During the pandemic, women in Japan have been more likely to lose their jobs, face increased pressure at home and be victims of domestic violence. And data released earlier this month showed that in 2021 suicides increased among women for the second year running, whilst declining for men.

Hanako Montgomery, a reporter for Vice World News in Japan, discusses Japan’s poor record on gender equality, why the pandemic has impacted women in particular, and what the country is trying to do about the rise in suicides among women.

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On this episode:

Hanako Montgomery: Twitter | Articles | Instagram

Oscar Boyd: Twitter | Articles | Instagram

Crisis lines:

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org for a detailed list of resources and assistance.


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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Oscar Boyd  00:00

Just a heads up before we begin, this episode does discuss suicide. If you, or anyone you know, are affected by the issues discussed in this episode, I've put links to resources in the show notes.

Oscar Boyd  00:19

Hello, and welcome back to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I'm Oscar Boyd. Over the past couple of years, many of the worst impacts of the pandemic have been felt by women. Women in Japan have been more likely to lose their jobs, face increased pressure at home and be the victims of domestic violence. Data released earlier this month showed that in 2021, suicides increased among women here for the second year running, whilst at the same time declining amongst men. This week, I speak with Hanako Montgomery, a report for Vice Japan about Japan's poor record on gender equality, why the pandemic has impacted women in particular, and what the country is trying to do about the rise in suicides among women and girls.

Oscar Boyd  01:07

Hanako Montgomery, welcome to Deep Dive. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Hanako Montgomery  01:10

Thank you for having me.

Oscar Boyd  01:11

So Hanako, Japan is ranked as one of the worst performing countries in the world in terms of gender equality. In 2021, it placed 120th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's gender equality list. And it scored similarly poorly before the pandemic. I think we could spend the entire episode answering this question alone but, to actually give some context to that ranking, what are some of the ways that this gender inequality manifests in society?

Hanako Montgomery  01:40

There are so many different ways that I think women are underrepresented in Japan. Of course, the most glaring, probably, is politics. Abe Shinzo, when he was prime minister, I believe there was one female in his cabinet. With Kishida, it's a bit better, now we have three.

Oscar Boyd  01:56

That is three out of 21.

Hanako Montgomery  01:58

Yeah, exactly three out of 21. So when you have such an underrepresentation of women in politics, you know, some of the bills that women are trying to pass that greatly improve gender equality or support for single mothers, or for women in general, they might not get passed, or we just don't have those conversations in places that we should be having them. And then of course, if you go beyond politics, for the layperson, if you look at the way women work in Japan, a lot of it is part time work. And those were the first jobs to go during a pandemic, and that greatly affected women, more so than men. And even outside of the pandemic, women are already making less than men. So it's just all these issues compounding and growing. And there's not really much that's been done to assist these women. So here we are.

Oscar Boyd  02:48

Right, some statistics on that temporary or non-regular employment you're talking about. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, only 40% of working women are considered to work full time, compared to 70% of men. So there's a lot fewer women holding these more secure, full time, probably better paying jobs.

Hanako Montgomery  03:07

Yeah, it's also the rate of women returning to work after they have children. In Japan, a lot of the time, we see women taking on the primary responsibilities for child rearing and child raising. And I think the return rate for women back into the workforce is something like 50%.

Oscar Boyd  03:25

So we're really seeing a lot of women fall off the corporate career track when they have children, and far fewer of them returning back to the positions they originally held. 

Hanako Montgomery 03:34

Yeah, Japanese society is sometimes described as an escalator society, right. So if you go to a great high school, go to a great college, you get a great job. But if you're a woman, and you're expected to have a family and only have a family, then you are no longer part of the escalator, you are on the side, maybe waiting to get on, but you just can't.

Oscar Boyd  03:56

And so if we look at the top of that escalator, in the corporate world, what percentage of leadership positions are held by women?

Hanako Montgomery 04:02

I think in the corporate world, about 10% of those positions are held by women. So that means women still aren't in these rooms where you're making decisions about where the company is going. And these are really significant jobs that people should be having. There's no reason why a woman should not be in that position. It doesn't mean she's under qualified. It's just she can't seem to have the tools to get there.

Oscar Boyd  04:30

You've written several articles for Vice about sexism in schools in Japan. Is it fair to say that this kind of gender inequality begins in the classroom?

Hanako Montgomery  04:39

Yeah, I think so. I mean, we think of education as the first or maybe even the best tool to change society. But when we look at the way children are educated in Japanese schools, we see there are certain rules that girls have to follow that boys don't have to follow. Something that I wrote recently was about the ponytail ban in high schools and this is a rule that's quite, quite dated. And the rule was put in place because they didn't want girls to distract boys with the nape of their neck, right, or sexually excite men. And if you just take a step back and think about that, it's wild. To have that kind of rule for young girls, for minors to think about, ‘oh, you know, I can't expose the nape of my neck right now, because I could be sexually exciting my male peers.’

Oscar Boyd  05:24

It reminds me of Victorian England, where women would go to the beach and wouldn't show their ankles for fear of sexually exciting men. 

Hanako Montgomery  05:31

Right, exactly, yeah. And some of the reactions that you saw on Japanese social media were pretty funny. I mean, it's like, why are we making these rules to suit people who might get excited by the neck when in the general population, that might not be the case? So we have ponytail bans, sometimes we see rules that ban colored underwear, so girls have to wear white underwear, and then they have checks. In some schools, girls would have had to stand in the hallway and then their teachers check the color of their bras or their underwear, and they have to lift up their skirts. 

Oscar Boyd  06:03

That feels very invasive. 

Hanako Montgomery  06:04

Yeah. I mean, it's an invasion of privacy. And some schools do separate genders when they do those checks. So they get the boys to line up in the gymnasium, and then the girls in the classroom. But when you have those rules in place, girls grow up understanding that they have to behave and act in a certain way. And then, of course, within the classroom, there are certain subjects that seem "more masculine" — mathematics, science. I'm sure you remember the 2018 Tokyo Medical University scandal, there were reports that women didn't get accepted into the university purely because of their gender. So they had the scores, they were able to get into these extremely competitive classrooms, but they didn't get a place because of their gender. And I mean, there's no other way of describing that besides sexism.

Oscar Boyd  06:55

Right, the university was found to be rigging the entrance exam so that women had to score higher than men to gain entrance to the medical school. And it wasn't just Tokyo Medical University, either. I think nine more universities were caught up in the scandal. And one of them came out with this very strange excuse for their actions, which was to say that women mature faster than men, therefore the men applying for the positions at their medical school needed an extra helping hand with their scores.

Hanako Montgomery  07:25

Right. Just, question mark. And then you also have the excuse that, ‘hey, if we accept women into these positions, they might leave because they want a family or they have to raise children,’ which goes back to the fact that women can't really find themselves going back to work and having those same positions that they may have once had. So yes, for sure, education, the way classrooms are structured in Japan contributes to this. I do know that certain school districts and the Education Board in Japan are trying to change that. So I think starting April 1, all Tokyo prefectural schools will ban these so called buraku kosoku, these draconian school rules. But if you go to more regional schools, you still have these rules. And a lot of that doesn't get changed, because they don't see a reason to change. But of course, they infringe on basic individual rights.

Oscar Boyd  08:21

And coming back to how women are treated in the workplace for a moment. I think one of the most high profile examples of this kind of sexism we're talking about was the story that emerged about this time last year, just before the Olympics were due to happen, when the President of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, Yoshiro Mori, came out and said that women shouldn't be put in boardroom positions, because they would talk for too long. He ended up resigning eventually, as a result of his comments. But I think that does speak to some of the attitudes that exist within the workplace and exist very high up in the leadership of big organizations.

Hanako Montgomery  08:59

For sure, yeah, I think that was so representative of the things that we've been seeing. And to have him resign was quite a big step forward. It acknowledged that, ‘Hey, we can't be saying these comments anymore, we can't let this slide.’ But to have the president of the Olympic Committee say something like that, and for no immediate action to be taken. It took a couple of days, as I recall, for him to actually step down. That again, shows that so many of these rooms are occupied by males. But when we keep talking about women in this way, where we enforce these stereotypes — that they talk too much, that they don't belong in these rooms — it not only affects the current situation, but I think it also affects future generations. So young children growing up hearing these things, they might absorb this thinking, this mentality, and then continue representing that when they also become adults, and they take on positions where they're making the decisions.

Oscar Boyd  10:23

So we have this large and ongoing gender inequality pre-pandemic. How has the pandemic exacerbated these problems?

Hanako Montgomry  10:29

In many, many different ways, I think. The first glaring thing that we see is the suicide rates for men and for women. So in Japan, suicide has been a pressing societal issue, and the suicide rate was decreasing for about 11 years. But then, once the pandemic hit, the number of female suicides increased significantly. I think it was like a 15% increase from the year before. That is one huge, huge impact of the pandemic. And there were so many different reports about how women were being treated in the workforce, about how they had to take on more childcare positions in their home. And of course, if you look at the way women are employed in Japan, about half or a little bit more than half of part time work, those positions are taken on by women. And those were the first jobs to go during the pandemic, because non-essential jobs basically reduced their shifts, or they were told to stay at home. We saw a huge amount of job losses around the world, and in Japan that primarily affected women.

Oscar Boyd  11:29

Right, in April 2020, around the time that the first state of emergency was introduced, the number of women in the workforce declined by about 700,000 compared with the month before, which was nearly twice the figure that it was for men, which was about 390,000. So yes, heavily skewed towards women.

Hanako Montgomery  11:52

Exactly. And when women are making less than men, then the question is, how do they support themselves? If they're living alone, who do they have to rely on? Or if they have families, how do they support their children? How do they support their husbands, who could have also lost their jobs? There are so many different questions and problems that arise when we see this kind of work force style in Japan.

Oscar Boyd  12:16

And coming back to these figures you mentioned, about the number of people that died by suicide throughout the pandemic. I think I'm correct in saying that the number of women who died by suicide increased while the number of men who died by suicide actually continued to decrease. But the increase for women was so great that it actually reversed that 11-year declining trend in total suicide numbers. 

Hanako Montgomery  12:37

Yeah, exactly. The suicide rates were falling consistently. And then in 2020, when we saw a huge, huge number of female suicides, especially around October of 2020, the suicide rate just jumped and it reversed the trend, like you mentioned.

Oscar Boyd  12:54

And what are some of the factors behind this increase in suicides amongst women?

Hanako Montgomery  12:59

It's hard to always pinpoint one reason for a woman or a man to complete suicide. But there are a number of factors I think that are at play. And based on the statistics that we see from the Tokyo Police Department and the National Police Department, a lot of this has to do with being diagnosed with depression and also economic factors and issues within the home. So I think the three leading causes for this increase in suicide rates is depression, loss of jobs or economic issues, and then also family issues. But again, you know, there are so many different other factors at play. When someone has depression, depression isn't the only thing that could be affecting them. I think this again goes to show that when we have unstable work structures, when women are expected to take on a lot of these pressures in the home, it tends to have extreme physical and mental impacts.


Oscar Boyd  13:58

And last year, you wrote an article for Vice and made a video as well about the story of one survivor of a suicide attempt. Her name was Nazuna Hashimoto, what was her story?

Hanako Montgomery  14:07

Yeah, so she is now 22. And she used to work at a gym during the pandemic. But once the pandemic hit, the number of shifts she had decreased. So I think she was working about a quarter of the shifts that she had before and she was expected to stay at home. And she was living with her mother, but she was extremely isolated because of the pandemic, so not having the social interactions that she might have had before with her coworkers, spending most of her time at home with her mother, experiencing a lot of isolation and sadness and loneliness and no way of dealing with this stress. It all just overwhelmed her and she attempted suicide twice. And both times she remembers just how sad her family was. She remembers waking up in the hospital and seeing her mother's face and seeing her boyfriend's face and almost feeling like she had disappointed them in a way. It must have been so extremely difficult for her, but she was still thinking about the ways it affected her family. And she was still worried about them. So it's sad. It's extremely sad for a person to think that they don't have a space where they're being listened to, where they can get the support. Now she has created an app called Bloste, and it connects counselors to people who need therapy. And her primary reason for that is because she hopes people like her get help when they need help. And it's economically, financially accessible to them.

Oscar Boyd  15:38

So she found it hard to get help when she felt like she needed it most. 

Hanako Montgomery  15:42

Yeah, she found it difficult to get help for a number of reasons. One of them being therapy in Japan is extremely expensive. So one therapy session can cost anywhere between, in US dollars, $50 to $200. And it's not covered usually by national health insurance. So when you have these extreme costs, and then a lot of the stigma around mental health, because it is a problem within the mind, or it's not something that you visibly see, people might think that you don't need as much support for it, that you don't need medicine for it. It's like, ‘oh, just shake yourself out of it.’ So her goal, yes, is also to make it cheaper for people. And just to go to a hospital to get this care is pretty difficult. You have to really take a brave step forward. But having an app, it makes it accessible and it destigmatizes a lot of the issues that we see when people are trying to get help.

Oscar Boyd  17:38

At a government level, is anything being done to support women throughout this pandemic? Because having suicide numbers increasing for two years in a row should surely be sounding some alarm bells somewhere. 


Hanako Montgomery  18:17

Yeah, so last year after the suicide statistics were released for 2020, the Japanese government appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as the loneliness minister. He has a budget of $55 million, and $12 million of that is supposed to aid women specifically. So with this budget, he was expecting to create spaces for women to get help on social media and also online, and also provide a lot of financial support to these NPOs that are directly serving women. So on the surface, right, it looks like we're getting support for people in need.

Oscar Boyd  18:55

Although $12 million is not very much money in the grand scheme of things.

Hanako Montgomery 18:58

Yes, it's not very much in the grand scheme of things and how that money is being spent. There's not a lot of clarity on that. And for people who are experiencing this extreme loneliness, for people who need support for their mental health, they are not directly seeing the benefits of that. So if we speak to NPOs that are directly assisting women in need — not just women who are experiencing mental health burdens from raising their families or from raising their children, but also women who are experiencing homelessness or job loss — they will say that they are not seeing the benefits of this. Women are still on the street, not able to get warm food, not able to get proper housing. Women are experiencing domestic violence in the home, and of course also young women, so students, right, they might be experiencing stresses from online school or shukatsu (job hunting), right, going on to building their careers, but then they also have these family stresses. It's a step forward, sure. But as you said, it's not financially that significant. And it's certainly not enough to reverse the trend as we have seen with the 2021 statistics.

Oscar Boyd  20:13

And even if it was a greater amount of money, it still feels like a sticking plaster in the context of the issues you've discussed, whereby there are so many pre-existing conditions before the pandemic that were creating gender inequality — from representation at high levels in politics or management to the kind of work that women have. I know that the government publishes a basic plan for gender equality every five years, which is supposed to be promoting a more equal society in terms of gender. And the latest version of that was approved in December 2020. What's contained in that and have those plans for promoting gender equality actually proved useful or effective?

Hanako Montgomery  20:56

So a lot of that plan was to improve the position of women in society, so to decrease discrimination, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and they have set these goals for 2030. But so little has been done in order to achieve these goals. Part of these goals outlined overwork, again overwork is another huge issue in Japan, and Japan still hasn't been able to create the proper structures for people to take more paid time off, or not as much overtime work. And by increasing the number of women in parliament, and in corporate positions, they expected to have greater representation, but we still don't see a lot of female voices. One huge issue also in Japan is the fact that a lot of this is discussed in the binary, right, so it's men and women. But then we also have a population of LGBTQ individuals that don't fall into this, and they might not be getting the assistance that they need. So if there's a new bill passed for married couples, LGBTQ people can't get married in Japan still. So you have another group of women, another group of men, who aren't getting the assistance that they need. And the pandemic has put a spotlight on issues that have long existed in Japan. It certainly exacerbated a lot of these issues. But they also existed before the pandemic.

Oscar Boyd  22:17

I think one of the most embarrassing things for the government is that back in 2003, they created a target as part of one of these basic plans for gender equality, where they were trying to get 30% of government leadership to be women by 2020. And this was a plan that was emphasized again by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in office from 2012 to 2020, so he had eight years in power. And he really promoted the idea of Womenomics, a campaign that was meant to empower women. But in 2020, when the government released the most recent version of the basic plan for gender equality, they had to push that target back to a vague date, "sometime before 2030" I think is the language, because they had so dramatically failed to reach the 30% target they'd set in 2003.

Hanako Montgomery  23:03

Exactly. Yes, Womenomics, right. What a great word. I mean, to have to push it back, says so much about the issues in Japanese society currently, right? So around 2018, when the world saw a huge MeToo movement, and people really calling to arms about improving the workplace and political spheres for women, we saw more leaders talking about these issues and trying to pass bills that would improve representation. But you know, to have to push it back to 2030. I mean, it's just an admission that Japan is unable to do what it said it was going to do.

Oscar Boyd  23:45

When you're talking to people in the NPO space, how do they think that the lack of representation should be addressed?

Hanako Montgomery  23:52

Yeah. So in the political sphere, right, we see a lot of NPOs discussing the need for more female representation. And part of that is to increase women's participation in politics. We still do see more men running for office and for government positions. By enforcing this idea that women do have a space to talk about these issues and will be elected if they run, that would also improve the current situation. And then once we actually have women in the cabinet, or in the Diet, not mocking them. And then of course, that sort of carries over into the workforce, right, so having female corporate leadership positions. Which means the work culture has to change. Women who have families, they shouldn't be stigmatized, and they shouldn't be told that they might leave one day so they can't get the position. They can't carry on with this job in fear that, you know, I guess the whole company would fall to the ground if a woman left for three, four months to take care of a child and come back. So changing that and then also, of course, improving women's pay. I believe men still earn around ¥100,000 more than women immediately after graduation. So if we're not paying women the same amount for the jobs that they're doing, then how can we ever achieve a society where we see women as equals to men?

Oscar Boyd  25:16

I think there's an argument for the other side of it as well, which is creating more space for men to actually be able to take time off work, to take parental leave, to be able to leave work on time or early to look after children so that the entire burden of raising a family doesn't fall on the shoulders of women.

Hanako Montgomery  25:33

For sure, yeah, I think the rate of men taking paternity leave in Japan is really quite low.

Oscar Boyd  25:40

That figure is actually around 6% of men take some form of parental leave when their children are born. I remember when Shinjiro Koizumi, the former Environment Minister, took 12 days of parental leave when his child was born, he made headlines everywhere in Japan for his bold new step into a modern world.

Hanako Montgomery  25:58

It's just incredible. Last year, I think three government officials, to encourage men to understand some of the burdens that women go through when they bear children, I think they wore those maternity suits. You know what I'm talking about? 

Oscar Boyd  26:13

What to simulate a pregnancy?

Hanako Montgomery  26:17

Yes, I think for a day, so that they could physically and mentally understand the weight of women. And yeah, exactly,  encouraging men to take paternity leave and destigmatizing this idea that by taking paternity leave, you're not masculine enough, or you're not doing enough as a man to provide for your family. The days of thinking of a family as a woman just cooking and cleaning, and then a man earning the money. I mean, if they want to that is of course fine, but to expect that from an entire population is wrong.

Oscar Boyd  27:02

So far, this episode has really focused on the effect of the pandemic on women in Japan. But I wonder how does what we're seeing here fit into the broader global conversation about the pandemic’s effect on gender equality?


Hanako Montgomery  27:16

I think we've been seeing the pandemic have really significant effects on gender equality in most parts of the world. And one of the clearest statistics that we've seen on this issue is the World Economic Forum has said that it's going to take around 135 years, right, so more than a century, for the gender gap to close. Before the pandemic, when they published this prediction using 2019 data, that was 99 years. So during the pandemic, we've seen 36 years added to the 99 years for the gender gap to close. And this has shown just how difficult it's been for women during the pandemic. And one thing that is heavily discussed is the effect on domestic violence victims. So when people are expected to stay home, and if home for them is not a safe space, they are expected to spend hours, days, weeks with their abusers. Women during the pandemic have experienced a lot of the same economic fallout, the responsibilities within the home that women in Japan are also seeing. So there's still so much more to be done. And the pandemic has really shined a light on the issues that we see currently. But, you know, we can't really stop at just that right. Now, a lot of the conversation should be around how do we make spaces better for women? How do we get them the support that they need? That's I think a lot of the ways th NPOs and governments are expecting to go. Will they be successful? I don't want to say time will tell because we shouldn't wait on time for things to change. 

Oscar Boyd  27:16

That was Hanako Montgomery, and I’ll link the articles she’s written for Vice in the show notes. My thanks to her for joining me.  

In The Japan Times this week: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” won the Academy Award for best international feature film at the Oscars on Sunday. It is the second Japanese film to win in the best international feature film category, the only other being Yojiro Takita’s “Departures,” which won back in 2009. 

Also, price hikes for food and other daily necessities will hit consumers in Japan at the start of April, reflecting rising global prices on commodities such as wheat and oil and the declining value of the yen. Kagome plans to raise tomato ketchup prices by up to 9%, Suntory Yamazaki 12-year-old whisky will be priced at ¥10,000 per 700-milliliter bottle, up 18%, and the government will boost the prices of th imported wheat it sells to the private sector by about 17%. 

On that happy note, I’m off to buy as much flour and ketchup as I can carry. That’s it for this week’s episode. I had additional editing help on this one from Dave Cortez. We’ll be back next week but until then, as always, podtsukaresama.