A Promising Dilemma: Reflections on the Status of Women

Japan Society Local Government and Public Policy Fellowship
Some snapshots of Japanese women in the Year 2002:
• Tomoko (Yamada) Kobayashi, now in her late thirties, was working for a financial services firm  when the Equal Employment Opportunity Law passed in 1986.  She was invited onto the male pay scale or, as she put it, “moved to the men’s table.” After achieving substantial professional success in a non-Japanese firm by dint of very hard work and considerable personal sacrifice, she has just taken a break to assess her next steps. In the meantime, she is studying traditional jewelry making, running marathons and learning French, as well as coordinating a networking group of Japanese men and women who work for foreign firms.
• Akiko Gono began working for Mitsubishi after she graduated from university 25 years ago. Fairly quickly, she encountered a cement ceiling and made the decision to leave the corporate world. She now directs the International Affairs Bureau for Zensen, the third largest Japanese union, which is actively organizing part-time female workers.
• Hiroko Nagahisa is a middle-aged woman who left the labor force to raise her children. She now works as a cram school tutor and pours much of her energy into the Fukuyama City Branch of the Hiroshima Women’s College, a leadership training for women active in community, electoral and entrepreneurial activities.
• Yuko Azegami is the Director of the Clothesline Project Japan, a project which tells the stories of victims of domestic violence in an effort to build greater public will for tackling the problem. Now in her early thirties and a DV survivor herself, she is deeply committed to helping women become independent. She says that this is her “life’s work.”
• Shizuko Koedo is the coordinator of Working Women’s International Network which works to realize gender equity in the workplace, with a particular focus on wage discrimination and unfair job classifications. Now 50, she has worked for the same Osaka trading company since she graduated from high school. She lost her first child to a miscarriage, as did several other women in her firm; this led her to work for expanded maternity leave. Thirteen years ago, after the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, she passed the exam to become the first woman on a management track in her company, although after 17 years of service she started at the same level as newly-hired men. She now backs a media-savvy organization that works to raise awareness on fair treatment for women workers.
• Chikako Kamitsuna has run a women’s clothing store in Hiroshima for 15 years. Now in her late fifties, she has a long track record as an entrepreneur, having previously run an art gallery and an English school. Fiercely independent, she divorced her husband and raised three daughters alone. She is highly critical of parents who encourage their young adult children to remain dependent.
• Mariko Bando heads the Gender Equality Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office. Since entering government service in 1969, she has served in a number of roles, including Consul General in Brisbane, Australia (the first Japanese woman to serve as Consul General) and Vice-governor of Saitama Prefecture. Clearly one of the women who broke ground for others, she speaks of her struggles to ensure good child care for her two daughters, which became much easier after her mother moved in with the family.  She believes that the very organization of employment must change for women and men to maintain the right balance between work and family life.
• Last year five women musicians performed atop elaborately decorated floats at Kyoto’s Gion festival; this was the first such appearance in the last 300 years of this 1100 year old event.
These stories, like dozens of others I heard, illustrate that Japanese women are seeing progress in many areas. The themes of diversity and change were palpable. While it is not as rapid as it could be, there is movement. Women are claiming leadership roles in university, political and business settings. Women have had the right to vote since the end of World War II and exercise that right. However, according to many Japanese women and men, there is still considerable unfinished business.
These changes in the status of women are taking place at a time when Japan faces substantial economic and social challenges. Women are entering the labor force in larger numbers as the Japanese economy, which has been in the midst of a long-term downturn, is slipping into a depression. There is still a significant wage disparity between men and women, and most women work part-time. This is particularly important in light of the rising divorce rate. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law, which was passed in 1986 and updated in 1999, is designed to promote gender equity. While this law has made a significant difference, change in the status of women in the workplace will take time and further cultural change.
The birthrate has continued to decline since the 1960’s. If current trends continue, it is estimated that the population of Japan will decrease more than 40 percent in fifty years. Women are faced with difficult choices as a result of the declining population and the rising number of elderly people. Women are needed in the labor force but are also needed to bear and raise children. The number of dual wage earner families is rising, but women are expected to do most of the  housework, childcare, and care for elderly members of their families. There is growing recognition of domestic violence, which has long been invisible in Japan, but here too further progress requires continuing cultural change. 
Taken together, these trends indicate that important progress is being made in the status of women, but that change is still in an early stage and that women face serious challenges in meeting their changing roles as wives, mothers, family caregivers, and workers.  I was impressed by the number of smart, committed, and accomplished women who are working in a number of ways to improve the status of women in Japan. Several trends hold great potential for advancing movement toward gender equity:
There has been a major increase in non-profit organization activity on issues that affect women, ranging from community economic development and domestic violence to human rights and the environment.  Women are playing a critical leadership role in the growing number and the importance of non-profit organizations. At the same time, the Japanese labor movement is beginning to recognize the importance of women’s participation. There is increasing awareness about rape and domestic violence, and a growing effort to provide support and services for survivors.
The capacity of women to provide leadership and work effectively for change in increasing as well. The number of women entrepreneurs is growing rapidly. The number of women running for and winning public office, while still small, is increasing. There is growth as well in women’s training programs that are helping women become more committed and better prepared for leadership roles within the NPO, business and government areas. In addition, the great interest in women’s organizations has resulted in an increase in women’s membership in local and prefectural groups, which provides a foundation for a constituency of women committed to change.
The Broad Context
Virtually every economic indicator shows the Japanese economy slipping into a serious depression which has been marked by soaring levels of public debt (130 percent of Japan’s annual economic output) and the highest unemployment rate in 50 years (officially five percent but twice that if U.S. methods are used, and with figures as high as 25 percent for those in their twenties). The country is experiencing growing stratification and the emergence of class disparities. Japan has seen an upsurge in the number of homeless men in the last decade and is beginning to see some family homelessness.  The demographic consequences of several decades of prosperity meant that during the 1990’s Japan aged faster than any other society in the world, so that the proportion of the young diminished as the proportion of the elderly increased. Today almost one Japanese household in three has an elderly member. Women’s average life expectancy is 84.62 and men’s is 77.64. By 2015, over a quarter of the population will be over 65, a higher proportion than in any other country.
These trends have raised issues including pensions (Japan has a pay-as-you-go system) and health care (with issues such as long term care and provisions for a rapidly rising Alzheimer’s population). Japan also suffers from its longheld practice of underpaying younger male workers as part of an implicit bargain in which, after automatic promotion, they will be overpaid when older. This system worked well when a predominantly younger population meant cheap labor. This system of lifetime employment is beginning to break down with forced retirements of many workers in their fifties.
The decline in the birthrate began in the 1960’s and during the 1970’s the fertility rate--the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime--fell below 2.1, the figure needed for a population to maintain its size. Last year, the rate fell to 1.33. If current trends continue, the country’s population will decline from the current 120 million to 67 million in fifty years.
There are two ways of changing this situation: a change in social behavior, or immigration. At present, young Japanese are marrying later or not marrying at all. One of the reasons for this is a uniquely Japanese one: the wife of the oldest son is expected to care for his parents. This often is not an enticing prospect for educated young women. Many choose instead to live rent-free as a “parasite single” with their own parents or become a “freeter”, one who works in contingent jobs without settling down.
At the same time, the divorce rate is rising and many married couples are electing not to have children at all or to have only one baby. It is important to note that unlike trends in other developed countries, only one percent of children are born outside of marriage, due to the continuing stigma of illegitimacy and the relative availability of abortion.
If the Japanese wanted, the numbers could be made up by accepting immigrants, as other countries do. Of the current 1.7 million official foreign residents (1.3 percent of the population) the biggest group is ethnically Korean. In many other countries the Koreans would not be considered aliens since most of them were born in Japan, the descendants of forced laborers brought over during the annexation of Korea (1910-1945). However, under Japanese law one parent must be Japanese to be eligible for citizenship.
The other major immigrant groups are 300,000 Chinese and 225,000 Brazilians (ethnic Japanese whose forebears immigrated to Brazil). In addition, 54,000 visas are granted annually to “entertainment” workers, mostly women from the Philippines, Thailand and Russia who work as prostitutes in bars. Other foreigners are working illegally or under the table (“naishoku”) in Japan, in sectors such as construction and light manufacturing, in particular in the shoe and apparel sectors.  These numbers are estimated to approach three times the number of legal immigrants.
There has been little public will for making any major changes in the way non-Japanese are treated within a society that has been fiercely isolationist. Given the lack of enthusiasm for a change in immigration policy, the harsh reality of a growing elderly population and a dwindling younger one provides a real opportunity to advance women’s participation in the workforce. To achieve this will require significant changes on many levels of society.
The Issues Women Face
Women’s labor force participation reached 49.3 percent in 2000 and accounts for 40 percent of the entire labor force. Women are very gradually advancing in the workforce and increasing the length of their careers. Women tend to be clustered in clerical, retail and other service sector jobs, although the percentage of women in technical and professional roles is gradually increasing. Only 8.2 percent of managers are female, although according to one recent survey of major Japanese companies only 2.2% of the workers being groomed for senior management positions are women.
Many women aged 25-39 leave the labor force due to childbirth, childcare and family responsibilities. This phenomenon, called the “M Curve,” is due to a number of factors: the workplace climate, long working hours, insufficient childcare supports and social norms.
Many women, particularly after leaving the workforce to raise families, can only find part-time work. Women currently comprise 79 percent of a rapidly growing part-time contingent workforce which currently numbers over ten million. Approximately 40 percent of women workers are part-timers. Part-time work rarely provides benefits so workers in these jobs are beginning to experience problems which are new to the Japanese society.  Many of these jobs and unfulfilling and undesirable for women whose education prepared them for much more.  As one prominent businesswomen noted, “If women leave the workforce they have just jumped off the escalator; then they must come back part-time with no benefits”.
Married men spend little time doing housework, or helping with childcare or elder care, regardless of whether or not their wives work. In families where both spouses work, men spend an average 21 minutes per day on housekeeping and childcare.  It should be noted that, due to economic pressures, many more families have two wage earners.  Dual wage earner families currently edge out the number of single wage earner families (40% to 39%).  As a result, women with jobs have to shoulder major responsibilities at home and at work.
Significant wage disparities between women and men persist. Full-time women workers earn 64.9 percent of men’s wages. Younger women earn approximately 90 percent of men’s wages. Women in their early twenties are paid approximately 90 percent as much as men. For women 45 and older, the wage disparity increases to 50 percent of men. For the large number of women in part-time jobs, the situation grows even more uneven.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed in 1986 and updated in 1999. The law states that men and women should be afforded equal treatment in the workplace from recruitment and hiring to retirement, resignation, and dismissal. It is clear that this landmark legislation has made a significant difference for women but the revised bill and budget amendment are still providing momentum for equal opportunities and treatment in the various fields of employment.
Younger Women

It is interesting to note that many of the most talented young Japanese women (and some men) have opted to work for foreign firms, which are seen to be more open to flexible work arrangement and more encouraging of women’s advancement. In some cases, this involves leaving the country; many women who work outside of Japan have great difficulty returning. Several observers commented that the foreign companies are very aware of Japanese women as a great untapped resource and act accordingly. Some younger women are not as ambitious in their work aspirations as older feminists would like; they believe these women in their 20’s and 30’s have grown to rely too strongly on the support of parents or a spouse.
 Education is one area where the percentage of girls who enroll in higher education exceeds that of boys. This is in a country where 48.9 percent of the population advances to higher education, a greater proportion than in the U.S. The number of girls who major in engineering and the social sciences has been increasing. Educational institutions at the high school and university levels are increasingly coeducational. It should be noted that university faculties are governed by entrenched male leadership. These settings are often among the most difficult for talented women. It is also worth noting that relative to other wealthy nations, Japan has been slow to achieve in-home Internet use; in 1998 only eleven percent of households had Internet access.
Domestic Violence
Domestic violence has long been invisible in Japan, ignored by a society in which laws are largely made by middle-aged men and people fail to notice bruises, sunglasses, and other telltale signs of domestic violence. In late 2001, Japan became the last major industrialized country to enact legislation aimed at preventing such violence and protecting its victims. Domestic violence has gained widespread visibility in the last five years, with a growing awareness of how pervasive it is in a country proud of its refinement and civility. Many victims and activists cite a conspiracy of silence, dating back to samurai days when women were viewed as the property of their husbands. A strong push to broaden public awareness of these issues has encouraged many women, including Hiroko Sato, who has said that she was repeatedly beaten by her husband, the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who in 1974 received Japan’s only Nobel Peace Prize.
The new Domestic Violence Law carries no penalties and leaves treatment to a myriad of competing agencies, provides few new funds and limits restraining orders to cases of physical abuse, not sexual or psychological damage. It protects only battered wives, not their children. Unlike in the U.S., spousal rape is not illegal in Japan. For many women, the challenge is economic survival. Without training, women often have few skills employers want.
Social Pressures
Mental health issues are on the rise, although not widely acknowledged. Community social support has diminished, particularly in cities and some of the huge bedroom communities which surround them.  Family relations are often frayed, eating disorders among young and middle aged women are dramatically increasing, and sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents have risen. Suicides among middle aged men numbered over 31,000 last year. The economic insecurity which grips the country runs as a deep undercurrent through the national psyche yet limited public and private counseling programs exist as resources. As a result, one observer of social trends told me that the Japanese are huge consumers of stomach drugs.
Surname Battle
Many women and some men are challenging the issues of surnames for married couples. Couples will pick one surname: 98 percent pick the husband’s surname and 2 percent pick the wife’s surname. Recent polling data indicate 65 percent of the public supported separate surnames for married couples, up from 55 percent in 1996.  This area is a heavily contested one with some rightist parties and religious groups claiming that a two-name system would weaken family unity while women’s groups and liberal-left parties say that what matters is not a rigid, tradition-bound system but love and consideration.
One of the starkest divisions is between working women and housewives. Japanese social policy has traditionally favored housewives (who pay no tax and receive a pension) over working women (who do pay). Traditional social attitudes privileged women who remained at home and disparaged women who worked to advance their careers. Many Japanese working women face double jeopardy in the workplace since men are paid additional family support, based on the number of dependents. It is clear that some religious and right wing groups have vehemently opposed expanded roles for women, with considerable impact in mostly rural areas.
U.S./Japan: What Is Different? What Is Similar?
Since the mid-1980’s, Japan has established a progressive legal framework (including the Labor Standards Law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, and the Childcare Leave Law) which has not yet been fully realized. In the U.S., the issue of childcare leave is still contested and not been enacted in any area.
The wage gap between men and women remains pronounced in both countries.  In Japan, women receive 50 percent of their male counterpart’s wages, while in the United States the figure is 73 percent, down slightly over the past few years.  The recent instability in the Japanese labor market has widened the gap because of the dramatic increase in part-time work.  At a point when many Japanese women need to generate income in order to support their families employers are often hard pressed to accommodate women’s full participation.
In the U.S women have assumed 42.7% of management positions, albeit many at a mid-management level.  In the early 1970’s the percentage of female managers in America stood at the same level currently seen in Japan (8.2%).  Many Japanese women point to the lack of investment in training by employers a major barrier to advancement.

Women in both countries shoulder the major portion of housework, childcare, and family care. In Japan, women have a huge share of the burden (89 percent for women and 11 percent for men) while in the U.S. men are now undertaking one-third of this work. There is a clear generational shift, as men in both countries look to play an increasing role in the lives of those they love. The challenge remains work situations which are largely unchanged and depend on stereotypical sex roles.
Investments in childcare and eldercare have increased in both countries but need more support.  In the U.S. there has been a major push to expand childcare and school age care while in Japan the senior care insurance program represents a very positive step which provides significant care for people who are facing the challenges of aging.The United States has a strong tradition of third-sector organizations which provide a vehicle for citizen involvement and voluntary activity. Some organizations have had a significant impact on policy at local and national levels. Recent examples include Mothers Against Drunk Driving, American Association of Retired Persons, and the labor/community coalitions which have pushed for the passage of living wage ordinances. In contrast, the “we know best” attitudes of Japanese politicians and bureaucrats have long discouraged citizens from claiming their voice. Historically, the Japanese legal code constructed high hurdles for groups seeking non-profit status; this situation began to change with the passage of non-profit organization legislation in 1998 and the upsurge in citizens’ groups of all kinds in the past decade.
Promising Developments
There are a number of signs which gave me great hope for the future of Japanese women’s roles and leadership. I was so impressed by the energy and activism of the women I met. Many of them had been inspired by the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. It is remarkable that women have made such progress in so many areas in the face of persistent resistance. There were so many smart, committed and accomplished women who were hungry to continue the progress towards gender equality in a society with a long tradition of women’s submission.
Despite the huge issues which remain for Japanese women, there are several trends which hold great potential for advancing women’s status:
1. There has been a major upsurge in non-profit organization activity on issues ranging from community economic development and domestic violence to human rights and the environment. A new report “The Present State of the Nonprofit Sector in Japan” asserts that Japanese society is in the midst of a wave of major reform. In the wake of the 1995 Hanshin Awaji (Kobe) earthquake and the upsurge of volunteer activity, the role of NPO’s began to be recognized in earnest by Japanese society.   With the launch of the long term care insurance system and revisions of various social welfare and planning laws there is growing space for nonprofit activism.  As the role of government is shifting and shrinking new openings exist. Many of these new NPO’s are women-led, frequently by women in their thirties and forties. Some of them play an active advocacy role while others are less certain about how to approach politicians and policymakers. This sector’s growth is critical to opening new space for the development of alternative solutions which are so critical to the future of Japanese society.
2. The Japanese labor movement, which has a strong history of male domination and protection of traditional work arrangements, is beginning to open up to recognize the importance of women’s participation. In particular, Zensen, the Japanese Federation of Textile, Garment, Chemical, Commercial Food and Allied Industries Worker’s Unions, has made the organization of women workers, including part-timers, a high priority.
3. The level of awareness in rape and domestic violence issues, especially in light of the highly publicized behavior of U.S. military personnel in Okinawa has increased a great deal. There is a growing effort to provide support and services to survivors, mostly run by grassroots organizations but increasingly with some government involvement.
4. The number of women entrepreneurs is growing rapidly (by one estimate there are now over 65,000). As in the U.S., many women have turned their talents and energy to good use in creating their own businesses. Some of the senior women entrepreneurs are deeply involved in efforts to advance women’s empowerment in other sectors of society.
5. The number of women running for and winning public office has increased. At present 10 percent of the members of the Diet are women. Five of the fifteen members of the Koizumi cabinet are women.  Three of 47 prefectures are governed by women. Women mayors are quite rare (less than 1 percent). In addition to the slow but steady growth in numbers there are two particularly interesting developments: a) the establishment of Win-Win, a counterpart of Emily’s List, which encourages women to contribute to women candidates who work on issues of concern to women; and b) the development of the Kanagawa Network Movement in Kanagawa Prefecture, a 220,000 member political movement which encourages women to run on a participatory reform platform.  In the political arena as well as others, men are learning to see women as capable leaders.
6. Women’s training programs are gaining greater currency. One extremely impressive effort I saw was the Hiroshima Women’s College, a year-long training initiative which has graduated over 800 women in the past 13 years. Women emerge from the program more committed and prepared for leadership roles within the NPO, business and government areas.
7. The great interest in women’s organizations has resulted in an increase in membership of local and prefectural groups--an impressive base upon which to build a large constituency of women pushing for reforms.

There is considerable potential to build on all of the positive development through enhanced contact and exchange with groups outside of Japan, at the same time others can learn from the innovation which is building in Japan. One key area of interest is the role of advocacy in advancing a change-oriented agenda. This dialogue should provide a base for solidifying the extraordinary gains which Japanese women have made and moving their efforts for a gender equal society forward on a faster track.
Topics:  Social Issues

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