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Japanese Women Fight to Break the Bamboo Ceiling

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Asia Life

Japanese Women Fight to Break the Bamboo Ceiling

Amid all the talk of ‘womenomics,’ where do women really stand in Japanese society?

Japanese Women Fight to Break the Bamboo Ceiling
Credit: Tokyo pedestrians via Perati Komson /

When it comes to achieving gender equality, Japan still has a very long way to go, at least according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranked the country 105th in the world by that measure. One of the world’s largest and most developed economies, Japan has been notoriously slow to improve the lot of its women.

With the Meiji Restoration, girls were able to attend primary school along with boys, and high schools and colleges for women began to be established. Yet the government’s aim was to educate women to become good housewives, and their traditional role remained in the home. These values shaped the way Japanese women self identify.

As in other countries, the Second World War upended traditional roles. With many men deployed abroad, the domestic need for labor was so pressing that women who were physically capable had to work in factories in order to keep the country running. Even married women, who in Japan were expected to remain at home, were required to enter the work force.

Equality received another boost in the immediate postwar period courtesy of the new Japanese Constitution. Written during the Allied occupation, the Constitution turned Japan into a liberal democracy, one heavily influenced by contemporary American values. It was a woman, Beate Sirota Gordan, who wrote the articles on equality between men and women. An Austrian-born American who worked under Douglas MacArthur in General HQ, Gordan was the first civilian woman to step foot in postwar Japan.

Although the Constitution declared men and women to be equal in Japanese society, this did not trigger a sudden social change for Japan. Culture and tradition were too deeply embedded and too highly valued to evolve at anything other than glacial pace.

So how has the role of women changed in the postwar years? One clue to how modern Japanese society – and women themselves – answer that question can be found in a relatively new Japanese expression: jyoshi-ryoku.

Literally meaning “girl power,” jyoshi-ryoku has rapidly gained currency in Japan, nominated for the “new and trendy word award” in 2009. The term originated in fashion magazines targeting young women in their late teens and early twenties. Its literal meaning notwithstanding, it is most frequently used to refer to flashy women who concentrate on their looks.

A number of businesses have caught on to the trend, and beauty products are often sold with the promise that they will “increase jyoshi-ryoku.” There are also cooking classes and seminars on how to apply makeup, all advertised with the term “jyoshi-ryoku.

Women preferring more intellectual pursuits might be discouraged by a society that seems to value a woman with high jyoshi-ryoku, rather than impressive intellects, something that might be respected in men.

Japanese women in the workforce already face many obstacles in order to the break the glass ceiling, or the “bamboo” ceiling as it has been called in Japan. One Japanese woman now retired from a food company tells The Diplomat that although she had the same responsibilities as her male peers, her pay was 10 percent lower. She also said that while her male colleagues received promotions, she did not. She filed a complaint against the company, and it finally agreed to give her a promotion, saying that she was a “special case.” She was eventually promoted to deputy manager of her division.

Another, younger Japanese woman, currently working at a general trading company, says that although she wishes to work until retirement, she worries whether that will be possible for her since she also wishes to have children. This woman is looking forward to the day when Japan becomes more accepting of women who take maternity leave rather than making them feel ashamed about it, as is often the atmosphere in Japanese companies. She also wants companies to be more flexible on working hours, so she doesn’t have to choose between being a good mother or a good employee.

For Japanese companies, working long hours of overtime shows dedication to the company, regardless of productivity. Japanese men spend little time at home, requiring women to spend more time with the children, which in turn makes it difficult for women to receive promotions. Japanese companies are reluctant to promote female employees because they expect them to quit early in their careers when they marry or have children. According to a regional study conducted by McKinsey in 2011, only 1 percent of top executives at Japanese companies were women, compared with 8 percent in China, and 15 percent in Singapore .

Another factor that discourages women is the Japanese tax system, which encourages limited earnings by the spouse (usually the wife) of the main breadwinner. A married man’s pay will increase because he receives a large spousal tax deduction for income tax and residential tax. He can only claim this if his spouse earns less than \1.03 million per year. This spousal tax deduction was introduced in 1961, during the postwar period of rapid economic growth, when most Japanese women were homemakers.

In April 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would be taking action to boost the female employment rate, proposing policies such as three years childcare leave, an end to waiting lists for child care facilities, and at least one female executive in each of the country’s larger companies. The Abe administration has also indicated it would end the spousal tax deduction.

But if the bamboo ceiling is truly to be broken, Japan will need to go beyond reforming its male-dominated institutions, and reconsider its perceptions and expectations of women’s roles in society.

Kyla Ryan is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.