Features | Society | East Asia

Rhetoric Not Enough for Japan’s Working Women

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be keen to tout Japan’s untapped labor force, but will he go beyond the rhetoric?

By Heenali Patel for

“I used to be a helicopter pilot, I loved it. But since having a child I quit. I don't think I will work again for a long time.”

I am at a local center, where residents may to socialize and host events. A group of women sits before me. We have been discussing their interests and aspirations for an hour. I look around at them, and see engaging and sociable individuals. They all share two things in common: each went to university and each quit their jobs after having a child. Although it is all well and good to choose family over career, the predictability of the career paths of these women is unsettling. Here, they treat it as part of a standard expectation. A working lifestyle in Japan is not compatible with motherhood, or so these women have been led to believe.

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a bold admission about women and the economic growth of his country. Addressing the UN General Assembly, he claimed: “Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work… is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency.”

The recognition of working women as a strong economic force may not seem like a novel idea to most developed nations. For Japan, it brings to light an issue of women’s rights long swept under the carpet.

The current Liberal Democratic leader has become known for his aggressive three-pronged policy, coined Abenomics, since taking office last December. Improving female workforce participation is part of Abe's long-term reform strategy. Though it has been a significant problem in Japan for many years, it is only starting to gain some limelight now. As Abe explains: “In 1999, Kathy Matsui and her colleagues at Goldman Sachs first advocated that Japan could increase its gross domestic product by as much as 15% simply by tapping further its most underutilized resource—Japanese women. Fourteen years have elapsed since then, and the idea has finally entered Japan's political lexicon.”

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Why has it taken so long for the government to explicitly and actively acknowledge the problem of working women in Japan? It certainly is not due to lack of evidence. The year 1999 saw the introduction of The Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society Act, which stipulated that the state would be responsible “for the comprehensive formulation and implementation of policies related to promotion of a Gender-equal Society.” However, by government estimates in 2011—over a decade later – only 6.2 percent of managerial roles in private firms were allocated to females. The IMF states that female employment rates are currently 25 percent lower than males, giving Japan one of the lowest rates of female employment in all developed countries. Half of all university graduates in Japan are women. Despite this, Kyodo News Agency reports that a recent survey suggests that Japanese women themselves have internalized the image of the stay-at-home mother, with one in three women wishing to become housewives after marriage.

Many believe that Abe's statements on the virtues of “Womenomics” may help change the status quo, leading to substantial economic change and clearer signs of gender equality. Whilst the IMF has stated that employing more women could increase Japan's GDP by up to 5 percent, there are plenty of reasons to feel skeptical about the governments recent feminist slant. A good place to begin looking is the inner workings of parliament itself. Are they practicing what they preach?

Since the beginning of Abe's term, the percentage of female members of the Lower House of the Japanese Diet has fallen to 8 percent. Only two of his 18 cabinet members are women. This leaves Japan 124th out of 188 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, below developing countries such as Mali, and far behind China and Korea, ranking 54th and 88th respectively. Under-representation is not confined to governance on a national level: as few as 0.8% of mayors in Japan were women in 2011. Women remain noticeably absent from the political sphere, having little direct impact on public policy and decision-making processes.

So the government has chosen to raise an issue that is very much its own failing. Despite several legislative acts over the years to promote equality, it is clear that women do not have the same working rights as their male counterparts. Moreover, women do not have significant political representation at any level of governance. Looking at correlations between equality laws and reality to date, it seems unlikely that any major changes to the working environment will emerge in the near future. Abe's strategy for Womenomics so far – “urging” businesses to be more accommodating towards their female staff – has proved far from inspiring. Surely the Japanese government can see that the real problem does not lie in a lack of laws, but rather in a lack of desire to instate real change? One starts to get the feeling that Womenomics is less about speaking up for gender equality, and more about keeping up appearances.

Womens' rights have been a messy, “best left alone” affair for the Japanese government for many years. Nothing demonstrates this better than the ongoing controversy of Abe's refusal to acknowledge Japan's history of “comfort women” during imperial rule some 80 years ago. The issue first emerged as a means of highlighting Japan's problematic revisionist tendencies – and this remains a worthy topic in its own right – but it is also very relevant to the current discourse on female equality.

Abe has repeatedly denied the existence of sex slaves in the Japanese army, and refused its inclusion in school textbooks. In 2001, he was accused by Asahi Shimbun of censoring a television program titled "The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal." The one occasion on which he appears to have acknowledged the issue came after a warning from the U.S. Congress in 1993. How can a government that is not willing to face up to the mistakes of its past, tackle the problems of the present? Moreover, how are we to trust a man who talks about gender equality, but will not genuinely acknowledge the realities and horror of systematic rape enforced by his own government?

The current issues that the Japanese government faces are not going to be remedied by lawmaking. The problem is deeper and more complex, and a solution will begin by questioning Japan's patriarchal status quo, and examining ways in which attitudes should be altered to gear the political, social and economic systems towards a recognition of women as equal members of society.

Even if the government implements policies in the future to encourage women's rights from a state level, it remains doubtful that this will ever be practiced in good spirit by local councils and businesses. For women, the working environment remains rife with obstacles that hamper mobility and fair treatment, fed by an attitude that women do not deserve equality. One of these issues, brought to light by Hifumi Okunuki of The Japan Times, is the concept of “maternity harassment.” In 1985, The Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed to prevent any discrimination against women based on pregnancy or maternity leave. However, with 62 percent of employed women still leaving their jobs after childbirth – a figure that is still rising – it is difficult to dismiss claims that employers are openly unwelcoming to new and expectant mothers.

So far, feminism cannot claim a successful or even lasting history in Japan. Women do not have a common platform from which they can voice opinions, and are often so deeply mired in societal attitudes that they do not question them. Simply urging industries to look beyond entrenched prejudices will not be enough to break down the barriers to gender equality. If the Japanese government wishes to build its economy on the foundations of equal working rights, it will need to practice and encourage a great deal more of self-evaluation.

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Heenali Patel lives and works in Kyoto, Japan, as an English teacher. She has published features in Japan Today on the issues of suicide and nudity in Japan. Before moving to Japan, she was a news reporter for the Architects Journal in London.