After Aung San Suu Kyi 'embarrassed' her Japanese hosts by pointing out that gender inequality in Japan was far more pronounced than in Myanmar, Tokyo has announced plans to improve working conditions for women.
When Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi revisited Japan for the first time in nearly 27 years in mid April, she must have noticed many changes. Since the time when the leader of Myanmar's largest opposition party was a researcher in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, Japan's cities have sprawled further, the skyscrapers have grown taller and the bullet trains have got faster.
But the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party appeared bemused that some things have not evolved at all in the intervening years in Japanese society.
In a lecture to students and faculty members after accepting an honorary fellowship at Kyoto University, Suu Kyi underlined the transformation that women have wrought on Myanmar's socio-political landscape in the last few years.
In last year's by-elections, she pointed out, her NLD won 43 of the 45 seats on offer - and 13 of those seats went to women.
Much still remains to be done, she agreed, "But I have to say gender discrimination is not as great as it is in this country … Research and statistics show Japan and South Korea have some of the greatest gender differences in the world today."
And she questioned the suggestions of economists that the gender gap will narrow with economic development.
'Social values as well'
"If it is true that the gender gap is largely economic in nature, why is it that the greatest gender gaps in the world exist in Japan and South Korea?" she asked. "It is not just economic factors; it is social values as well."
Suu Kyi's analysis is spot on.
When it comes to women in politics, Japan ranks 122nd in the world - on par with Botswana and just behind Bhutan and Benin - with 81 women in the 716 seats in the two houses of the national parliament. That figure, compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, means that after Japan's most recent general election for the lower house in December of last year, only 7.9 percent of the nation's politicians in the chamber are women, while the figure is 18.2 percent for the upper house of parliament.
Japan also ranks very low in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of socio-economic opportunities, with the MasterCard index of Women's Advancement putting Japan in 13th out of 14 nations in the region. New Zealand topped the index, which was released mid March, and the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia were all above Japan. Only India was below Japan. According to the index, Japanese women are similarly at a disadvantage when it comes to earnings.
Recent studies indicate that of all the developed nations, working mothers in Japan face the biggest difference in pay compared to their male counterparts and are under growing pressure to stay home and be a housewife instead of having a career. Furthermore, the studies indicate that these traditional and deeply conservative attitudes towards women in the Japanese workforce are becoming more entrenched.
Lower wages for women
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report in late December which showed the median salary of a working Japanese woman with a child was 61 percent lower than that of a man in the same situation. That is the most extreme figure of all the 30 nations that provided comparable data, with the average standing at 22 percent.
And it is remarkable given that young women in Japan are better educated than their male counterparts. Around 59 percent of Japanese women between the ages of 25 and 34 have a university degree, while that figure falls to 52 percent for men.
The German parliament has recently rejected a bill to introduce a quota for women on corporate boards
The gender pay gap for young people starts out at 15 percent, the report found, and rises to around 40 percent for workers aged over 40. The differences become even more pronounced after a Japanese woman has a child.
"The changes in the way of thinking about equality has been much slower in Japan than the rest of the world," said Chie Matsumoto, an activist on labor and women's issues with Labornet TV. "From my own experience, there are a lot of women who want to work, but there is simply not enough support for them to be able to work full-time after having children or to return to the same position within a company after they have taken time off to have a family.
"That's a deeply traditional way of thinking, but it's still very strong in Japanese companies and means that women are already discriminated against before they even go to work for the first time."
Japan has never had any legislation similar to the affirmative action programs in the United States, she pointed out, meaning that the middle-aged male executives who tend to make the decisions on hiring in Japanese companies choose people who are similar to them: men who will become the middle-aged decision makers in their organization.
"There has to be change sooner or later, but I have to say that it is baby steps at the moment," said Matsumoto. "And no matter how loud the international criticism, society here will only change very gradually."
If anything, attitudes towards the role of women in society have regressed, with a study by the Cabinet Office showing that 51.6 percent of respondents believe the man should have a job and wives do the housework. That figure is up more than 10 percentage points from the last time the survey was conducted, in 2009, and includes replies from women.
There are other disincentives for women workers, including a taxation system that discourages them from returning to employment and an old-boy network at the highest levels of corporate Japan.
In a 2004 study, a mere five of Japan's top 300 firms had a woman on the board and only two women were on the boards of Japan's 37 Fortune Global 200 companies - at Sony and Hitachi. In contrast, every one of the 78 US firms on the list had at least one female member on their board.
"The place of women in the public sphere here in Japan is on a par with the regimes in China and North Korea, where the only woman of any prominence is only there because she is Kim Jong Un's aunt," Jun Okumura, a political analyst with the Eurasia Group, told DW.
Experts say women in Japan earn less than their male counterparts because society is too traditional
"Japan just does not walk in lock-step with the West in every area of our society, and the situation for women here suggests that some things transcend nations' stages of economic development," he said. "But if you look at the United States of 50 years ago, then I would think there were fewer women in comparable positions than there are in Japan today, so things are changing."
That change is slow, however, and perhaps sensing the scale of the problem that the nation faces in women's rights, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday outlined a series of new goals designed to encourage economic growth by tapping the potential of women in the workforce.
The measures will include dramatically increasing the number of day care centers and giving new parents - both men and women - extended child care leave.
"Many women are still forced to make a choice between raising a child and leaving their job," Mr. Abe said in a press conference announcing the new initiative. "We will create a society where excellent workers will be able to play active roles. That will boost the productivity of the entire society."
But it remains to be seen whether his ambitions will have a positive effect on the lot of Japan's working women.