It sometimes seems that the government chooses vague-sounding titles and odd release times for white papers and other official documents that contain information likely to embarrass Japanese officials when dealing with their foreign counterparts. This was the case when the Prime Minister’s Office issued a report called “The Present Status of Gender Equality and Measures” just as much of the nation’s attention was focused on the recent unified local elections.

Although it is unlikely to be officially acknowledged, there was plenty of room for embarrassment on the part of the male bureaucracy in the report. Compiled from the government’s own data, as well as statistics from the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, it showed that between 1995 and 1998 Japan improved least in women’s participation in decision-making processes among a group of 10 developed nations. The other countries were Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United States.

To be sure, not all of these countries have records to be proud of on the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) scale. Observers of with the international scene were not surprised that Sweden and Norway took first and second place. But some were not prepared to find France joining South Korea on the low-rank list. Organizations in both those countries are male-dominated but each is making improvements in gender equality faster than Japan.

According to the latest U.N. statistics, this nation is listed 38th among 102 countries on the GEM scale, one of the worst rankings of any advanced nation. Surprisingly, Japan ranked 27th in 1995. The GEM index was devised by the U.N. Development Program based on four factors: the percentage of parliamentary seats held by women; the percentage of female administrators and managers; the percentage of female professionals and technical workers; and women’s share of earned income. While other low-ranking nations show an imbalance among these elements, Japan does poorly in all.

A major part of the problem, of course, is that this male-dominated society has such low expectations of the contributions that women can make, despite strengthening of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and the setting up three years ago, under the prime minister’s jurisdiction, of a Headquarters for the Promotion of Gender Equality. The situation obviously is better than it was before the government ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but Japan’s own laws including the Child-Care and Nursing Leave Law, lack sufficient penalties for infractions.

Improvements in opportunities for women here are also hampered by conservative politicians agitated by the nation’s rapidly declining birthrate and touting far-fetched ideas for encouraging Japanese women to marry sooner and have more children. In the view of some analysts, their proposals are having an effect opposite from the one intended. Deeply entrenched custom also plays a role in the continued existence of the “glass ceiling,” which prevents women from rising to senior managerial positions for no clearly stated reason. Japanese women can only shake their heads in wonder on learning that 44.3 percent of their counterparts in the U.S. and 30.6 percent in Norway hold managerial positions. The comparable figure for this country is 9.3 percent.

Although they only represent a beginning, encouraging signs of improvement can be found. For example, Japan now has nearly 40,000 women doctors, almost twice as many as less than two decades ago. And in the second half of the recent unified local elections, the first-ever female mayor of a municipality in metropolitan Tokyo was elected, along with 136 women elected to 44 prefectural assemblies and a first-time high of more than 2,000 women who won seats in city, ward, town and village assemblies. Women’s political groups are not alone in crediting their well-organized support for this outcome.

The election results are especially welcome in a nation where, in the past, women have been criticized for showing little interest in holding public office. More organizations supporting women’s candidacies are on the horizon, reflecting the growing realization that direct political action is preferable to continuing the long and uncertain wait for Japanese men to open the door to greater professional opportunity. If enough qualified women candidates are elected to national office, the way may at last be clear for meaningful action on bills before the Diet to ensure women a more equal role in Japanese society in the coming century.

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