The mass media, including news outlets, are a major source of information on women’s progress in Japanese society. Content in the mass media tend to be updated and trendy, and compared to academic content, they are consumed by a wider audience. Concerns about women’s status and rights in Japanese society are also widely reported in the domestic and international media.
Under the Shinzo Abe administration (currently one of the most overtly pro-women’s rights cabinets in contemporary Japanese history), the prime minister revised the goal of appointing women to 30 percent of leadership vacancies by 2020 to the more realistic and sustainable goal of 7 percent by 2021.1
The Abe administration has scored some achievements with its promotion of women’s rights. Ever since he was elected with a strong election victory mandate in 2013, Prime Minister Abe has promoted increased women’s entry into the workforce. There is a utilitarian angle to this promotion as women’s labor participation is seen as a credible response and possible mitigating factor to one of Japan’s great challenges, which is its aging population.
Nicknamed “womenomics” (a play of words resembling Prime Minister Abe’s economic recovery plan known as Abenomics), the tenets of promoting women’s rights have been supported by private consultancy studies such as the 2014 Goldman Sachs study which pointed out that womenomics could “potentially boost Japan’s GDP by 13 percent.”2 Significantly, this was actually the first time that the Japanese top leadership (in this case the Prime Minister) connected gender issues with the well-being of Japanese businesses and economic development.
The Abe administration and its predecessors have also used policy instruments to help working mothers. For example, Japanese working women are entitled to 58 weeks of maternity leave (including 26 weeks which are fully paid), with the fathers of new-borns also enjoying access to the same maternity leave entitlements. However, less than 2 percent of the men who qualified actually took time off. The challenge therefore is to change male mind-sets and social taboos so that new fathers are equally comfortable in taking time off to look after their children.
A stakeholder approach to this issue is to offer home day-care options to working women who are willing to entrust their childcare needs to other female caregivers.
Japanese mothers and fathers also receive a child allowance from the state, increased under the Abe administration, which is intended to lighten their financial burden.3 In April 2016, legislation was passed that mandated firms with more than 300 staff members to transparently indicate their actual number of female staff and managers and to declare the quotas and strategies to boost these numbers. However, there were no punitive measures for failing to do so. Nevertheless, many firms have done so, in order to avoid being ostracized for failing this requirement. This is due to the homogeneity of Japanese corporate culture, and their unwillingness to be a labeled as a non-conformist in a collectivist society.4 This goes back to the need to avoid shame and social chastisement for not harmonizing with others.
All these measures, including those that were pre-existing and then augmented under the Abe administration, have made some impact on Japanese women entering the workforce. Indeed, womenomics has scored a few achievements. Between 2012 to 2016, the Japanese government has increased the number of working women to one million.5 According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Japanese female labor participation has climbed up to 66 percent. This is a 3 percent increase from the same figure in 2013. However, there is still room for improvement.6
Due to their preference to look after their children after marriage, when they give birth to their first offspring, 70 percent of Japanese women (in comparison with just 30 percent in the US) cease employment for the 10 years or more, and may not return to work thereafter.7 There have therefore been calls for the government to provide more assistance to these women. Various innovative ideas have been put forward.
Besides policy instruments, there are also women trying to help other women on their own initiative. Mireya Solís has suggested a stakeholder approach to this issue by offering home day-care options to working women who are willing to entrust their childcare needs to other female caregivers. When the caregivers have finished bringing up their own as well as others’ children, assistance can be rendered to help these women find post-caregiver careers. Another stakeholder approach is to have women in management reaching a critical mass in numbers so that they can serve as inspirations and mentors to younger women aspiring to reach those positions or break glass ceilings.8
The mass media therefore is a rich source of proposals for furthering women’s rights and status in Japanese society. The discussions veer beyond just gender issues, and also discuss topics like how the roles of women and men have been complicated by social challenges like the aging population. Foreign media reports sometimes are reflective of gaiatsu (foreign pressure), which have been effective in the past in effecting social changes in Japan. Perhaps the effective solution will be an eclectic and complex combination of all these proposals, including the stakeholder approach of getting women to help other women, the application of foreign pressure, the use of inspirational examples to motivate other women, building a critical mass for normative acceptance of women in management, and persuading men to disregard outdated social taboos and accept their familial responsibilities.
1. Gunn, D. (5 January 2016). Why Japanese women don’t stay in the workforce. JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/japanese-women-dont-stay-workforce/
2. Lu, S. and Newman, R. (15 March 2017). Will Japan’s womenomics work? Medill Reports Chicago. Retrieved from http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/japan-womenomics-gender-equality-economy/
3. Paquette, D. (13 October 2015). How American women fell behind Japanese women in the workplace. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/10/how-american-women-fell-behind-japanese-women-in-the-workplace/
4. Yan, S. (16 October 2016). Why Japan is failing its women. CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/15/news/economy/japan-working-women-report-card/index.html
5. Shining or glaring? Japan’s efforts to make it easier for women to work are faltering. (24 November 2016). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21710849-womens-participation-workforce-high-their-status-low-japans-efforts-make-it
6. Lu, S. and Newman, R. (15 March 2017).
7. Gunn, D. (5 January 2016).
8. Solis, M. (16 September 2014). Empowering women in Japanese society. Brookings Institute. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/empowering-women-in-japanese-society/