‘You Mean Women Deserve Careers?’ Patriarchal Japan Has Breakthrough Moment

But don't get too excited girls, ingrained sexism runs deep

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

A woman looks at recruitment information posted on a board at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Labor Consultation Center in the Japanese capital

Correction appended: Oct. 1, 2013, 11:10 p.m. E.T.

On my last visit to Japan something happened that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before: a man served me tea. Granted, the situation was extenuating. I was on a remote military base on a teeny, tiny island in the middle of the East China Sea. The radar facility wasn’t exactly teeming with women.

The marginalization of women in Japan is so pervasive that after a while you don’t even notice it at all. You go to a meeting and the receptionist who greets you with a bright grin and deep bow is a woman. The important person you’re meeting is a man. The person who serves you tea and cookies is a woman. She may boast superior analytical skills and a degree from an elite university — nearly half of Japan’s college graduates are women. But her menial job is dictated by her gender. These patterns are so set that when they are broken — by the man proffering a beverage or the woman heading a boardroom — it causes a quaver of confusion.

Japan’s postwar economic development is all the more remarkable given that it was built on half the population not realizing its full career potential. But as Japan struggles for ways to emerge from more than two decades of stagnation, the world’s third largest economy will have to address the chronic underemployment of women. On Sept. 26, Japan’s conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in which he admitted the gravity of Japan’s gender gap. Abe’s message was basically a spin on “You go girl” — but delivered in a Japanese bureaucratic vernacular. “Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work, and enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society, is no longer a matter of choice for Japan,” Abe said. “It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency.”

If Japan wants to raise its competitive metabolism, it must do many things. Its citizens must overcome a blinkered island mentality and allow in more immigrants to do the jobs that most Japanese are unwilling to do. Japan must end its reliance on lumbering bureaucracies that still too often value age over talent. But, most of all, Japan must create career paths for its women both in the public and private sector. By the government’s own estimate, in 2011 only 0.8% of town and village mayors were women. In 2010, females only occupied 6.2% of top management positions in private Japanese firms, the lowest in the 24-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The economic costs are staggering: Japan could increase its GDP by at least 5% if it bothered to employ its women as Europe or the U.S. does.

(MORE: What’s Holding Japanese Women Back)

Abe’s U.N. speech clearly laid out how important it is to encourage female participation in the economy. Nevertheless, his feminist lecture felt forced. For one thing, Abe has staked his popularity on muscularity — both in terms of his controversial “Abenomics” stimulus plan and his hawkish security stance. His detractors chalked up the speech to diversionary politics, the feint of a revisionist leader who has wavered on how systematically the Japanese military compelled Asian “comfort women” to sexually service troops.

For another, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for all but a handful of years in the postwar era, has a shabby record when it comes to cultivating women in power. After last December’s elections, in which the LDP regained power and Abe became Prime Minister, the percentage of female lawmakers in the lower house decreased to 8%. That puts Japan 124th out of 188 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, below the likes of Bahrain and Mali. In 2006, the same year that Abe became Prime Minister for the first time (in a stint that lasted a year), the LDP reiterated that it wanted 30% of its MPs to be women by 2020. Look how well that’s going.

Despite prevailing attitudes, many Japanese women have wriggled free of the social straightjacket that forces mothers to quit their jobs after they have children. With more and more women refusing to settle down, Japan’s birthrate has now plummeted to the point where the population in 2060 is projected to be 30% smaller than that of 2010. Earlier this year, Abe proposed increasing the number of government day-care centers and extending unpaid maternity leave to a maximum of three years. But the maternity program is voluntary, which likely means it will never take off.

As for the poor soldier who provided me with tea, his serving style left much to be desired. There was a bit of fumble with a coaster. It took him a while to figure out exactly where to place the cup. We all smiled as he muddled through. But they’re not funny — these stereotypes that are internalized even in a half-Japanese woman like me. I must admit, though, that my own tea etiquette probably leaves much to be desired too. I blame my American side.

MORE: Handbags and Champagne: Japan’s Young Forex Divas Make Their Mark

An earlier version of this article misstated the house in Japan’s parliament that saw the percentage of female lawmakers decrease to 8%. It is the lower house, not the upper house.

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It is 188, not 142.

91 comments
Rosenberg
Rosenberg

These comments reveal a high level of r.acism, bigotry, and supremacism from white people . American media is much more full of sexist imagery which caters to men.

The man serving tea only confused the author bc of her confirmation bias. Also Western birthrates are plummeting, is that also a reflection of deep sexism? The author has internalized western self righteousness.

LauHiengHiong
LauHiengHiong

As reiterated many times in the past, Prime Minister Abe as well as his Liberal Democratic Party plans to increase women’s roles in Japan’s national development. This can better be regarded as political language, without too much practical significance in creating broader career paths for Japanese women, in public or private sectors.

As far as the so-called ‘Abenomics’ is concerned, the government has been successful in pushing up the Nikkei for about 50% surge since its earlier plunge, together with a few marginal indicators of corporate profitability and business confidence. The rapid fluctuations in Nikkei performance in recent two months show that the effects of ‘Abenomics’ may not last long. The main reason is that there have been very few explicit policies regarding deeper changes in the structure of Japan’s economy – scheduled deregulation, trade liberalization, corporate governance reforms, among others. The main strategies underlining ‘Abenomics’ are obviously based on the promotion of Japanese nationalism, without a genuine care about female participation in the economy.

Lau Hieng-Hiong, Hsinchu, TAIWAN

Daniel Christopher Holt
Daniel Christopher Holt

Japan needs to build more relations with the rest of the world and go global if they haven't already. It looks like they're more domestic. A Japanese person currently makes about $46,739 a year. If women have less jobs maybe they're staying at home with the kids and that's good for a traditionalist setting. Japanese are known to be much better with raising their kids than the other countries. Would there be more problems if women in the country worked for more pay and more hours when it comes to raising kids at home? Japan is known for having very little crime and having very little in health problems. Look at all of the USA's issues and all of the issues of the rest of the world in the modern countries. Japan's population is said to reduce by 1/3rd in a decade down to 85 million. I'm for the concept of work opportunities for both men and women, but then it's just a question of what actually works for individual types of people. I've always found that women always have a ton of problems when it comes to that stuff so while I would like to see things work with this other model, what I see is that women can't meet the demands they're trying to put on themselves in the non-traditional setting. It sounds good in paper when women want it but it doesn't actually work when they do it. On the other hand Europe is known for more gender equality of women and women are rising to make good money while living very balanced lives. We can outweigh the pros and cons of Europe and Japan. Using the USA's women is a very bad example but there's also a lot of other reasons for that. Europe is said to surpass the USA in a decade and that women will be doing much better in Europe compared to how women are doing now in Europe. That's really good because even now women are doing really well in Europe if you compare them to other countries. Europe has a much better structure than most other countries but that's always been a good trait they've had. Japanese males take their wives very seriously, if she divorces him he's known to kill himself as the suicide rate in Japan is the highest in the world. Mostly males in Japan kill themselves of the suicides. Japan needs more job opportunities before more jobs can be available. The gender issue there won't be fixed by blocking off guys from getting jobs and giving it to the women, instead they should create more jobs so there's more job availability for everyone that wants it. Another problem is that when women work more the more intelligent of those women have less kids, so the less intelligent women have a lot more kids which hurts the society structure in the long run which is currently happening with the USA. That causes downgrading of the economy and downgrading of the genetics in that country, which hurts the country in a lot of ways in the long run.

zephon-baal
zephon-baal

Hey. We love Japanese women in the USA. Polite and respectful are terms I can think of Japanese women I have met.

Maybe we should give them special status for immigration here as a political refugee.

Just leave your men folk at home.

We don't need their sexist and racist ilk in the USA. We already have enough of that.

Leah Daziens
Leah Daziens

Japan is an awesome country, but there is definitely sexism. I've always said that the day that Japan starts fully utilizing the brains & capabilities of its women will be the day that the rest of the globe should just quit even trying. So many just incredibly brilliant & thoughtful girls/women there! My opinion based on living in Japan & teaching English to Japanese students pre-K through Adult.

Analita Mulligan
Analita Mulligan

Japan is a great country in many ways, but it is absolutely one of the most sexist countries on the planet, and they are so unaware about it, that they do not even hide it.

Brett_Fujioka
Brett_Fujioka

@devintstewart Not doubting whether Abe wants to do this, but as of right I haven't seen anything in English on how he can achieve this.

ikedanob
ikedanob

@observingjapan I think the crucial problem is not workers but executives. Capital markets are far more protected by implicit contracts.

Noahpinion
Noahpinion

@ikedanob I see. Do you know any industry-level panel data on exposure to import competition and employment of women?

ikedanob
ikedanob

@Noahpinion No, but I think they employ fewer women because big companies frequently relocate employees.

joshuademasi
joshuademasi

@Noahpinion Corp Japan is cash rich and dta heavy. What Japan needs is a tax on retained earns.