The gender fault-line in Japan

Authors: Ayako Kano, University of Pennsylvania, and Vera Mackie, University of Wollongong

The economic, demographic and environmental shocks of recent years that have so profoundly shaped contemporary Japanese society have distinctive gendered dimensions.

The economic reality has shifted, but social expectations about the roles of men and women have been slower to change. Meanwhile, the demographic crisis is placing considerable burden on families and revealing the attendant risk of the ‘care deficit’ — in the home and in the face of disaster.

The first of Japan’s two more active periods of gender policy making came after the end of World War II. In 1946 the new constitution granted equal rights to both sexes and enumerated their social, legal and political rights. The; following year equal pay for equal work and maternity leave were made mandatory. The Equal Opportunity Employment Law (EEOL) of 1985 marked the beginning of the second period of gender policy making and coincided with Japan’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was followed by the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society and other policy developments implemented during the recession years.

The EEOL has, to some extent, succeeded in outlawing direct discrimination against the new graduates who have been seeking employment in a shrinking economy. But the law does not change society’s expectations that place the major responsibility for childcare on women and for breadwinning on men. In contemporary Japanese society women are expected to manage the double burden of work and family, often by eschewing full-time work and a career.

Nearly 70 per cent of Japanese women ‘choose’ to leave the full-time workforce on the birth of their children. This also makes it easier for companies to channel male and female workers into different employment tracks, in violation of the spirit of the EEOL.

Both men and women are increasingly engaged in non-permanent employment. This is a result of deteriorating employment conditions, particularly for men in their 30s and 40s. Full-time employment eluded many in this group during the lost decade of the 1990s. Trapped in a succession of unstable and low-wage jobs, many of these men were effectively shut out of a career, and also found it more difficult to marry because they were perceived as being incapable of supporting a family. Marginalised from both career and family, many felt deprived of a sense of belonging and social identity.

At around 1.37, Japan’s total fertility rate is among the lowest in the world. Japan has the second-highest life expectancy in the world: 86 years for women and 79 years for men. It is estimated that by 2055 more than a third of the population will be over the age of 65. The productive population will thus decline, resulting in a shrinking tax base from which to provide pensions, welfare and medical care, and a smaller workforce to provide care for the elderly. The government’s efforts to raise the birth rate have been ineffective. This has led some commentators to talk about a ‘strike’ by young people, who are marrying later, if at all, and who are having children later, or having fewer or no children.

Until the 1990s it seemed unimaginable that immigrant workers would be part of the solution for dealing with the care deficit, but the government is now moving slowly in this direction through bilateral agreements with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Although a small number of people have passed the national examinations that allow them to stay long-term as certified nurses and carers, most of those entering Japan under these bilateral agreements will, in effect, be members of a rotating pool of short-term workers.

Non-profit organisations mediate the entry of such workers, and brokers who had hitherto helped entertainers or marriage migrants to enter Japan now focus on care workers. The immigrant brides who entered the country during the 1980s are increasingly engaged in care work — some in their marital households and others in more formal settings that require special training.

While Japan as a whole suffers the effects of the economic and demographic crises, these problems are most acutely felt in Northeast Japan. The population there was older and diminishing well before the Tohoku triple disaster. On 11 March 2011 less-mobile elderly people found it harder to reach safety and were less likely to be using the social media that were the major source of information on evacuation and relief. People over the age of 65 accounted for about two-thirds of bodies recovered. Communities already suffering from the economic recession, unemployment and the care deficit were plunged into a deeper crisis.

The effects of disasters are mediated by a society’s existing structures and thus reveal its fault lines. Although disaster planning since 2005 has explicitly noted the question of gender and national Plans for Gender Equality have explicitly mentioned disaster response, only 3.6 per cent of disaster preparedness council members at prefectural level were women. A quarter of prefectures had no female members at all.

In many of the communities affected by the tsunami and its aftermath women were in charge of caring for others, and so had to deal with the short supply of sanitary napkins and nappies (for babies as well as for the elderly), infant formula and baby food. The lack of privacy in shelters affected women especially, including nursing mothers.

Women have been conspicuously absent, not only from disaster planning and energy policy making, but from decision-making at all levels of Japanese society: women make up only 13 per cent of Diet members, 16.7 per cent of lecturers and above in higher education, 2 per cent of heads of government departments, and 4 per cent of CEOs.

In 2010 the CEDAW committee urged the Japanese government to undertake affirmative action to improve women’s participation in decision-making positions in government, the bureaucracy and business. The government responded with a plan aimed at increasing the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30 per cent in all fields by 2020.

The economic, demographic and environmental crises of recent years have revealed the gendered fault-lines in contemporary Japanese society, and the urgent need for more gender-inclusive decision-making.

Ayako Kano is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Vera Mackie is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Wollongong. Professor Mackie is also co-convener of the Annual Symposium of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia on ‘Australian Social Sciences in the Asian Century‘, to be held on 20 November 2012. 


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  • manhei

    It’s taken the Japanese government more than two decades to be affirmative in ensuring greater participation for women in decision-making, since its ratification of the CEDAW. It will be interesting to see what changes have taken place in women’s role on all fronts by 2020. Sometimes women’s greater participation does not simply refers to how many of them are there in the leadership positions, but also how their voice is received and taken seriously in decision-making. In the meantime and before 2020, what is to be expected concerning women’s status and benefits in Japanese society?

    • Ayako Kano

      Thanks for your comment. It’s true that simply having more women in leadership positions is not enough. But what can lead to women’s issues being taken seriously? The Japanese government is proposing 30% as a benchmark figure. It seems that a critical mass is needed to create momentum for change.

  • It was interesting that one of the problems of not having enough female leadership that this article seems to focus on is that issues more pertinent to women go ignored because nobody thinks of them at the decision-making levels. I am thinking specifically of the paragraph about the shelters, which detailed that the lack of privacy and the short supply of necessary care materials. This is an important concern.It made me think a lot more about the genders of society leaders–of course I agree that women should be represented more in leadership, but was this really necessary in order for those needs to have been addressed? In other words, could this not only be seen as a result of a lack of female leadership, but also as another example of bias, of the prioritizing of other concerns over “women’s” concerns? Women leaders present or not, male leaders in office should not be making habits of ignoring certain pressing demands simply because they cannot relate to them.

    • Ayako Kano

      Thanks for your comments–it’s true that the absence of women from leadership and planning cannot excuse the oversight of women’s concerns. But each of us has blind spots due to our different subject positions, which is why diversity of membership in, for example, emergency planning committees, can be crucial. It would increase the chances that the needs of different demographic groups would be addressed.

  • Julia Sher

    I found it incredibly interesting that although Japan’s legal framework promotes equality for men and women, social expectations have continued to limit women’s rights. In the last 60+ years, Japan has established the necessary legal infrastructure to provide women with equal political, social and legal rights. Yet, only once Japanese society alters its expectations about the role of women, will Japan likely begin to address the demographic crisis. The “double burden” of work and family that women face will likely continue to deter women from getting married. Women are still very much expected to care for their children regardless of whether they have a career. A 2002 documentary that I recently watched cited that Japanese men spend an average of 17 minutes a day with their children, while women spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on their children. This goes to show just how unbalanced the situation really is in Japan. It will be interesting to see how society alters its gender expectations over the next several decades. How dramatic will the changes be? I wonder if the idea of a “stay at home dad” will become a more accepted concept in Japan.

    • Ayako Kano

      The idea of a “dad who participates in childcare” has been the focus of popular discourse as well as policy discussions. Japan’s 3rd Basic Plan for a Gender Equal Society seeks to raise the time spent by dads on housework and childcare to 2.5 hours/day. This will require changes in the workplace as well. Thanks for your comment!

  • En Hao

    I find it both ironic and eerily unintuitive that women, who were largely in charge of post-disaster care and relief, were so underrepresented in the policy surrounding this issue prior to the disaster. I think in this aspect, it’s not just a women’s rights issue for the sake of equality, but also an issue of the ability to govern more effectively. After all, shouldn’t the people who will be performing a large part of the relief effort have their voices heard in such policy? When I think of such counterintuitive policy making, I cannot help but think of the recent US controversy surrounding birth control policy made by an all-male board. I think policies regarding women’s issues needs to have female representation, and we need to steer away from this outdated system of policy-making.

    • Ayako Kano

      Indeed, the problems of non-inclusive policy-making as well as of implementation are multifaceted and not easily resolved. It is not just a problem of excluding women, but also excluding the young. The demographic shift places more voting power in the older generation, which makes change more difficult.

  • Jen Ramos

    I agree with Gina Elia in the sense that it is ludicrous that male members of disaster planning committees show bias in the “prioritizing of other concerns over ‘women’s’ concerns.” While it is necessary that these committees be diversified and that women make up a large part of them, these men’s shoving of “female concerns” under the rug seems to hint at deeper prejudices. It is particularly telling that men in power want to be the “breadwinners” and expect women to be the “caretakers,” but they are unable to provide women with the proper resources to fulfill their expected roles. I also wonder, as the demographic crisis in Japan exacerbates, how much (if at all) the racial composition of Japan will change. Japan has notoriously been characterized as a “homogeneous” society that has trouble accepting foreigners. Even when the Japanese need immigrants to act as nurses, caretakers, or to simply supplement a diminished workforce, will non-Japanese workers be discriminated against and/or frowned upon?

    • Ayako Kano

      Your question about immigration as part of the solution for the demographic crisis is an important one. Many challenges remain on that front as well.

      The upcoming general elections (Dec. 16) will be interesting for a number of reasons. At the moment, there is a lot of fluidity and jockeying for position. The governor of Shiga prefecture (a woman) has recently announced a new political alliance whose platform includes getting Japan out of nuclear energy and creating more opportunities for women. The anti-nuclear stance is getting more coverage in the Japanese press, but here is an article that also includes the latter.