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Is gender still on the agenda in Japan?

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Receptionists of Sony Corp are seen in front of the company's logo at the headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 22 May 2013.

In Brief

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ initiatives mainstreamed the concept of gender diversity in the workforce. Abe’s government made measurable advances for women such as expanding parental leave and increasing Japan’s female labour force participation by more than 3 million from 2012 to 2018. But these increases were largely in precarious part-time roles that were the first to disappear when COVID-19 struck.


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Over 1 million women left Japan’s labour market between December 2019 and April 2020, with Japanese women more likely to take voluntary reductions in hours due to guilt over childcare commitments during the pandemic.

Womenomics has not improved Japan’s global ranking for narrowing the gender gap either. The number of women in leadership positions and within politics in Japan remains one of the lowest in the developed world. The initial womenomics target of 30 per cent women in leadership by 2020 was quickly downgraded and pushed back by 10 years just before the end of Abe’s premiership. Gender equality is a long way off in Japan, a country that still features on the Human Rights watch list for violation of women’s rights. Recent labour force surveys show that up to 40 per cent of women have been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace.

So why has progress been so slow?

Kathy Matsui from Goldman Sachs, who was integral to the implementation of womenomics, stated that ‘Abe mainstreamed the whole concept of gender diversity, shifting the context from human rights to economic growth’. Here lies one of the possible explanations for the slow progress. Anchoring gender diversity to economic growth without addressing the culturally ingrained barriers that lock women into gender-restricted roles and behaviour is not enough. Societal pressures place female labour at the whims of economic needs, as a non-sustainable and disposable resource that holds them back from reaching leadership roles.

Although women heeded the call of womenomics to get back into the workforce for mostly economic reasons, the gendered human resource management systems of promotion and discriminative work-based practices mean that very few women got through the pipeline to positions of leadership. Changing the ingrained cultural norms around gender would hopefully lead to more women in positions of leadership and more sustainable gender equality within society as a whole.

So will the new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga enact any real changes to enable gender diversity? First impressions do not bode well. Upon his selection as prime minister, Suga vowed to continue to empower women and raise their share of leadership roles. But instead of leading by example and complying with non-binding legislation that was passed in the Diet in 2018 to equalise female representation among national lawmakers, he continued to uphold the status quo of the male-dominated factions within Japanese politics by selecting a cabinet consisting of less than 10 per cent women.

Suga is also a conservative politician from a generation who believe that traditional gender roles should stay intact. He was widely criticised in 2015 for saying that women should give birth to many babies to ‘contribute to the nation’. The reality for many women who want to break out of these traditional roles is that they are fighting against a patriarchal system that discriminates against them. The Tokyo Medical University scandal revealed just how ingrained these beliefs are and how they stop women from exerting influence within important areas of life that directly impact upon them.

Where will impetus for change come from? Many Japanese companies are global organisations. Japan needs to attract more foreign direct investment and will need to properly integrate more global talent to off-set its demographic challenges and comply with global corporate governance best-practice, especially when foreign asset managers are starting to vote against Japanese companies with no gender diversity on their boards.

Acceptance of diversity and addressing the root of corporate gender discrimination as a reflection of the gender roles within society must be a part of this change, allowing women to be free from harassment and have equal participation within leadership and governance. Many hoped that womenomics would have been a real impetus for such a change, but it didn’t lead to any long-term cultural shift in the ingrained gendered norms in society and gendered division of labour.

Japan would do well to look at what is happening in Singapore, where the government is reviewing gender equality within the context of retuning the gendered roles from a young age within education. Although doing this through the lens of a deeply patriarchal Japanese system may prove difficult, there is no doubt that gender still needs to be on the agenda for Japan.

Sarah Parsons is Managing Director at East West Interface, an associate lecturer at the University of Sheffield and a senior teaching fellow at SOAS University of London.

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