The hottest commodity coming out of Japan today isn’t a robot named Pepper or advances in scientific research. It is a marketable item designed to satisfy the needs and wants of an entire nation’s future. Unless one has had their proverbial head in deep sand, I am talking about women. But not just any woman will do. This woman needs to work. In Japan, though, this can mean stretching the limits of the work/life balance.
Japan is a country that values work, and not just the efficient kind where you arrive to the assembly line and make things before leaving at a reasonable hour to resume your life away from your job. In this country, showing up and being at work for 12 to 16 hours, sometimes longer, is a value unto itself. It’s not particularly efficient either, if one considers those workers in Germany who put in 1,400 hours to the typical Japanese 1,700+ hours — but with much greater productivity.
No, in Japan, being at work is your life, and your promotions and evaluation depend on showing up.
I recently asked my language tutor what was Japan’s greatest virtue? Without hesitation he said, "isogashii" (to be busy, engaged). I can guarantee he wasn’t referring to sailing or surfing or spending time with the kids.
So, ladies in Japan, no pressure, but your country is seeking working and baby-producing women who will shine like brand new ¥500 gold coins. And just to reinforce the theme, Prime Minister Abe’s government sponsored the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo (WAW! Tokyo 2014) that coincides with Shine Weeks (Sept 8–19) encouraging grassroots women’s value and empowerment events across the country.
The ideal scenario is for a woman to work until marriageable age, find a Japanese husband, produce two to three Japanese children, find childcare, and hurry back to their job. Marriageable age used to mean around 25, but in today’s Japan, that number keeps rising beyond the expiration date.
Crunching the data shows that getting more women into the work place after marriage and children will bump up productivity in a country that is desperate for a growth miracle; Japan has an abysmally low number of foreign workers and a growing elder population of non-workers. Japanese women are some of the best educated in the world, but their labour participation is at 63% compared with over 90% for their male counterparts. If they decide to have a child, up to 70% will leave the labour force for at least a decade, if not forever.
Assessing the problems facing the invisibility of Japanese women in the work place — and their need to shine in society as a whole — is a common sense policy for Abe’s growth strategy. But the horrendous hours spent at work by men are often missing from the discussion. As much as I’m convinced that the 21st century belongs to women and their greater empowerment and participation in global society, we cannot just cheerlead without paying closer attention to how men are going to adjust to this policy shift for shared power on the job, which will coincide with married working women expecting more help at home.
Why can’t we envision a society in which men and women shine together in a proper balance between work and having a life? It is possible to imagine a more reasonable lifestyle where working men and women have time to pursue leisure pursuits, dating, coupling, family life, or public service. Women can shine in Japan, but they can’t — and won’t — shine if men’s needs and wants are shunned.
Japan will need to change its system of promotion and evaluation for the overwhelming number of men who are stuck in a career track that leaves them overtired, sleep-deprived, and unable to fully participate in a public or family life. There is no quality of life in a scenario where overtired and sleep-deprived women work side-by-side with their male counterparts.© Japan Today