Gender equality gains support in male-dominated Japan
Since the 1980s, the Japanese have been concerned about gender issues. This resulted in a law passed by parliament in 1985 to ensure gender equality at work. In recent years, however, there has been increasing pressure on the government to do more.
The number of working women in Japan is high to the extent that one may get the impression no gender gap exists. But the bitter truth is that they are still the last to be recruited with obvious discrimination against them in terms of posts and wages, not to mention housing and other allowances, which are exclusively paid to the head of the household who is presumably the male.
According to a gender-gap survey conducted last year by the World Economic Forum, Japanese women ranked 52nd and 54th out of 58 developed and emerging economies in terms of economic and political empowerment respectively. The percentage of women occupying management positions in the world’s second- largest economy has not exceeded 10%, and only 30% of women keep their jobs after childbirth.
Another survey conducted last year by the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau revealed that 63% of Japanese firms had no plans to recruit women, despite the latter’s proven talents. This may partially explain why only 11.6% of the country’s scientific researchers are women.
In 2000, Japan was ranked 41st in terms of gender equality out of 70 countries surveyed by the United Nation Development Programme. The method used included four criteria: the ratio of seats women hold in parliament, the ratio of female administrators and managers, the ratio of female professionals and technical workers, and the income women earn.
This indicates that Japan’s position, despite numerous efforts to improve the status of women, is still weak when it comes to gender equality. Japan is not only far behind other developed and emerging economies, such as South Korea, but also falls behind some developing countries, such as the Philippines.
In South Korea, for example, the status of women is increasingly improving due to legislations on the promotion of women’s employment and the quota system, which provides that not less than 30% of candidates running in general elections be women. But such a system is difficult to introduce in Japan because of a lack of national consensus on the issue, according to some officials. As a result, female candidates in the 2000 general elections, for example, accounted for 14.4% of the total runners and only 7.3% of those elected.
Factors behind gender gap include Japan’s highly structured society where the status of women is subordinate to that of men and the strictly male-dominated working environment. Another factor has been women’s weak participation in political life and their consequent lack of power within the decision-making institutions to impose changes.
Attached to gender discrimination is domestic violence, an issue that until the 1990s has been hidden by the Japanese culture of shame. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the Prime Minister’s Office, 4.6% of women, or 1 out of 20, are subjected to life-threatening violence. Japanese writer Hiromi Ikeuchi argues that husbands’ violence against wives or fathers’ violence against daughters are mostly caused by “the nature of Japan’s highly stressful society”, not by alcohol abuse, drug addiction, or poverty. She believes that current laws and penalties do not respond to all problems because domestic violence is often difficult to be discovered and because “the law does not generally intervene in household problems”.
While gender equality is a challenging issue in many countries, it is of tremendous demographic and economic impact in Japan. Today, one in four females prefers not to get married or not to have children because otherwise she is expected to quit her job and stay at home to raise children. Poor child support for working mothers, prejudices within the working environment, inflexible hours for working, and the prevailing tradition that only women should undertake domestic chores prevent Japanese females from having a family and a job simultaneously.
Because of this, the fertility rate has been falling, making Japan’s birth rate one of the lowest in the world. The total fertility rate, which was around 2.1 in the 1960s and 1970s, fell to a record low of 1.29 in 2004. If the present trends continue, Japan’s population will shrink from its present number of 127 million to 65 million by the end of this century, according to demographers. Economists predict that the declining population will negatively affect Japan’s economy from 2010 onward, especially with its rapidly ageing society.
The situation has forced Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to approve a new plan aimed at redressing the perceived failures of a gender equality law enacted 20 years ago. But the plan is expected to be slow, given the conservative camp’s opposition.
* Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs