Japanese women push back against leaning in

Global Voices Online
Updated on
A Japanese college graduate publicly promises that she will do her best in trying to find work during a job-hunting rally at an outdoor theatre in Tokyo.

The Japanese government wants more women to participate in the workforce. In fact, following December 2014 elections, one the new government's slogans has become “Women Will Revitalize Japan.”

While this may seem like a victory for gender equity in what has traditionally been a male-dominated society, many Japanese women are worried they are simply being asked to do more for less.

Just 65 percent of women aged 15 to 64 work in Japan, compared to nearly 85 percent of Japanese men. According to the 2013 World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report, Japan, ranked 105th out of 135 countries when it came to gender-based disparities. In comparison, the US ranked 23rd.

Besides the implication that Japan lags far behind its peers in terms of gender equity in the workplace and society in general, an ongoing demographic shift means Japan is running out of workers to support an ageing population.

Japan's total population is projected to shrink by around 30 percent by 2055 as the number of births falls to 40 percent of the 2005 level. 

A 2010 Goldman Sachs report estimated that if women in Japan were employed at the same rate as men (nearly four-fifths), Japan's economic output would grow by up to 15 percent.

The Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is making the promotion of women's empowerment and “womenomics” a priority to not only increase tax revenues, but also to spur consumer demand and ignite inflation.

More work, even less free time

But is there a genuine will to improve the status of women in the workplace?

In a recent column Kotaro Tamura, a former member of Japan's national Diet and parliamentary secretary to Abe, writes in business magazine Mag2 News about the need to provide women with adequate childcare if they are to enter the workforce:

While the efforts of the Abe government to advance the role of women in society is wonderful, talk of creating an environment where women can raise children while pursuing a career has to end up being more than paying mere lip service to the issue.

It has to become easier to get support for families, and provide easy access to quality childcare.

Japanese women, however, are not so sure that being asked to join the workforce is such a good thing.

The fear expressed by Japanese women is that, on top of childcare, running a household and caring for aging parents, Japanese women will also be expected to work full-time.

Maiko Kissaka, a noted designer and freelance columnist, writes:

One of the Abe government's key strategies is based [on the slogan] “Women Will Revitalize Japan.”

According to the prime minister's home page, to help women enter the workforce and revitalize Japan, waiting lists for preschool childcare will be eliminated, and there will be greater support for mothers wishing to return to work. There will be efforts to increase the number of women in management and leadership positions.

So, women will give birth, place their children in daycare, and return to work, playing a greater role in the business world.

According to Kissaka, this may be unrealistic:

So, we're being asked to leap into management after giving birth to start wheeling and dealing at the office. This entire “Women Will Revitalize Japan” movement may actually be a harbinger of karoshi (death by overwork) for the female half of the population…

…If you think about it, until now men have always been ground up into mincemeat between work and the home.

For Japanese women, “womenomics” simply means more work and even less free time than they already have at present.

Others are asking if Japan even has enough quality work right now for woman who wish to enter the workforce.

In an online interview, researcher Daisuke Suzuki, author of the Japanese-language book “The Poorest Girls," says that one in three single women in Japan earn less than ¥1.14 million (US$9,000), below Japan's poverty threshold of ¥1.22 million (US$10,000).

One reason is because fewer than half of female high school graduates in Japan can obtain full-time work -- on top of the 80 percent of single mothers in Japan living in poverty.

That is why Suzuki and others say a considerable amount of young woman must rely on the sex trade to earn a living (a Japanese-language documentary of the phenomenon can be viewed here).

‘Abe has no idea of women's backbreaking struggles’

Skepticism of the Abe government's push for womenomics, along with the slogan “Women Will Revitalize Japan” has erupted into the mainstream.

A recent feature story in the Mainichi newspaper reports on what a variety of glossy women's weekly tabloid magazines are actually saying about the Abe government's plans for women in Japan. Writer Yoshiaki Kobayashi starts off his article by examining three leading weekly magazines aimed at Japanese women: Josei7 ("Women's Weekly), Josei Jishin ("Women's Own") and Shukan Josei (“Weekly Woman”). Kobayashi notes that they carry a strong anti-Abe sentiment:

For a middle-aged man who never reads women's glossy weeklies, headlines like “The whole world thinks Abe is a sexist pig!” and “Abe has no idea of women's backbreaking struggles” are totally surprising.

Kobayashi suggests that ever since the March 2011 “Triple Disaster” in Tohoku, when a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident ravaged Japan's northeast coastline, there has been an upswell in criticism of the Japanese government.

But even if the government manages to win over the women of the nation, Japan's society itself must change.

This story was cross-posted at Global Voices, a community of 1,200 bloggers and reporters worldwide.

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