Men’s role in societyAlthough the position of women in society has improved over the past decades, Japan can still be considered a male-dominated society. Ranking 116th out of 146 countries in the most recent gender gap index, Japan still has a long road to go to achieve gender equality. The country’s poor ranking can be attributed to the lack of female representation in politics and barriers to equal economic participation for women.
The overrepresentation of men in politics and business contributes to the country’s slow progress toward gender equality. Underlying this are traditional gender norms that persist in modern Japan and are reinforced in media, education, and society in general. Patriarchal family values influenced by Confucianism assigned men the role of the household head responsible for the family. A traditional family model centered around men as sole breadwinners was introduced in the postwar period of economic growth and shaped the image of the Japanese white-collar salaryman that still prevails today.
Japan’s deeply entrenched gender norms not only restrict women’s career opportunities by expecting them to perform most unpaid tasks in the household. They also expect men to be committed to work and financially responsible for the family. This image of masculinity is still dominant, as revealed by gender role attitudes among men and women. Japan’s business culture of long working hours and informal after-work activities leaves little room for work-life balance and engagement in family life and is seen as one reason for Japan’s declining birth rate.
Promoting men’s engagement in family lifeDespite an increase in dual-earner households and more women in the workforce, a traditional gendered division of labor is still prevalent in many Japanese households. Societal norms and Japan’s corporate culture do not expect men to participate in housework or childrearing or might even discourage them from doing so.
This is reflected in the low share of fathers taking childcare leave. Although Japan has one of the more generous parental leave systems, granting both parents up to one year of paid leave, the share of men making use of their right remains small. When Japan’s then-Minister of Environment announced taking 14 days of paternity leave while still in office in 2020, the public debate that followed was exemplary of the divided opinion on men’s participation in parenting in Japan. However, there are small signs of change: amid the pandemic in 2020, the share of fathers taking parental leave nearly doubled as companies have adopted more flexible work arrangements and working from home practices.
Given its pressing problem with a declining birthrate and rapid demographic change, the need for more active engagement of men in the family has come into the focus of discussions on how to counteract Japan’s population trend. In 2022, amendments to the childcare leave system came into effect, aiming to create a more flexible and facilitated environment for parental leave. With these changes, the government hopes to encourage more men to take childcare leave, to ease the burden of parenting on working women.