Why Should Japan Care About Gender Issues?
Friday, December 28, 2018
It’s clear than many Japanese leaders in both business and government think of gender issues as a frivolous affair, but they also have to start dealing with women's issues for the sake of the economy.
It’s a valid question. In the 20th century Japan pulled its population out of poverty and made its mark on the world stage with an incredible tale of economic prosperity, all without much input from women. So now, why bother with the odious exercise of self reflection as a nation? It’s clear than many Japanese leaders in both business and government think of gender issues as a frivolous affair that should be swatted away like a pesky fly as discussed in our previous article Japan’s Attitude Towards Women.
At the United Nationals General Assembly in 2013 and at the World Economic Forum in 2014 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that one of the core tenets of Abenomics was Womenomics, the implementation of policies and practices to “let women shine.” A Goldman Sachs report from 2014 estimates that by closing the gender employment gap Japan’s GDP can grow by 13% and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report predicts that economic gender parity (men and women having equal economic opportunities) would add US$550 billion to the Japanese economy. Abe’s government has seen all these number and on an intellectual level they understand that women are the the largest untapped home-grown labour source that the country needs to sustain the aging population.
However, the twisted irony of reality is that the same closed circle of men are trying to solve a problem for women, without including women (again!). Take for example Abe’s pledge to have 30% of senior positions in both public and private sectors filled by women by 2020. Any analyst or academic will admit this a far-fetched goal because statistical benefits don’t simply translate into realities. Abe’s reshuffled cabinet this fall includes just one woman (down from two in his previous cabinet) in the low profile role of Regional Revitalisation Minister. Critics immediately pointed out how he’s talking a big talk about Womenomics but can’t lead by example. Perhaps that’s true, but also there is a pragmatic fact that there just aren’t many women to choose from (perhaps more than one – of course – but the greater point still stands).
A 2016 survey revealed that 45% of Japanese men still think women should stay at home, and this Asian Boss video revealed that even young Japanese men are threatened by intelligent women because manliness is defined by being able to show superiority over women. So instead of intelligent women being interesting, they are intimidating or argumentative, whereas dumb girls (or those who pretend to be dumb) are considered cute and desirable; and years or social training breeds generations of women who do just that, act dumber than the men around them. Pair this with the societal attitude that were touched on in the previous article, that interactions between male and female colleagues outside the workplace are automatically assumed as sexual advances, and women don’t really stand a chance at breaking the glass ceiling even if Abe proclaims is should be so.
Four years into Abe’s initiative, the statistics are in. The number of women in the workforce has in fact increased from 46.2% in 2012 to 50% in 2017. But as Bloomberg points out, most of these women are in low paid or part-time work, and the number of women in managerial positions is a mere 4% (up from 1% in 2012). At this rate, Abe’s 30% goal will take decades. Some of Japan’s top corporations are warming up to the idea of bringing women into executive roles but there just aren’t enough to go around. Nikkei Asian Review reported that, “…quite a few women serve on multiple boards… a dozen women serve as outside officers or auditors for four or more companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.”
It’s blatantly unsurprising that in a culture where intelligence makes you an romantically undesirable and male superiors don’t know how to mentor female subordinates, in addition to assumptions that men enter companies for career track positions and women are passing their time “working” until they get married and start a family, that the number of women who survived these pitfalls to be qualified executives are few and far between. Add to that the additional burden of after hours drinking and socialising where women are usually only present as sex objects (i.e.hostesses and beyond), of course Japan’s corporate world has happily managed to remain an all boys club that cannot accommodate the different life choices women may have.
Internal Affairs Minister, Seiko Noda, understands this all too well. She admits to the difficulty of finding her way in Japanese politics without having any role models, so this year she set up a first-of-its-kind school to nurture a new generation of female politicians. She notes that Japanese society still just doesn’t care about women’s issues. While politicians in other developed countries are gaining popularity by showing their humanity, Noda’s frank discussions about her fertility treatments and caring for her disabled son didn’t gain her much traction when she challenged Abe earlier this year. According to a Yomiuri poll, only 3% of the public wanted her to win. With the immense cultural baggage women have to shed, it’s going to be an uphill battle for a female politician to gain trust and support amongst the masses to lead the country.
Until then, Japanese politicians will continue to look at statistics and try to push the agenda of “making women shine” all while still being tone-deaf to the woman’s perspective. This was made clear by the sexual harassment poster released by the Cabinet Office (undoubtedly created by men) with the big exclamation “This is sexual harassment too?” with the disclaimer, “You aren’t the one who decides what is and isn’t sexual harassment,” giving examples of comment on a woman’s body or clothes as instances of sexual harassment. The twitter storm of criticism this poster received for making light of the issues is also slightly overblown, but the twitter-verse’s point still stands, this poster isn’t doing much to educate anyone about how to deal with women in the workplace or prevent women from being harassed.
But at least they are trying…. right?
Culture is the hardest thing to change, especially when the majority of the people on top can reminisce about the bubble era where gender relations were simple. But it’s not that easy anymore. To be a global economic force in 2018 companies need diversity of thought to be creative. Japanese women are extremely well educate and the obvious first choice to be part of the necessary diversity in Japanese industries, because in order for women to add US$550 billion to Japan’s economy they don’t have to conform to the industries as they are, rather they have the potential to be trailblazers for Japan’s much needed economic revitalisation.
Our previous article "Japan's Attitude Towards Women" lays out the difficulties women face in Japanese society and in the work place.
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."