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Women at a Cultural Crossroads in Japan

Photo: Devin Stewart, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council, featuring Prof. Mari Miura and Seiko Noda (fifth and sixth from the left)

Since 2013, “womenomics” has been a buzzword in Japan’s recent policies to simultaneously stimulate the national economy and incorporate more women into the labor force. The Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office initially set out lofty targets to meet by 2020, of 30 percent participation rates among women across sectors, in politics, the private sector, education, and research. As of summer 2016, female participation in the workforce has reached an all-time high. According to Prof. James Farrer of Sophia University, the M-curve, which has marked employment patterns among Japanese women as they age, is becoming irrelevant. But can these changes be attributed to womenomics?

Alongside policy, pop culture has also reflected on Japan’s treatment of women, as seen in the recent popular television drama Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (“We married as a job!”). The show, which ended its run at the end of 2016, captures the zeitgeist of Japan’s economic, social, and cultural environment for women. The protagonist Mikuri Moriyama is a single woman with a graduate degree, unable to find long-term employment. Her higher education background, rather than boosting her credentials, makes her unappealing to potential employers who are put off by her ambitious nature. With few other options, she takes up a house cleaning contract for Hiramasa Tsuzaki, an awkward, reclusive bachelor engineer. Through contrived circumstances, the two enter a contract marriage wherein he pays for her live-in cleaning services (and nothing else that would soil an otherwise innocent plot). For the two, home economics comes first, and love follows later, but their story draws relevant questions regarding the value of women and their work in Japan outside of fiction. When Mikuri laments being overqualified for employment or Hiramasa calculates the monetary value of Mikuri’s contribution in housework, the viewer must also wonder about the real women Mikuri represents.

As part of the Asia Dialogues Program under the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, I embarked on a week-long fact-finding trip in Tokyo last November along with a diverse delegation of researchers whose backgrounds spanned journalism, the military, LGBT advocacy, and public health. During the trip I hoped to gain further insight on Japanese youths’ views on gender equality and whether current policies align with their own professional and personal aspiration. In particular, I wondered whether views differed between urban and rural areas of Japan where demographic trends differ greatly. Through the Asia Dialogues Program, I attended a variety of lectures on historical and contemporary developments on gender in Japan and gained insights from college-age youth on their impressions of womenomics in action.

In general, the outlook on womenomics is bleak. As Japan suffers economic lag, it faces a second challenge in boosting its birth rate in response to its graying population. Womenomics attempts to address both of these challenges, but Japan seems to be asking its women to shoulder contradictory burdens. Women are encouraged to work more but they are also supposed to raise a family. Many of the young female college students I met recognized these two pressures but expressed desires to establish their careers first before settling down to marry and begin a family, which aligns with a pattern that has preceded womenomics.

At Sophia University, Professor Mari Miura teaches contemporary Japanese politics, a course that counters Japanese norms by publicly discussing and debating politics. According to Professor Miura, voting patterns are largely determined by age rather than gender. As such, the most pressing voting issues for university-age students in Japan are related to the economy and job market. While Japanese youth do care about current events and social issues, they will seldom publicize their views on such topics, especially on social media, for fear of hurting their chances with potential employers.

By no means are Japanese youth apolitical, but given these priorities, social issues are lower than economic on voting priorities. Miura’s students acknowledge that womenomics faces challenges due to prevailing social expectations. Rather, her class lamented that “women’s ambition is hated” by both men and women. A higher percentage of women pursue higher education, but usually enroll in shorter-term junior college programs. Miura’s students also attested to their male peers’ expectations that a wife will stay at home to care for the household while they work. While one class is not representative of all students in Japan, this conversation certainly shows that persistent cultural ideas may hinder meaningful change.

Seiko Noda, a house representative from the Liberal Democratic Party, who has championed gender equality in Japan, acknowledges that change is difficult especially when the challenges are rooted in cultural beliefs that “men are higher than women and women are not supposed to be higher.”  One’s individual worth in Japanese society is measured by how much he or she can work, but such notions are rooted in the physiological differences between men and women; if women are unable to work as much or as long as men in the office, they are not equals in the workplace. Therefore, ascending the ranks of the career ladder is often not meritocratic. A strong work ethic seems foundational to being Japanese. But because women are supposedly weaker than men, they are less capable of contributing to Japanese society.

This thinking has contributed to an unwelcoming, exhausting work culture averse to rewarding paid leave in general, but disproportionately hinders women from taking maternity and menstrual leave. But such an intense work culture affects men as well, as they are losing their lives to karoshi, or death from overworking. The problem is not the system or policy changes, but the work culture, said students in Prof. James Farrer’s class on Gender, Sexuality, and the Workplace. Even as young women and men adopt more progressive stances on professional goals and family planning, their choices do not necessarily affect the work culture of traditional Japanese companies. Policy changes have been unable to subvert expectations in workplaces to overwork oneself sometimes literally to death. But perhaps shifting demands from younger employees may change that. According to a recent survey conducted by Dentsu Communication Institute Inc, the professional model of lifelong employment at a single company no longer appeals to younger Japanese people. Yet, even as Japan’s unemployment rate remains low and labor market offers an availability of 1.34 jobs per applicant, about one in three new graduate hires will quit their job within a couple of years—a stark departure from the lifelong employment model which dominated Japan’s prime.

Meanwhile, international companies are meeting the changing demands of Japan’s labor forces. Is this a sign of progress? One Sophia University student was skeptical of Japan’s willingness to change, when asked whether Japan will lose enough of its talent to international companies to consider reforming Japanese work culture. He replied that there is still a great number of Japanese male youths who aspire to become traditional salarymen in Japanese companies. “It’s f–ked up, but that’s the way it is.” It remains to be seen whether this traditional thinking will budge to make room for women in the upper ranks of the labor force.

The dilemma between helping Japan’s economy and demographic crisis falls heavily on those in more populous, urban areas. Prof. Robert Dujarric of Temple University’s Japan campus likened Japan’s predicament to a body suffering frostbite. “The urban centers are the vital areas of the body, such as the brain and the heart, while the rural areas are the first extremities to suffer and die.” Japan’s demographic crisis is a physical struggle which brings further pressure on the vital parts for the country to remain competitive and self-sufficient. Outside of urban areas, perhaps there is hope for change as younger people are beginning to enjoy the slower pace of rural living. A 2014 survey revealed that 40 percent of people expressed an interest in moving from Tokyo to rural areas in search of a slower pace or better living conditions. However, a healthy rural revival appears unlikely to reverse current trends. How Japan approaches these issues will serve as valuable lessons to developed countries whose populations will eventually slow and undermine stable economic growth.

Women may be able to save Japan from a slow economic and demographic death, but they cannot do so as an isolated group by filling quotas or meeting numerical targets. Social equity requires agreement from stakeholders in all realms of society. This means more progressive attitudes from men who occupy seats of power. One may argue that Abe’s womenomics is a step in that direction, but more change must come from the recognition that women are not just instrumental to Japan, but also that they themselves can direct that change. Such progress should be in the interest of equity and not for the convenience of traditional authority figures in government and the private sector. Make room for women—in government, in corporations, at home—but do it for the welfare of all, especially women themselves.

Edited by: Elizabeth Petruy

One reply on “Women at a Cultural Crossroads in Japan”

I’m an LBJ master’s grad (class of ‘86), a long time resident of Japan and have taught in an interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences program at a women’s university for 14 years. I concur with most observations but if I may comment, women are often hired into non-managerial, non-specialist clerical jobs and sales jobs. The good news is that humanities majors can still find jobs with employers that would, in the US, perhaps require a vocational degree, in marketing or finance, for example. The bad news is that so many of these women face an administrative job ceiling from the first day of work. “A higher percentage of women pursue higher education, but usually enroll in shorter-term junior college programs.” I would check the data on this. Junior colleges, which in Japan are almost exclusively for women students, are having trouble attracting students nationwide and many have already turned or wish to turn themselves into 4 year universities to survive. My department started nearly 2 decades ago when a junior college branch of a women’s university was remade into several 4 year programs. It would be an overstatement that women are completely frozen out of management tracks and (speaking of Dentsu) women have also died from overwork.
Another burden women tend to bear more than men is caring for elderly parents and parents-in-law. While men are said to be participating more in homemaking and childcare than in the past, the expectation of employers remains that men will always be available to come to work.

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