“I used to be a helicopter pilot, I loved it. But since having a child, I quit. I don't think I will work again for a long time," says a woman at a local center where residents gather to socialize and host events. A group of women sits before me. We have been discussing their interests and aspirations for an hour. I look around at them. They are sociable and engaging individuals. But they all have one thing in common. Each of them went to university, and quit their jobs after having a child. Although it is all well and good to choose family over career, the predictability of these women’s career paths seems unsettling to me. Here, they treat it as part of a standard expectation. A working lifestyle in Japan is not compatible with motherhood, or so these women have been led to believe.
Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a bold admission concerning women and the economic growth of his country. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, he said: “Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work... is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency.”
The recognition of working women as a strong economic force may not seem like a novel idea to most developed nations. For Japan, it brings to light an issue of women’s rights long swept under the carpet.
Abe has become known for his aggressive three-pronged policy, coined as "Abenomics," since taking office last December. Improving female workforce participation is a part of Abe's long-term reform strategy. Though it has been a significant problem in Japan for many years, it is only starting to gain attention now.
In 1999, Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, first advocated that Japan could increase its gross domestic product by as much as 15% simply by tapping further its most underutilized resource — Japanese women. Fourteen years have elapsed since then, and the idea has finally entered Japan's political lexicon.
Why has it taken so long for the government to explicitly and actively acknowledge the problem of working women in Japan? It certainly is not due to lack of evidence. The year 1999 saw the introduction of The Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society Act, which stipulated that the state would be responsible "for the comprehensive formulation and implementation of policies related to promotion of a Gender-equal Society." However, by government estimates in 2011 - over a decade later - only 6.2% of managerial roles in private firms were allocated to females. The IMF states that female employment rates are currently 25% lower than males, giving Japan one of the lowest rates of female employment in all developed countries. Half of all university graduates in Japan are women. Despite this, a recent survey released by Kyodo News Agency suggests that Japanese women themselves have internalised the image of the stay-at-home mother, with one in three women wishing to become housewives after marriage.
Many believe that Abe's comments on the virtues of "Womenomics" may contribute toward changing the current status quo, leading to substantial economic change and clearer signs of gender equality. While the IMF has stated that employing more women could increase Japan's GDP by up to 5%, there are plenty of reasons to feel skeptical about the government's recent feminist slant. A good place to begin looking is the inner workings of the Diet itself. Are they practising what they preach?
Since the beginning of Abe's term, the percentage of female members of the lower house has fallen to 8%. Only two of his 18 cabinet members are women. This leaves Japan 124th out of 188 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union -- below developing countries such as Mali -- and far behind China and South Korea, ranking 54th and 88th respectively. Under-representation is not only confined to governance on a national level, with as few as 0.8% of women taking up mayoral positions in 2011. Women remain noticeably absent from the political sphere, having little direct impact on public policy and decision-making processes.
Why is the government bringing to light an issue that is very much its own failing? Despite several legislative acts over the years to promote equality, it is clear that women do not have the same working rights as their male counterparts. Furthermore, women do not have significant political representation on any level of governance. Looking at correlations between equality laws and reality up until now, it seems unlikely that any major changes to the working environment will manifest themselves in the near future. Abe's strategy so far -- urging businesses to be more accommodating toward their female staff -- has proved to be far from inspiring. Surely the Japanese government can see that the real problem does not lie in a lack of laws, but rather in a lack of desire to implement real change? One starts to get the feeling that "Womenomics" is less about speaking up for gender equality, and more about keeping up an appearance.
The current issues that the government faces are not going to be remedied by lawmaking. The solution is deeper and more complex than this. It begins by questioning Japan's patriarchal status quo, and examining ways in which attitudes should be altered to make the political, social and economic system geared toward a recognition of women as equal members of society.
Even if the government implements policies in the future to encourage women's rights from a state level, it remains doubtful that this will ever be practised in good spirit by local councils and businesses. For women, the working environment remains rife with obstacles that hamper mobility and fair treatment, fed by an attitude that women do not deserve equality. One of these issues, brought to light by Hifumi Okunuki of The Japan Times, is the concept of "maternal harassment." In 1985, The Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed to prevent any discrimination against women based on pregnancy or maternity leave. However, with a current 62% of employed women leaving their jobs after childbirth -- and continually rising figures- it is difficult to dismiss claims that employers are openly unwelcoming to new and expectant mothers.
So far, feminism cannot claim a long-lasting and successful history in Japan. Women do not have a common platform from which they can voice opinions, and are often so deeply mired in societal attitudes that they do not question them. Simply urging industries to look beyond entrenched prejudices will not be enough to break down the barriers towards gender equality. If the Japanese government wishes to build its economy on the foundations of equal working rights, it will need to practise and encourage a great deal more of self-evaluation.© Japan Today