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A Woman’s Place: Gender Equality in the Japanese workspace

Mark Williams
Mark Williams
(Former Vice President/元国際教養大学副学長)
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Akita International University

It was in April 2013 that PM Abe Shinzō offered the concrete detail to support one of the key elements of his economic stimulus package, the so-called ‘third arrow’ of his ‘Abenomics’, when he announced that he was seeking to dramatically increase the number of day care centers in Japan, whilst simultaneously giving both male and female employees access to longer maternity and paternity leave. More specifically, he outlined his determination to accommodate an additional 200,000 children in day care centers by 2015, with this number set to double by 2017 – as well as offering child-care leave to both men and women for the first three years of the child’s life. Such developments were widely seen as a core pillar of Abe’s commitment to making Japan ‘a place where women can shine’, a policy that involved raising the percentage of women corporate managers to 30% by 2020 (announced at Davos in January 2013), and changing the current tax situation which favors ‘stay at home mums’.

Abe justified these announcements by arguing that the appropriate use of female labor ‘should be the core of Japan’s strategy for economic growth’. As such, taken at face value, one might be forgiven for believing that the future is indeed rosier on the gender front. And yet the cynicism remains. And it is fair to say that there is still some considerable distance to be travelled before a sceptical international public is persuaded that Japan has indeed turned the corner and recognized that its most valuable untapped resource, vital if Japan is to overcome the problems caused by a diminishing overall population and immigration laws that militate against the free flow of much needed labor, is to be found in the misuse and under-use of the 51% female proportion of its population. Actions speak louder than words, as they say – and, until there is clear evidence of progress towards at least some of the Prime Minister’s relatively modest targets, the jury will remain out as to the extent to which Abe is genuine in his efforts to secure gender equality.

For many, therefore, Abe’s initiatives in this direction represented little more than a crude attempt to win support, particularly from female voters, ahead of the July 2013 Upper House election. For others, this commitment to gender equality was ‘too little, too late’: here, after all, was the man who, in 2005, headed the campaign to squash the ‘gender free’ movement. And, perhaps most significantly, there were those who questioned what these reforms would do to address the fundamental question of why there were, and still are, so few women in the workplace in the first place. The vital distinction between sōgōshoku (elite track jobs) and ippanshoku (clerical jobs), thus still remains firmly entrenched in Japan – with only 11.6% of the former positions occupied by women in 2011 and with women earning, on average, some 30% less than their male counterparts. And when it comes to actions designed to facilitate child care arrangements, there are those who argue that, rather than encouraging new parents to leave the workplace for a longer period of time, what the government should really be concentrating on is ensuring that such parents, regardless of gender, are given greater support in ensuring a smoother and more flexible transition back to the world of work.

As an Englishman who has committed the past thirty years to the study of Japan – and having spent the past three years observing these issues in practice at Akita International University, I shall be returning to the UK next month with mixed feelings on these issues. On the one hand, PM Abe’s recent pronouncements represent a welcome glimmer of hope: if these can now be followed up with some practical, concrete measures to ensure that they are not mere ‘words’, then the future does indeed appear brighter. And if the apparent shift – to PM Abe viewing this as an economic, as opposed to an ideological, issue – leads to a genuine cultural revolution within ‘Japan Inc.’, then this can only be welcomed. At the same time, however, when the news continues to offer up examples of crass male chauvinism – such as the recent heckling of Tokyo City Assembly’s Shiomura Ayaka by a male lawmaker, who interrupted her contribution to a debate on family-friendly measures by shouting out, ‘Hurry up and get married!’ and ‘Can’t you have children?’ – one is left wondering how long it is going to take to eradicate such deep-rooted prejudices.

All cultural shifts require time to take root. And there will always be those who use the old ‘we have always done things this way’ argument – as if, somehow, that provides vindication for entrenched practices that perpetuate an outmoded status quo. But all mass movements require leadership and support from the top. If nothing else, therefore, recent pronouncements emerging from the PM’s office serve to keep the issue in the public consciousness. It is now up to the often silent majority to ensure that Japan does indeed adhere to the essence of these recent pronouncements – to ensure a smooth and rapid transition to the spirit of the 21st century.


Mark Williams
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Akita International University

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