Empowering the women of Japan

Author: Kimie Iwata, Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Diversity Management

The empowerment of women has been under discussion in Japan for over 40 years. In the 70s and 80s, it was usually discussed from a human rights perspective. In the 90s and 2000s, it was reframed as a response to Japan’s demographic issues — a persistently declining birth rate and shrinking labour force.

Today, many Japanese business leaders recognise women’s empowerment as critical for corporate growth. And they have started responding on a scale the country hasn’t seen before.

Commuters and an office worker wait for a train in Osaka, western Japan, 24 October 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Thomas White).

At a 2013 meeting with the heads of major business associations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tabled a request for businesses to allow three-year childcare leave for female employees. About a year later, Abe asked business leaders to appoint at least one female executive officer at each company as early as possible.

These requests demonstrated the two requirements that must be met in order to achieve women’s empowerment in Japan. The first is the continuation of women’s careers during childcare years. The second is women’s career development and promotion.

The latest data show that 53 per cent of Japanese women continue to work after childbirth. The trend is positive — this is the first time the figure has exceeded 50 per cent and means the number of working mothers is rising.

The figures for women’s career development and promotion are less encouraging. Women hold only 13 per cent of management positions and make up just 3 per cent of Japan’s executive officers. What are the big issues that Japanese companies need to address?

The first is to change their approach towards women’s work–life balance. Companies have focused on supporting childcare by allowing women to suspend their work through childcare leave and shorter working hours. Companies have competed to extend the length of these support periods.

But many companies have come to realise that while this approach might allow women to continue their career, it also impedes their career development and promotion. Employees develop capabilities by experience in the workplace. If corporate support focuses on exempting women from work for a long period, it makes it harder for them to develop skills and stunts their career development.

Accordingly, it is crucial to minimise work exemption and instead allow women to return to their full-time jobs as early as possible. To ensure women can work full time while taking care of children, organisations must eradicate the practice of long working hours and embrace flexible work styles, through initiatives such as flex-time and the right to work from home.

In supporting work–life balance, companies should shift their focus from women to men. While 82 per cent of working women take childcare leave, only 3 per cent of working men do. It will remain difficult to achieve women’s empowerment while husbands are not ready to accept greater responsibility for childcare and household work. It is an encouraging sign that among men — particularly younger men — this mindset has started to change, despite Japanese society’s deeply entrenched gender roles.

The second issue is changing the traditional work style. For some time, long working hours and uniform, inflexible work–time management have been common in many Japanese companies. These practices likely derive from the view that long hours contributed to manufacturers’ success during Japan’s high-growth period.

Men with full-time housewives have been able to take advantage of this work style, but it is not one suited to working couples, particularly where working mothers are concerned. Work-style reform is essential both to secure the continuation of women’s careers during the childcare period and to improve their chances of career development and promotion.

The growing prevalence of ‘non-regular’ workers has also had implications for women’s work opportunities.

There are two types of workers in Japanese companies. One is ‘regular’ workers, employed for an indefinite term. They often move workplaces and typically work long hours.

The other type is non-regular workers, who are employed for a fixed-term. They include part-time and contract workers. Non-regular workers perform a limited variety of jobs, usually remain at the same location and don’t work long hours. As a result, career development opportunities are limited and they are paid much less.

To reduce personnel costs, Japanese companies in recent years have employed a higher proportion of non-regular workers. More than half of working women are non-regulars. It will be difficult to achieve women’s empowerment without improving conditions for non-regular workers.

Positive action is needed to support women’s empowerment. Prohibiting gender discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities are basic requirements, but that will not be enough to eliminate gender inequality. Companies need to take a range of steps to narrow inequality more quickly.

The Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace requires companies to set numerical targets and formulate action plans, which are reported to the government and disclosed publicly. While these requirements are very soft, companies are incentivised to meet them. They are monitored by job applicants and the public through information disclosure.

Why does women’s empowerment deserve to be the core of Japan’s growth strategy? Companies with a diverse workforce — and this is not just limited to gender — are able to accurately identify the needs of diverse consumers. Employee diversity provides workplaces with diverse values, ways of thinking, interests and experience, which fuels innovation.

When these views were expressed to business leaders 10 years ago, the reception was often dubious. Now, they are on board. Japanese society is changing slowly but steadily.

Kimie Iwata is President of the Japan Institute for Women’s Empowerment and Diversity Management.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan repositions’.

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Richard S
19 November 2017 11:48 pm

Thanks for a thorough summary of this issue. While it agrees with info from other sources, some of the conclusions are weaker than could be.

For example, in 2014 PM Abe ‘asked’ corporations to appoint at least one female executive ‘as soon as possible.’ Clearly they have not done that. But neither has Abe increased the number of women in his cabinet. Nor has he instructed ministries in the government to increase the number of women in management or executive positions.

The point about more than half of women being so called non-regular workers is a valid one. Rather than improve their working conditions as non-regular workers, corporations should be pushed to hire more women into regular employment. That way women can earn more money and have greater chances for promotion.

The article does not mention that PM Abe is proposing a significant increase in child care programs in Japan. This would help support women who want to return to work after the birth of a child. Companies must be ‘incentivized,’ perhaps through tax breaks, to develop such programs on-site. Women whose pre-school aged children are cared for where they work can engage more productively in their jobs.

Per this author, ‘The Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace requires companies to set numerical targets and formulate action plans, which are reported to the government and disclosed publicly.’ Up to now, the targets are ‘soft.’ Clearly, the incentives to accomplish these targets are not strong enough to have really accomplished much progress. What can Abe do to make the targets firmer and/or higher? He could use tax breaks to motivate companies to hire/promote more women.

Business leaders may be ‘on board’ with these efforts. And with his ‘Abenomics’ the Prime Minister has talked ‘a good game.’ But women continue to struggle to gain a more secure foothold and to contribute more in the economy. And Japan’s birthrate remains precariously low. It is time for ‘asking,’ ‘soft targets,’ and weak incentives to change. Abe is a strong leader when it comes to the issues the country is facing with N Korea. He needs to exhibit the same strength and proactivity with these domestic issues at home.

Earl H. Kinmonth
20 November 2017 2:21 am

“a persistently declining birth rate”

This claim is patently false. The Japanese fertility rate (aka birth rate) bottomed in 2006 and has been rising slowly since then.

The number of births has declined because the number of women in the child bearing years has declined but the propensity of women to have children (the birth rate) has been going up.

This is clear from the data published by numerous sources. For example, this Japanese government source explicitly shows that the birth (fertility) rate has been rising.


As the Japanese text states 近年は微増傾向が続いており、2015 年は、1.45 と前年より0.03 ポイント上回った in recent years there has a been a continuous albeit small increase.

There was a slight dip last year but overall the pattern has been one of increase for more than a decade.

21 November 2017 10:26 am

Thanks, Earl, for the info and the link to the website. Per this site the birthrate has climbed from 1.26 in 2005 to 1.45 in 2015. Yes,it has clearly increased. But it is still way below the so called replacement rate: where families are having enough babies for the population to at least stabilize if not rise. At this rate of increase will Japan be able to overcome its demographic challenges where the older folks are increasing faster than the society can provide for them?