I spent almost my entire summer in Japan this year and have spent a considerable time reading and researching about gender issues in Japan. I have written two articles about gender inequality in Japan and the implications this has on women entering the workforce. (Considering Gender Inequality in Japan in the Workplace Part One and Part Two.) Part One details the reality of gender inequality in the Japanese workplace today, while Part Two introduces legislative responses to gender issues.
Speaking of modernization in terms of gender equality, from a Western perspective, implies the empowerment of women and equal opportunities for both men and women. Although in most developed countries there are intimate correlations between economic expansion and increased gender equality, the same is not the true for Japan. Under the exterior of progressiveness and economic expansion lie Japan’s deep-rooted gender inequality problems. GEM (Gender Empowerment Measure), a measurement of gender equality, ranks Japan 54th among 93 countries in gender inequality. (http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_20072008_GEM.pdf)
It is worth inquiring why, despite the immense modernization Japan has undergone in the post-war years, Japan’s gender inequality issues have not yet been resolved. Traditionally, Japan has been a male-dominated society. Men were the breadwinners of the household, while women were expected to be submissive and responsible for taking care of the family. Yet in the modern day, this situation still exists. The gender discrepancies problems have even permeated past the household, into the realm of the workplace.
While Japan has achieved equal educational opportunities for both genders, women who have received as much education as men, are not getting equivalent work positions. Most women are expected to work secretarial positions and titled “office ladies” (OL). Their work consists of mundane, straightforward secretarial tasks that do not require intellectual or innovative thinking. Japanese companies are reluctant to employ women as versatile employees, thinking that women’s roles of bearing children and taking care of the family will impede them from working in the future.
After completing the societal obligations of raising children, a vast number of old married women decide to enter the workforce. However their career opportunities are once again severely limited to part-time jobs that require these women to work long hours for low pay. The part-time jobs may also fail to provide basic welfare services such as pensions and sick-leaves. The combination of low wages and mediocre working conditions make it difficult for women to obtain economic power.
Ultimately, I do not think Japan’s gender unfair employment system is sustainable. Japan’s increasing ageing population and declining birth rates suggest labor shortages that can only be improved by allowing more women to work. I hope the economic pressure to increase employment and changing traditional ideas towards gender equality will eventually increase women empowerment in the workplace. With this change, I hope women will be able to find comfort and flexibility among the multiple roles of being a businesswoman, wife and mother.