The Bamboo Ceiling – Gender Equality in Japan

The role of women in the workplace and in the home in Japan continues to be commented on in the press both inside and outside of Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has actively promoted increasing the numbers of women in the workforce as being an integral part of Japan’s economic recovery – refer to my earlier post Abenomics

The intent to have more women contribute through participation in the workforce has been well signaled but interestingly, many indications are that this will be a difficult task. Underpinning the drive to have more women – and elderly – participate in the workforce [apart from the static birth rate and growing elderly population] is the lack of societal appetite to bolster labour numbers through immigration, barring low paid roles and at the other end of the spectrum, highly skilled professionals

This post attempts to concentrate the thinking expressed in a number of articles from international publications. The conclusions drawn are consistent and it is helpful to refer to well-researched reports and papers to contextualise the reportage

What The Diplomat  is Saying

The first article, from The Diplomat, discusses the challenges in growing the role of women in the workforce given the societal expectation of motherhood and wifeliness as key expectations for women in Japan

Written by Kyla Ryan, the article explores participation and subsequent challenges by Japanese women in the workplace on the back of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assertion that women and aged people will fill a labour shortfall in the workforce to enable his economic imperative. The article makes the valid point that improving the opportunities for women in a male dominated workplace goes beyond changing the current workplace paradigm. It also requires reconsidering and redefining the perceptions and expectations of women’s roles in Japanese society

Reference is made to the interesting Global Gender Gap Report which provides a measured perspective of Japan’s relative position internationally [explored later in this post] – Japan’s ranking on gender equality, based on the data, is 105th out of 136 surveyed countries. Some interesting additional and supporting information is provided via a McKinsey report looking at the participation of women in Asian society

Historical impacts on traditional gender values in Japan are covered in the article.  It looks at the Meiji period influence, through to World War II, where women were mobilised to fill the industrial labour shortage. Post-war, an attempt was made to promote equality via the Japanese Constitution. And in recent times, the adoption of the concept of “Girl Power” – Jyoshi-ryoku

Women working in Japan face poor promotion prospects, poor pay parity and the perception that they will just leave to have children and/or marry. And of course the expectation is that loyalty to the company takes precedence in the workplace, irrespective of output; the long hours place pressure on women to juggle children, family commitments and work

Interestingly an aspect of the Japan tax system disincentives spouses [mostly women] from earning more than 1.03 million yen per annum given that any more earned negatively impacts on the primary earner’s tax deductions

Abe’s desire to boost the number of women in the workplace appears to be a very long term target, in my opinion, based on the issues explored in the article

The Global Gender Gap Report

A great report, referred to in the previous article, has been generated as a follow up to an earlier 2006 Global Gender Gap Report, commissioned in the first instance by the World Economic Forum It objectively provides comparative data to show the relationship between males and females in a whole range aspects. The data was broken down into four key areas of focus, being:

  • Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • Educational Attainment
  • Health and Survival
  • Political Empowerment

These sub-topics roll up into an over-all ranking for up to 136 countries in 2013  [115 in 2006]

The defined relationships – as a ratio – between female and male [in that order] are accounted for in the metrics on a scale of 0 to 1. Zero equates to no female participation in each of the metrics, one equates full equality between female and male.  The ratios focus only on outcome variables not input activities

What I have done is extracted key comparative data for Japan, New Zealand and the United States in an attempt to provide a relevant view of performance between each country. For the exhaustive analysis, click on the Global Gender Gap Report link and read the detailed report

Summation of some data:

  • Japan ranks overall 105th out of 136 countries for gender equality on the measured elements
  • Japan ranks 104th out of 136 countries for Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • Japan ranks 91st out of 136 countries for Educational Attainment
  • Japan ranks 33rd out of 136 countries for Health and Survival
  • Japan ranks 118th out of 136 countries for Political Empowerment





One area where Japan is doing very well is in the provision of maternity leave as can be seen here, although application of the provision [anecdotally] appears to be judiciously applied and non-compliance seldom enforcedGGG3









Japan Times  Survey Article

The article from July 13, 2014 [and repeated in Japan Times On Sunday news July 20, 2014] highlights the result of a recent survey effected by Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness. In summary:

40% of surveyed Japanese [between 20 and 40 years old] think that husbands should work full time and the women should be at home raising the children


  • 39.3% of male respondents believe this
  • 43% female respondents believe this


  • 34% of unmarried males believe this
  • 38% of unmarried females believe this


  • 42.5% of married males believe this
  • 46.1% of married females believe this


  • 64.4% of males feel that women should concentrate on parenting
  • 70.9% of females feel that women should concentrate on parenting

Bloomberg – Womenomics Goals Risk Failure

An April 2014 article written by Maiko Takahashi and Isabel Reynolds discusses the insights of Gender Equality Minister Masako Mori [pictured]

Masako Mori

  • Shinzo Abe is targeting 30% of civil servant management positions by 2020
    • Unless candidates are hired from private enterprise that level won’t be reached
  • One year after the election, 3% of supervisory roles within the civil service are filled by women
  • Long working hours, lack of opportunities for women and problems finding day-care for children continue to stifle progress
  • Normally it takes 20 years to reach the rank of section chief
  • Women made up 12% of new recruits for the bureaucratic top echelon in 1994
  • The number of working women rose by less than 2% in 2013
  • The OECD has pushed for policies of spending more on day-care, making changes to seniority-based remuneration systems and shorter hours


The Financial Times – Standing by Japan’s Immigration Controls

The article, written by Jonathon Sobe highlights the Japanese government’s desire to minimise immigration despite a falling population and subsequently, a diminishing workforce

  • Japan’s labour force has been decreasing since the 1990’s
  • The population in  Japan peaked in 2008 with just over 130 million people
  • By 2100’s, the population is forecast to be one half to one third of what it is today – without intervention
  • The government wants to fill low paid jobs, where there are acute shortages, with foreigners
  • Foreign skilled professionals and technical workers are being encouraged to take permanent residency
  • A proposal to increase the number of foreign immigrants by 200,000 per annum has “gone nowhere”
  • There is a national perception that increased immigration equals increased crime
  • The article covers a great – and typical – case study of Brazilian born Japanese returning to Japan to fill a labour shortage and the social assimilation issues experienced, even today

Japan Times – The Immigration Policy is looking Solid

The article in Japan Times, written by Chris Burgess, looks at the solid “No Immigration” policy that the Japanese government [and arguably society] is keen to perpetuate

  • A former Justice Ministry official and director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, Hidenori Sakanaka, has advocated bringing in 10 million immigrants into Japan over the next 50 years
  • This is driven by “a mountain” of demographic evidence of a declining AND aging population along with the subsequent shrinking workforce
  • A national perception of cultural, political and social homogeneity seems to secure the fact that immigration has little part to play in Japan’s future
  • Again the national perception that immigration results in higher crime rates is raised
  • Increasing the number of women and elderly in the workforce seems to be the only available solution

And finally, An International Comparison of Gender Equality: Why is the Japanese Gender Gap so Persistent?

A paper by Margarita Estévez-Abe from Syracuse University and Collegio Carlo Alberto, Turin, Italy

In it, she explores the “institutional condition that promotes gender [e]quality in the market place and shows those conditions are largely lacking in Japan”

An easily understood paper with graphic illustration of some of the issues and great comparative data from a number of countries. Some examples

Gender equality1

Gender equality

Links to all articles mentioned above



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s