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