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Japan: Could the future be female?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
April 29, 2023

Japanese men have more opportunities than the nation's women in education, employment and society in general. Equality activists are "not optimistic" that effective change will happen anytime soon. But what if it could?

Young women wear kimonos to mark Japan's 'Coming of Age Day' to honor people who turn 20 to signify adulthood
Women in Japan are bogged down by traditional rolesImage: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 80% of people in Japan believe that society benefits men over women in the Asian nation.

That's according to a recent study conducted by the Cabinet Office, which also revealed that just 14.7% believe women are treated equally in Japan. 

It underlines the chasm of inequality between the genders in everything from politics to education, and "socially accepted views, customs and conventions." 

What else did the survey reveal?

Asked about the areas in society with the greatest contrast in gender equality, nearly 82% of respondents said politics — and more than 64% cited workplaces.

Participants hold signs and shout slogans during the Women's March in Tokyo
Education has long been considered an area in which male and female students in Japan are at least equal Image: Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Close to 60% also singled out home life, with "socially accepted conventions" requiring that women are typically tasked with cooking, cleaning, managing the home and raising children. 

"I am not surprised at those figures and it's unfortunate that nothing seems to be changing in a positive way," said Chisato Kitanaka, an associate professor of sociology at Hiroshima University.

"It is a problem in every part of Japanese society, but perhaps most visibly in the wage gap and employment and promotion opportunities for women," she told DW.

"Young women come out of universities and colleges with the same skills and knowledge as men, but the companies and organizations that hire them are too often stuck with old-fashioned ways of thinking."

"The assumption is that they will work for a couple of years, get married, leave the company and have children," Kitanaka said, "so there is little point in giving them the same training or advancement opportunities as male employees."

Room for change in politics and education

In Japanese politics, women account for just 10% of members of the 465-seat lower house of the Diet, putting Japan in 165th place of the 180 countries monitored by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

In Japan's last lower house election, just 18% of the candidates were female. 

Education has long been considered an area in which male and female students are at least equal, however Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, insisted that this is not always the case. 

"The inequality is perhaps less obvious, but there have been a number of scandals in recent years in which universities were found to have selected male applicants over females who had better exam scores," she pointed out.

Japan's gender disparity appeared to have taken European jobs commissioner, Nicolas Schmit, by surprise when he was in the country earlier this month for a G-7 labor rights meeting. 

"We wanted clear, solid and strong statements, which I think more or less we got on equal pay and on better integration of women in the labor markets," he told Kyodo News, adding that there was "a strong awareness on the Japanese side that something has to be done."

That recognition was echoed by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who this week instructed his cabinet and employment experts to ensure that women occupy 30% of the executive positions at major Japanese companies by 2030. 

Participants hold signs and shout slogans during the Women's March in Tokyo
At present, women account for just 9% of the executive positions at Japan's 3,795 listed companiesImage: Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Kishida said that increased pay, internal promotions, and ending violence against women in society are key to ensuring that women occupy more companies' top jobs.

'Women not at a disadvantage'

Traditionalists, however, bristle at the suggestion that women are seen as inferior to men in the workplace. 

"I do not believe that women are at a disadvantage in Japanese society because there are already laws in place that guarantee they have the same rights as men," said Professor Yoichi Shimada, an academic at Fukui Prefectural University. 

"Perhaps the disadvantage lies with a society that expects that women's main role is raising children, but I do not think this is a special problem," he said.

"I feel it is the same situation in other parts of the world, in the US or Europe, so this is not a big issue." 

And that is exactly the sort of attitude that the associate professor of sociology Chisato Kitanaka said makes her pessimistic about genuine change in Japan. 

"These attitudes run very deep in Japanese society," Kitanaka said.  

"There may be change but it will be very gradual and it will be very slow." 

Edited by: Keith Walker

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea