Will Japan’s ‘Womenomics’ work?

Japanese women in various professions. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)
Japanese women in various professions. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

By Shen Lu and Rachel Newman

Tokyo — It’s not news that women across the world feel a lack of equality, but in Japan, the problem is particularly pressing.

Nearly 70 percent of Japanese women feel gender inequality — compared with the world average of 40 percent — three decades after the country enacted an equal employment law, according to a study published last week by Ipsos MORI, a British research firm.

Three in four women around the world believe there are unequal rights in their country, according to a newly published study. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)
Three in four women around the world believe there are unequal rights in their country, according to a newly published study. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

The latest annual glass-ceiling index, published last week by The Economist, gave Japan the second-lowest score for gender equality in the labor market among 29 developed countries.

While employers are no longer allowed to discriminate based on gender, today’s Japanese women struggle to succeed professionally while fulfilling traditional family duties, experts said.

Noelle Takahashi, 42, a politician and advocate for women’s empowerment, said the expectation and pressure for Japanese women today is exceptionally high.

“Japanese women are expected to be a good wife and good mothers,” said Takahashi. “And if you get married, you are expected to cook well suddenly, and you are expected to have children.”

Yaco Yoshikane, 30, a textile designer living and working in Tokyo, gives Japan a score of three points for women’s rights in Japan, on a scale of one to 10 points. Though women’s situations have been improving, they are still stymied by traditional gender expectations, she said.


Japan’s stagnating economy has been hampered by a shrinking work force as the population ages and the birth rate declines.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative, has prioritized greater female labor participation since 2013 as an answer to a dwindling population. Yet progress has been painfully slow. Abe’s agenda, known as “womenomics,” could potentially boost Japan’s GDP by 13 percent, according to a 2014 Goldman Sachs study.

Japanese female labor participation has risen to a record high of 66 percent, according to World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, a 3-percentage-point increase from 2013, but far below the 85-percent figure for men. The report ranked Japan 111 out of 144 countries in gender equality, a drop of six spots from 2013.

Despite growing female labor participation, Japan’s abysmal economic growth hampers some women’s professional aspirations, experts said.

Economic stagnation has led to a decrease in the number of lifetime employment gigs — jobs that last from college graduation to retirement. Both women and men face an increasingly unstable employment situation, often working part-time or contract jobs with fewer benefits, said Laura Hein, a professor of Japanese history at Northwestern University.

However, women bear more of the consequences of Japan’s changing employment proposition. About 39 percent employed Japanese women are part-timers, compared to the 13-percent figure for men, according to the World Economic Forum.

Long work hours in a rigid, male-centric work culture and a lack of childcare options have caused mid-career women to leave the workforce after childbirth, Hein said.

“Women have typically been excluded from [lifetime employment] jobs,” Hein said. “But the real problem is, even when they get them, these other pressures push them out of those jobs. When you go back later, it’s a once-in-a-life opportunity, and it’s over.”

Abe’s ambitious target of getting more women in the workforce has prompted Japanese companies to introduce more liberal paid maternity leave, paternity leave and shorter hours for women with children.

But these moves haven’t had a great effect on working women’s prospects, Hein said.

“The story with the Abe administration is that they’ve talked a good line and done nothing,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter what you say. It matters what you do.”

Japan’s tax structure has also incentivized married women to limit their incomes. A person may claim his or her spouse as a dependent if he or she earns less than ¥1.03 million (just under $9,000). The Ministry of Finance in December raised the limit on the amount a dependent spouse can earn to ¥1.5 million (around $13,000).

Even with this boost, the tax structure makes it more likely that women will seek low-wage jobs, said Allison Alexy, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in Asian culture and languages at the University of Michigan.

“You end up having a significant population of women who are looking for less good, less well-paying jobs, so they’re making as much money as they can while still being a legal dependent,” Alexy said. “This really impacts the way the Japanese labor market is structured.”

Equal and ambitious

Restrictive cultural expectations — not unlike those American women face — often hold Japanese women back in the workplace, Alexy said.

Women accounted for a scant 9 percent of managerial positions in Japanese private firms in 2015, far below the Abe administration’s downwardly revised goal of 15 percent by 2020, according to The Japan Times.

“To be a good manager, you have to be firm and steady in a way that some people believe women aren’t,” Alexy said.

Noelle Takahashi is one of the few female politicians in Japan. She hopes to snag a seat in the House of Representatives in the next general election. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)
Noelle Takahashi is one of the few female politicians in Japan. She hopes to snag a seat in the House of Representatives in the next general election. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

Takahashi, the politician, has experienced this bias first hand.

Japanese men in leadership positions don’t see women as equals, she said. Many men think that women should be submissive, like their wives, daughters and secretaries, not leaders or bosses, Takahashi said.

Furthermore, bearing the “woman” label in the workplace is exhausting, she said.

“I was trying to explain myself, not only as a woman, but maybe as a leader,” she said. “But the interviewer or maybe the other MPs always insist, ‘As a woman, what do you think?’”

She believes the ingrained sexist mindset discourages women from being ambitious.

“We are not so interested to see female executive in big firms,” she said. “We just don’t have an attitude to have professional goal.”

The Ipsos MORI study found that about 71 percent of Japanese people believe in equal opportunities, the lowest percentage among the 24 countries surveyed.

The marriage conundrum

Japan has seen an increasing number of young people staying single or marrying late, which is correlated with the slowing birth rate, Hein said, and society blames young women for driving the trend.

“You hear Japanese politicians saying things like, ‘[Young women] must do their duties and get married and have children,’ which of course does not make everybody want to do it anymore,” Hein said.

Yoshikane is one of those who is putting off motherhood.

The designer, who majored in social welfare and gender in college, said her interest in women’s rights was reinforced in Denmark, where she spent a year learning textile design and met her husband, Jun.

The couple married in January, and he changed his family name to hers — a rare practice in Japan where it’s common for a wife to take her husband’s surname after marriage.

“I didn’t like that, so my husband changed his [surname] for me,” she said.

Yoshikane and her husband run a craft leather goods brand called Lille og Stor, meaning “small and big” in Danish. She designs purses, cases and baskets, and he makes them.

Yoshikane doesn’t plan to have children anytime soon. She said that it’s difficult to have children while working as a designer, a job that demands hard work and long hours in order to make money.

She isn’t alone in refusing the pressures of motherhood.

Childcare and household responsibilities often fall to women in Japan. Japanese men enjoy the world’s most generous paternity leave of about 30 weeks, according to The Economist. Yet only 2 percent of the working fathers took the leave in 2015, the Associated Press reported.

Even with generous paid maternity leave of 36 weeks, young women are hesitant to get married and have children.

“Young women look at it and are just like, ‘It’s too hard. I’m not sure if I have the strength to carry all that on my own shoulders. And maybe he’ll help and maybe he won’t. I’ll be given that responsibility, and it’s too big a responsibility I’d rather stay single,’” Hein explained.

Are you a feminist?

Japan has the lowest women’s rights activism participation among 24 countries surveyed in the Ipsos MORI study. Less than 30 percent of the Japanese interviewed said they advocated for equal opportunities for women rather than just thinking about them. This compares with the world average of 68 percent.

Yaco Yoshikane runs a craft leather goods brand, Lille og Stor, with her husband. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)
Yaco Yoshikane stands by a leather purse that she designed. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

“The sound of ‘feminist’ is too radical or too progressive for Japanese society,” said Takahashi, who doesn’t identify herself as a feminist. “So even if you are feminist, you don’t say you are feminist. We just say we do ‘women’s empowerment.’”

Japanese women tend to be modest about their professional accomplishments, identifying more with their role in the home, Takahashi said.

“If you ask working Japanese women their priority or identity or ‘Who do you belong?’ or ‘Who you are?’” Takahashi said. “First they say ‘mother’ if they have children, even if they have full-time jobs, even if they are managers, even if they are future executives.”

Yoshikane agrees.

Standing by her leather goods stand at the Tokyo Craft Market, Yoshikane said that if she has children one day, her most important role would be a mother. Designer would rank second, followed by wife.

Photo at top: Japanese women in various professions. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)