Japan leaves women behind


Japanese society remains a deeply gender-unequal one. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pronouncement in 2013 that he would create a society where women ‘shine’, most working women in Japan continue to languish on the periphery of the labour market in poorly paid and insecure work.

Female office workers wearing high heels, clothes and bags of the same colour make their way at a business district in Tokyo, Japan, 4 June 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

International rankings such as those composed by the World Economic Forum consistently rank Japan as one of the most gender-unequal countries in the developed world. But there is little, if any, gender gap in health and education — Japan’s low rank stems from inequality in the realms of political and economic empowerment.

At first glance, Japan’s workforce gender gap seems to be shrinking. More women than ever participate in paid labour. The labour force participation rate of women aged 25–54 increased from 66.5 per cent in 2000 to 76.3 per cent in 2016, overtaking the United States. And the pay gap is shrinking, if slowly — Japanese women now earn on average 73.4 per cent of what men do.

Yet the Japanese workforce continues to be vertically and horizontally gender segregated. Women occupy female-dominated industries that are generally not as well-paid as male-dominated industries and they are clustered around the lower rungs of the career ladders in most industries.

This segregation is manufactured by discrimination. University medicine departments, for example, manipulate intake examination results to cap female enrolments at 20 per cent. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of women doctors in Japan has hovered at around 20 per cent for 15 years.

The ‘dual-track’ white-collar hiring system is another example of workforce gender segregation implemented at the recruitment stage. Introduced at the time of the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, and still in use in large companies, the system puts most female recruits into a ‘clerical track’ employment category. 

Male recruits are placed in ‘managerial track’ roles, facilitating the concentration of men in managerial positions.

Given the corporate demands made of those aspiring to management — including international or domestic transfers and lengthy overtime work — and the fact that housework and childrearing continues to be carried out overwhelmingly by women, it is perhaps not surprising that most women do not choose the managerial track. This behaviour exhibits what Kumiko Nemoto calls ‘depressed aspirations’.

Depressed aspirations, a response to harsh working conditions in many Japanese workplaces, also partially explain the disproportionate number of women found in ‘non-standard’ employment. More than half of all female workers are non-standard, compared to a figure of 38 per cent for all workers.

Non-standard employment is a way for workers to escape the all-encompassing demands of full-time work, which generally require the sacrifice of family life, health and individual freedom.

Despite the working population in Japan shrinking since the 1980s, the number of jobs has increased by about 15 million. But almost of all these jobs are non-standard and it is mostly women and older people who fill them. From 1982 to 2012, the number of women employees rose from 14.5 to 24 million, with over 90 per cent of the jobs they took up being non-standard.

While female workforce participation rates have improved, the quality of jobs is declining for the working female population overall. 71.3 per cent of female high school graduates born between 1963 and 1967 became standard workers 20 years later, but this figure has been dropping rapidly. Only 48.4 per cent of women born in 1988–89 entered full-time work this century.


Dr Emma Dalton and Dr Caroline Norma a lecturers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.