In recent years, Japan has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of opportunities for women. The Diplomat has run stories ranging from Japan’s infamous “bamboo ceiling” to “matahara” – maternity harassment. Responding to Japan’s shrinking workforce, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been looking to increase women’s workforce participation rate. He has announced a target of having 30 percent of leadership positions filled by women, along with plans for more childcare facilities to ease the pressure of working mothers. Abe might be surprised though, to learn that Japanese women don’t seem to be too interested; in a poll conducted by the Intelligence HITO Research Institute in April, 75.6 percent of the 1,058 respondents said that they did not want more responsibility at work.
This lack of interest could serve as one of the biggest bumps in the road towards Abe’s hopes of stimulating Japan’s economy with greater female participate in the workforce. The reasons given by the respondents to explain why they did not want promotions included a lack of confidence to deliver an appropriate performance, and/or feeling uneasy over the new obligations it would bring, such as working longer hours. By contrast, when Bain & Co., conducted a similar survey on women overseas, 72 percent of Chinese women, and 69 percent of Australian women reported having the confidence to reach leadership positions.
Another reason why such a large number of Japanese women are not interested in leading might have its roots deep within Japanese society, and the way it perceives women. Japan’s widely-known “kawaii” culture has produced many pop culture icons such as Hello Kitty, and in fact one of Japan’s million-selling music artists is Hatsune Miku, an animated girl who performs as a hologram at her sold-out shows. When walking through Tokyo’s pop culture district of Akihabara, it is fairly easy to find a maid café, where you can be greeted and served by girls dressed in maid outfits. A popular term for Japanese youth is “jyoshiryoku,” which literally means “girl power,” but in Japan refers to girls with cute, flashy looks, who enjoy and are good at cooking and cleaning. As a result, women who wish to pursue more intellectual roles, something that is desired in men, might not be as appreciated. When the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry polled 3,000 Japanese women aged 15-39, and found that one in three wanted to become a full-time housewife.
Social pressures on women to become homemakers are high, evident in the large number who leave the workplace after having children. Women who do wish to return to work often face maternity harassment, where they are pressured into quitting. When your correspondent interviewed Sayaka Okasabe, the founder of an organization against maternity harassment, she mentioned that one of Japan’s bigger corporations had told female employees at its entrance ceremony that if they wished to succeed, they should not get pregnant.
Such attitudes should be worrying for Abe. Japan’s economic workforce is declining fast: It faces a massive population decline from 128 million in 2010 to 86.74 million by 2060, according to the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. If it hopes to respond to this contraction by giving women a greater role the workforce, then it will have to begin by addressing the lack of motivation women themselves feel about that prospect.