elite women are making inroads into corporate Japan, the working conditions of the vast majority of women are being ignored, said Ehara, who believes this is causing “polarization of women.”

Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the 2,600-member National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu (to which some Japan Times employees belong), agreed. It is always those women in less stable situations who bear the brunt of negative trends in the economy, he said.

“When companies downsize, or when they shift toward fixed-term contracts, the first target, in my experience, is women,” he said. “That is because there is still a mentality that real workers are men.”

Echoing Ehara’s comments, Carlet added that working mothers often find themselves in a bind, as they are at a disadvantage compared with men who have sengyo shufu (full-time housewives) to take care of all or most household chores. As well, he said, working mothers may feel they are “making their husbands’ lives harder” if they work, as this will inevitably shift some household burdens onto them — unless their spouses are househusbands.

Not content to accept this situation,though, more women nowadays are turning their backs on traditional male-dominated employment and opting instead to be their own bosses.

Kahoko Tsunezawa, 32, is one such woman, who, as founder and president of Trenders Inc., runs workshops helping women to set up in business. “So far in Japan, the business world has been created and led by men,” the mother of two said, adding that “women make great businesswomen once they adopt strategic thinking.”

Convinced that women are now facing a watershed, Tsunezawa adds that “from now on, women will be required to manage and lead other women. But right now, there is very little knowhow in Japan on how women can lead. There are no role models for women.

“So I’m telling women attending our workshops to become the role model yourself. I’m saying, ‘Don’t fear or feel overwhelmed by the fact that sometimes, you must do things that others aren’t doing.’ “

How long will Japanese women need to wait for perhaps their biggest role model — a female prime minister — to emerge?

While Japan today has a variety of women doing outstanding jobs everywhere from politics to business to art, as seen throughout this TIMEOUT package, commentators generally agree that it will be “at least 30 years” before we will see a homegrown Benazir Bhutto or Angela Merkel. And that’s still a “hopeful” guess, they say.

“Now that the leading female prime ministerial hopeful Seiko Noda has lost her clout, and [ex-Foreign Minister] Makiko Tanaka is out of the picture, I don’t see anyone rising to the top post within the next 10 years,” Ehara said. “And the LDP seems incapable of utilizing female talent. . . . Let’s say 30 years, at best.”

What if Japan fails to allow women to fulfill themselves, both professionally and personally?

There are several bleak scenarios on the horizon, including a further birthrate decline from its present record low of 1.29. As well, with a pension law revision set to take effect in April 2007 that will make full-time housewives entitled to up to half their husbands’ pension, a divorce rush initiated by women is likely to further accelerate jukunen rikon (divorce among old couples). Government statistics show that the number of divorces among couples married for 35 years or more has surged from 300 in 1975 to 4,710 in 2004 — slightly down from its peak of 4,963 in 2003.

At the end of the day, it is not love that has kept Japanese couples from going their separate ways, Ehara suggests.

“A lot of women are holding their breath right now, waiting to get a divorce,” she said. “The pension system is the number one reason why they have stayed away from divorces up to now.”

For other stories in our package on women in Japan, please click the following links:

Girls’ job stereotypes persist in face of continuing ‘concrete ceiling’

Women’s voices

Pointers to progress and inertia

Times of change

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