Japan Needs Feminism

While quality-of-life is second to none, life isn’t easy for Japanese women

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

I suppose to someone who’s never been to Japan, it might appear, at least on the surface, to be a wonderful place to live. The trains are always on time, the food is amazing regardless of the price you pay, the music is excellent. It even boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the developed world.

This wasn’t my first visit to Japan, and I was well-aware of the broader problems affecting the country from the inside out. Low birthrates that weren’t being replaced by immigration, a lack of innovation in the economy, and an extremely low marriage rate were all important issues on the minds of the voting Japanese population.

While I was there to meet family, I happened to meet Chizuko Tominaga, a professor at a university in Sendai. While she introduced herself as a historian, her business card also said “feminist.”

I asked her about this while we were walking around Mitsukoshi (think Nordstrom’s), and she pointed out the salespeople.

“All the floors, the persons selling goods are female. All female. But the overseer is male, because the female salary is lower than male,” she told me. “Of course, another reason could be that those girls are working part-time jobs. Because women cannot do work as a full-time worker, so it’s very easy to get this kind of job. Receptionists? All female.”

I am aware that it’s harder to be a woman than a man in nearly every country in the world. However, it’s extremely difficult to name a female Japanese CEO or politician, while anyone who’s into video games can easily name the lead designer on Metal Gear or Super Mario.

“I would like men to enter the female fields,” said Tominaga. “Nurse, domestic work, something like that. I think that would be better than women entering male fields. When women enter the male fields, their consciousness becomes ‘male.’”

I couldn’t help but mention that I had waited around in Sephora stores in Vancouver, and that sometimes a man who knows makeup better than you could be selling you stuff.

“No way. No way would that happen in Japan,” she replied.

It was the next morning that my great-uncle and Tominaga gave me several gifts. My great-uncle gave me books that he wrote, but I couldn’t read, and Tominaga giving me a pile of statistics with her English translations attached to them.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

In a 2014 report from the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office of Japan, 3,000 people across various age groups, genders, and regions of Japan were polled on their attitudes towards gender roles. According to the report, 11.7 per cent of the country believes that women should stop working after giving birth, and 11.7 per cent of women aged 20 to 29 agree.

When asked about how Japanese society will change after women move closer to equality, only 27.1 per cent of respondents agreed that men would participate in childcare and housework. Around 40 per cent of women aged 20 to 29 agreed, but only 29.3 per cent of all women agreed.

Tominaga also introduced me to the concept of “maternity discrimination.” Japan, like many countries, has maternity leave for women in the workplace. The problem is that mothers often won’t get re-hired to the position they had before giving birth. In Japan, 70 per cent of women leave the workforce for 10 years or more after having children, compared to only 30 per cent in the United States.

Because of this, women make up 70 per cent of part-time workers in Japan.

Eighty per cent of Japanese women over the age of 25 have post-secondary education. In fact, women in Japan consistently perform at, or near the top of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education rankings, and more women are exiting Japanese universities with degrees than men. Given the shrinking labour force of the country, some firms might need to start taking women more seriously.

There is also the issue of gender roles being heavily ingrained in Japanese society. Women in Japan are still, overall, expected to stay at home and take care of the kids. This is, however, starting to change fairly rapidly. Japan is currently undergoing a demographic crisis, as not enough women are giving birth, and they don’t have high enough immigration rates to make up for the population decline.

One possible explanation could be the expectations of workplace culture in Japan. Japan has the lowest levels of telecommuting in the world—most workers go overtime, and typically without pay. Given the long working hours expected, the idea of raising a child and working at the same time appears impossible.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

It should also be noted that Japanese women aren’t all budding feminists. There is a large portion of women who have no problem with the way things are. In addition, there are plenty of young women—and men for that matter—who simply don’t want to work at all. The Japanese have a different idea of status, a woman who works part-time at a shoe store might not attach her job to her status, especially if she’s the wife of a corporate executive. Her identity as a wife or mother could be of higher importance to her.

The day after meeting Tominaga, we met again to travel around Sendai. That afternoon, she told me that they were making a quick visit to a politician. It turned out this politician was Tomiko Okazaki, who was the Minister of State for Social Affairs and Gender Equality from 2010 to 2011.

In our brief conversation she brought up a rather startling statistic. Out of 120 countries studied in the Global Gender Gap Report, which was conducted by the World Economic Forum, Okazaki told me, “Japan is 101st.” She refers to various disparities, economical and political in nature.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“In politics, if you look at how women are represented in elected membership, there’s the Inter-parliamentary Union, the IPU, but out of 190 countries, Japan is 155th for female representation. There are things like education, health, economics—but the one with the most difference is the field of politics. Right now, the world average is 22 per cent [for female representation] . . . but Japan is 9.5 per cent.”

This contrasts sharply with Canadian parliament, which is 26 per cent female, with 50 per cent of our cabinet being female.

In addition to that, of Japan’s 15 Supreme Court justices, only three are female.

“If about 30 per cent of the people in assembly were female, it would be easier to get things passed. Of course, fifty-fifty would be good. But at least thirty per cent, it’d be a bit pitiful, but if there were thirty per cent women, then their opinions would get across. But Japan is still at only 9.5 percent.”

While all of these statistics are dire, the main cause is likely Japanese corporate culture. It’s commonplace for Japanese firms to hire people straight out of university and keep them for the rest of their lives, and promotions are based on seniority and how much unpaid overtime you work. This cultivates an “old boys club” that effectively excludes women from breaking into the world of Japanese business.

The day that Japan starts to see an improvement in its economy and overall happiness will be the day they start allowing women to take high-ranking positions in firms, and allowing a little bit more immigration. But as it always is with social progress, this will take time.

This article couldn’t have been written without the help of Nuvjit Sidhho, who translated interview audio from Japanese to English.