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Japanese Women Push Back Against Leaning In

Haruko Arimura

Haruko Arimura, Japanese Minister Responsible for Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality and Minister of State for Measures for Declining Birthrate. Arimura's ministerial portfolio does not include a webpage. Screencap taken from Kyodo News footage, YouTube.

The Japanese government wants more women to participate in the workforce. In fact, following December 2014 elections, one the new government's slogans has become “Women Will Revitalize Japan (女性が輝く日本).”

While this may seem like a victory for gender equity in what has traditionally been a male-dominated society, many Japanese women are worried they are simply being asked to do more for less.

Just 65% of women aged 15 to 64 are employed in Japan, compared to nearly 85% of Japanese men. According to an August 2014 U.S. Congressional Research Service report that investigated Japan's gender gap:

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013, which measures and tracks gender-based disparities on a number of dimensions, such as labor force participation and compensation, Japan ranked 105th out of 135 countries, just below Cambodia and above Nigeria.

In comparison, the United States ranked 23rd. Several low- and middle-income countries ranked above Japan, such as Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, China, India, Malaysia, and Russia. The only high-income countries ranked lower than Japan include South Korea and some countries in the Middle East.

In most OECD countries, the participation rate of university-educated women stood between 70% and 90% in 2013.

Besides the implication that Japan lags far behind its peers in terms of gender equity in the workplace and society in general, an ongoing demographic shift means Japan is running out of workers to support an ageing population.

Japan's total population is projected to shrink by around 30% by 2055 as the number of births falls to 40% of the 2005 level. The proportion of elderly doubles, and the working age population halves.

A 2010 Goldman Sachs report estimated that if women in Japan were employed at the same rate as men (about 80% of working age-men in Japan are employed, according to Goldman Sachs’ research) Japan's economic output would grow by up to 15%.

The Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is making the promotion of women's empowerment (女性活躍推進, joseikatsuyakusuishin) and “womenomics” a priority to not only increase tax revenues, but also to spur consumer demand and ignite inflation.

More work, even less free time

But is there a genuine will to improve the status of women in the workplace?

In a recent column Kotaro Tamura, a former (male) member of Japan's national Diet and parliamentary secretary to Japanese Prime Minister Abe, writes in business magazine Mag2 News about the need to provide women with adequate childcare if they are to enter the workforce:


While the efforts of the Abe government to advance the role of women in society is wonderful, talk of creating an environment where women can raise children while pursuing a career has to end up being more than paying mere lip service to the issue.

It has to become easier to get support for families, and provide easy access to quality childcare.

Japanese women, however, are not so sure that being asked to join the workforce is such a good thing.

The fear expressed by Japanese women is that on top of childcare, running a household and caring for aging parents, Japanese women will also be expected to work full-time.

Maiko Kissaka, a noted (female) designer and freelance columnist, writes:


One of the Abe government's key strategies is based [on the slogan] “Women Will Revitalize Japan.”

According to the prime minister's home page, to help women enter the workforce and revitalize Japan, waiting lists for preschool childcare will be eliminated, and there will be greater support for mothers wishing to return to work. There will be efforts to increase the number of women in management and leadership positions.

So, women will give birth, place their children in daycare, and return to work, playing a greater role in the business world.

According to Kissaka, this may be unrealistic:



So, we're being asked to leap into management after giving birth to start wheeling and dealing at the office. This entire “Women Will Revitalize Japan” movement may actually be a harbinger of karoshi (death by overwork) for the female half of the population…

…If you think about it, until now men have always been ground up into mincemeat between work and the home.

For Japanese women, “womenomics” simply means more work and even less free time than they already have at present.

Others are asking if Japan even has enough quality work right now for woman who wish to enter the workforce.

In an online interview, researcher Daisuke Suzuki, author of the Japanese-language book “The Poorest Girls” (最貧困女子), says that one in three single women in Japan earn less than ¥1.14 million (US$9,000), below Japan's poverty threshold of ¥1.22 million (US$10,000).

One reason is because fewer than half of female high school graduates in Japan can obtain full-time work. As well, 80% of single mothers in Japan live in poverty.

Because of high female poverty rates in Japan, Suzuki and others say, a considerable amount of young woman must rely on the sex trade to earn a living (a Japanese-language documentary of the phenomenon can be viewed here).

‘Abe has no idea of women's backbreaking struggles’

Skepticism of the Abe government's push for womenomics, along with the slogan “Women Will Revitalize Japan” has erupted into the mainstream.

A recent feature story in the Mainichi newspaper reports on what a variety of glossy women's weekly tabloid-style magazines are actually saying about the Abe government's plans for women in Japan:

Glossy weeklies usually devoted to celebrity gossip and beauty tips have been standing out recently for their sharp criticism of the Abe government.

What is the target of their wrath? The Abe government's core policies of revising Article 9 of the constitution, Abenomics, and empowering women.

We take a look at the source of all this anger.

- Mainichi Shimbun Digital Edition

Mainichi writer Yoshiaki Kobayashi starts off his article by examining three leading weekly magazines aimed primarily at Japanese women: Josei7 (女性セブン, “Women's Weekly”), Josei Jishin (女性自身, “Women's Own”) and Shukan Josei (週刊女性, “Weekly Woman”).

Kobayashi notes they carry a strong anti-Abe sentiment:

<安倍さんは世界で“女性蔑視”だと思われている!><安倍政権は女の涙ぐましい努力をわかっちゃいない> などと普段女性誌を読まないオジサン記者にはびっくりの率直さ。

For a middle-aged man who never reads women's glossy weeklies, headlines like “The whole world thinks Abe is a sexist pig!” and “Abe has no idea of women's backbreaking struggles” are totally surprising.

Kobayashi suggests that ever since the March 2011 “Triple Disaster” in Tohoku, when a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident ravaged Japan's northeast coastline, there has been an upswell in criticism of the Japanese government.

But even if the government manages to win over the women of the nation, Japan's society itself must change.

As HR consultant Junko Tanaka tweets:

If we're really going to take “women's empowerment” seriously, we have to ditch the whole concept of a “rulebook” for handling female employees. Would you say the same thing about a male employee?

(Tanaka linked to this tweet):

Toyo Keizai Online: “First time managing a female junior? Learn how to avoid upsetting her.” Get inside the head and heart of your new biz dev gal!

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