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Japan’s stubborn gender inequality problem

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida poses with newly appointed ministers at Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 10 November 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kimimasa Mayama)

In Brief

Given the entrenched gender inequality in Japan, the country ranks low in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index and exhibits a lacking advancement rate compared to other nations with a persistent low status held by women in the workforce and politics. Although there is an increased number of women entering the workforce, leading to significant cultural shifts, career advancements and wage progression remains limited, sexual harassment continues, the representation of women in politics is bleak due to insufficient support within key political powers. The effects of legislation such as the Gender Parity Law is also minimal due to a lack of enforcement mechanisms.


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Gender inequality is a stubbornly entrenched problem for Japan. It ranked 120 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) Report 2021, which measures the gap between men and women in political representation, economic empowerment, education and health. This puts Japan at the bottom of the ladder among the developed world.

In comparison, neighbouring China, South Korea and Singapore were ranked 107, 102 and 54 respectively, while the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom were ranked 30, 24, 50 and 23 respectively. What is remarkable about these reports is the fact that Japan’s ranking has not improved over time, unlike in other countries.

In 2006, the first year the Report was published, Japan ranked 79 out of 115 countries while France and Bangladesh ranked 70 and 91 respectively. France and Bangladesh gradually narrowed their gender gaps, rising to 16 and 65 by 2021. Japan has not followed the trend of other countries — even those not considered ‘advanced democracies’ — in closing the gender gap.

Japan’s poor GGI ranking is due to women holding low status positions in the workforce and the underrepresentation of women in politics. Although 77 per cent of Japanese women work today —  a higher rate than the OECD average of 66 per cent — more than half of them are employed in non-regular roles. In comparison, less than a third of working men hold non-regular positions. ‘Non-regular’ work includes temporary, part-time or casual jobs that offer limited security, few benefits, low wages and low prestige.

Japanese women’s salaries hardly rise throughout their career. Men and women usually start working in their 20s, where they receive similar average monthly salaries of 214,600 and 209,200 yen (US$1600 and US$1560) respectively. By their late 50s, the average working Japanese man will be earning 420,100 yen (US$3130) per month, while his female counterpart will only be earning 271,100 yen (US$2020), a minor increase from her starting salary.

The increased number of women entering the workforce has brought about some positive shifts in workplace cultures and practices. The tea lady, or ochakumi — once a mainstay of the Japanese workplace — has mostly vanished. Legislation and heightened awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination have, to some extent, influenced management practices.

Although the practice of having a female ochakumi is vanishing from workplaces, often for economic reasons rather than social ones, the idea that women should pour tea or serve drinks still permeates the social culture. During after-work parties or dinner events outside the workplace, women find themselves obligated to pour alcoholic beverages for their male colleagues.

Sexual harassment like physical touching and sexist comments at these after-work social events is also common. The divide between how men behave at work and after work suggests that while the new legislation is certainly a step in the right direction, shedding harmful social stereotypes and eradicating sexist behaviours might take a bit longer.

Japan has done very little to address the lack of women in politics. In 2019, the Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field (the Gender Parity Law) was implemented to increase the number of women elected to office. Regrettably, this law contains no enforcement mechanism and so has had minimal effect. The 2021 Lower House election saw the number of women representatives drop to 45 — two fewer than in the 2017 election.

The key to getting more women into politics, at least at the national level, lies with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP has controlled the National Diet almost continuously since 1955, but is opposed to introducing gender quotas.

The 2022 Upper House election will be the third national level election since the Gender Parity Law was introduced. So far, the CDPJ, the SDP and the JCP have achieved or exceeded their target of 50% female candidates. The LDP, by contrast, has no target and around less than a quarter of its candidates are women. Unless the Gender Parity Law is given teeth, it is very difficult to predict a significant increase in the number of women elected to the Diet.

There is also the question of supply. Do many women in Japan want to run for office? Given the hurdles facing politically ambitious women, it is perhaps not so surprising that many women are put off by the idea. As for all working women, sexual harassment and assault is one of those hurdles. For women to enter politics, legislative councils and parliaments need to be attractive workplaces.

Eradicating sexual harassment from all workplaces should be a priority. In 2021, the Gender Parity Law was revised to include a clause on eliminating sexual harassment in politics. While a welcome development, given the lack of influence the law has had so far, it is difficult to be optimistic about the potential impact of this revision.

Dr Emma Dalton is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

5 responses to “Japan’s stubborn gender inequality problem”

  1. The LDP’s refusal to commit to a quota for female participation reflects its profound lack of commitment to gender equality. It remains a ‘good old boys’ club in which women are barely tolerated. The Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike left the party a few years ago when she realized it was not going to support her outspokenness about issues.

    Abe’s Womenomics and Equal Pay for Equal Work policies were nothing more than public relations marketing campaigns which had little real substance. His deputy PM Taro Aso even went so far as to suggest women should be housewives and mothers. Current PM Kishida has yet to break out of this patriarchal mold. Don’t hold your breath hoping he will institute any significant changes in this arena.

  2. To become the head of Japanese regional governments such as those of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto etc., one does not have to – not necessarily have to – rely on big parties that dominate national politics. If Ms. KOIKE Yuriko can do that skillfully and successfully and gain the same power as the late right-winger, ISHIHARA Shintaro – the former Tokyo governor – who was beloved by all progressives as typical reactionary Japanese uncle straw-man to beat up and badmouth, then it means that the system (head of regional governments) is open to female candidates. For the sake of political empowerment of females in Japan, why not begin there? Let’s be productive, any suggestions as to where to begin? Beating up on the LDP, as this article or Mr. Solomon does, seems to be a decades old mannerism – I am not a native English speaker so I do not know if this is the correct expression – but being part of a cottage journo and academic industry in the west that endlessly blame the LDP or ABE Shinzo or Japanese patriarchy… Have those crusaders ever made any practical and substantial contribution or suggestion to change Japan. Or elsewhere. Telling the Japanese public and the LDP to learn from CDPJ, SDP, CCP…sigh. Those parties are old leftist stalwarts, they are nearly fringe-existence in national politics. And can anyone be sure whether they are really supporting female political empowerment? The number of female candidates they prepare must be compared with the ratio of female cadres in their politburo.

    • I’m sorry you are tired of hearing criticism of the LDP and Japanese patriarchy. But I’m afraid you will continue to hear it so long the situation is so dire for women. Critics have made many suggestions. (If you’re low on bedtime reading material, read my books for some ideas!) But also, academics aren’t policy-makers – we don’t work for the state (any state) or thinktanks. Nonetheless, feminist political scientists have long urged the introduction of gender quotas because we know they are effective. The introduction of gender quotas around the world has seen a huge increase of women elected to office. Quotas work, but only when they are implemented properly. It is significant that the LDP refuses to implement them properly.

  3. I apologize for the delay in responding to Ms.Fujioka’s comment but I just read it now.

    I am neither an academic nor someone who publishes in journals, newspapers, etc. After having lived in Tokyo from 1969-71 I have continued to study the country’s history, culture, and current events by doing a great deal of independent reading and by auditing a handful of university courses. Thus, my criticisms of the LDP are based on a foundation of knowledge about its post WWII history. As I noted on June 29th nothing about its record in the last 10-15 years suggests that it has broken out of its patriarchal perspective. Are there any more women in Kishida’s Cabinet than they were under Abe?

    I suspect Governor Koike won her seat because Tokyo is probably the most progressive region of Japan. Would a woman candidate win an election in Osaka, Kyoko, or other large, more traditional, conservative Japanese cities? More importantly, would the LDP even nominate a woman to be the governor/mayor of larger cities in Japan?!? I doubt it.

  4. By choice, men will put up with more difficult work, difficult personalities, and bad working environments to rise up the company ladder or gain higher elected office. The take it easy approach from professional educated women towards work and career is their own choice to not advance. Expecting company and government to gentrify everything to favor women’s preferences is not working.
    Women lawyers cite a ‘demanding work load’ as a primary reason for leaving the career track. Men are expected to work just as hard or harder to advance.Women want to work less hours, do less difficult work, have less required work, and get paid the same or more than men who do not get the easier path.
    Women doctors work years less than male doctors, work fewer hours per year, and work in the low risk medical specialties. Medical school students are overwhelmingly women. A large shortage of doctors today will become a much larger shortage in the future. STEM includes biology, chemistry, biomedical, veterinary and medical careers. The STEM headlines exclude those fields which women make up the majority. Including them in the Science part of STEM means women make up more than half of STEM degree recipients and workers.

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