Working women in JapanGiven the challenges which the Japanese economy faces, politicians in recent years have acknowledged the need for a social system in which women can maximize their full potential. Despite a high educational level among the female population, the career path of women is usually interrupted for longer periods upon the birth of their first child. After the childcare years, women tend to work part-time, which entails lower wages and fewer career opportunities. Under the government of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, policies aimed at supporting the further integration of women into the workforce were dubbed womenomics. These policies aim at, for example, facilitating the availability of childcare institutions, thus enabling higher compatibility of work and family life. Despite an increasing female employment rate in recent years, the number of women in leadership positions, such as managerial positions or among politicians, remains comparatively low. Factors such as long working hours and informal gatherings after work, which represent networking opportunities, make it difficult for employees with childcare responsibilities to advance within the workplace.
The long road to gender equalityThe concept of yamato nadeshiko describes the classic ideal of Japanese women: a beautiful but modest female, dedicated to the wellbeing of her family and husband. She is assertive and smart, yet obedient, dependent, and bound to the domestic sphere. While the traditional role of good wife, wise mother is a notion of bygone days, it still affects the way womanhood is portrayed in contemporary Japan.
Many women still feel the social pressure to choose marriage and motherhood. Likewise, men are expected to focus on their careers and provide for the family. As it is not common for fathers to take parental leave, childcare is allocated to mothers. By pausing or even ending their own professional development to focus on child-rearing, women have to financially rely on their husbands. This puts women in a tight spot: in order to comply with conservative expectations, they have to compromise their autonomy.
Besides family and work life, women also face challenges in their love and social lives. Sexuality in Japan is more often than not presented through the male gaze, with women being seen as the object of desire, rather than being sexually assertive themselves. Incidents of stalking, indecencies, or everyday sexism are comparably common in Japan. Due to the exposure victims have to face, women frequently shy away from reporting sexual harassment. This is not only true for Japan but the country’s shame culture, which heavily revolves around not losing one’s face, constitutes an additional hurdle.
Compared to the limitations previous generations had to face, modern Japanese women enjoy more freedom, have better access to education, more job opportunities, and therefore gained visibility in society. But while attitudes on traditional gender roles may have shifted in recent decades, social change has since been a slow, gradual movement and by no means has Japan reached an equal society. However, with rising media coverage on gender issues, an increasing number of scholars and activists concerned with sexism and feminism, as well as an actual need for strong women in Japanese society, the concept of gender equality is likely to be pushed further forwards.