‘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.

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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.