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Women’s Rights in Japan
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As the third-largest economy in the world, member of both G7 and G20, and a high-tech powerhouse, Japan is considered a role model, especially for scholars who focus on economic development. However, Japan’s record on women’s rights is one of the worst, if not the worst, among developed countries. Despite efforts in the past few decades that try to protect women’s rights in family life and the workplace, the gender gap in Japan has been widening in recent years. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020[1], Japan ranked 121 out of 153 countries, dropping from 110 out of 149 in 2018. Japan’s gender gap is larger than all the other developed countries and its East Asian neighbors, China and South Korea.

Japan’s gender inequality is reflected by the lack of employment opportunities and wage gap for women. OECD’s gender wage gap data updated in 2020 shows that the median earnings of women are 22.5% lower than men in Japan.[2] This is caused by the disparity in the quality of employment between men and women. Two-thirds of Japan’s non-regular (part-time and contract) employment positions are held by women, and only 45% of employed women have a permanent job.[3] In comparison, only 14.1 percent of men are employed in non-regular jobs in 2014.[4] Non-regular jobs tend to have lower wages. Unlike workers with permanent positions, those who are employed for non-regular jobs are not strongly protected from firings and layoffs by the laws, and hence tend to experience a more unstable career.

Moreover, inequality is also demonstrated by the inequality in the ratio of management positions that women hold. In 2013, Prime Minister Abe promised to remove the barriers for women to participate in the economy and set a goal that 30% of the leadership positions in Japan’s society should be filled by women by 2020. However, the ratio of management jobs held by women was even less than 15% in 2019. The government has admitted that they failed to achieve the goal and will push it back to 2030.[5]

A possible reason why women are so disadvantageous in Japan is that the traditional ideas about gender roles still prevail. A national survey in 2020 shows that married women are doing 2 to 3 times more housework than their husbands. About 36% of Japanese still agree with the statement that “A woman will always be happier in her role as a mother, rather than her professional life”. Moreover, with limited government support for childcare, women are forced to choose between pursuing their professional career or being a mother. Those who have to take time off for maternity leave will be offered positions with reduced hours and salaries when they return.[6] The reduction in salary and the lack of affordable childcare make working a less favorable option for mothers in Japan.

Another issue that is faced by women in Japan is the lack of political empowerment. While Prime Minister Abe asserted that his Womeconomics initiative would enable women to hold 30% of the leadership position in Japan, he only had one female member in his cabinet. At the start of 2020, only 15.8% of the ministers in Japan are women[7], and only 9.9% of the more powerful lower house of Japan’s parliament is made up of female lawmakers.[8] Despite the disparity between men and women in the government, women are often discriminated in their political party. In 2021, Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), announced that it would invite five female lawmakers as observers to its all-male board meeting. However, these female lawmakers were not allowed to talk during the meeting. They could only submit opinions afterward.[9]

A consequence of the lack of female lawmakers in the legislature of Japan is that the sexual assault laws are outdated and weak in terms of their protection of women. The law was implemented in 1907 and was finally amended for the first time in 2017.[10] Nevertheless, even though the 2017 amendment makes penalties for sexual assaults harsher, women are still required to prove that they physically resist during a sexual assault for an incident to be considered rape. Besides, victim-blaming is another factor that keeps Japanese women from speaking out. Over 95 percent of the sexual assaults are not reported to the police, as the public often blames the victim for discussing rape openly, which is still considered extremely “embarrassing” by a lot of Japanese.[11] For example, in January 2019, a former member of a j-pop girl idol group apologized to her fans for “making the public worry about her assault”.[12]

Although Japan has a developed economy, its record on gender equality is one of the worst among developed countries. To protect women from discrimination and assaults, policymakers should take immediate actions such as investing in early childcare, implementing new laws to promote higher wages for women, improve the current laws about maternity leave so that women won’t be forced to choose between having a child and their professional career. To ensure that these policy adjustments will come into place, the Womeconomics initiative should be expanded to ensure that the ratio of women leadership in the government and the economy will increase even above 30%. At the same time, the public, especially the media should bring-victim blaming to an end and encourage the women to speak out.

Beihao Chen is a senior at George Washington University, double majoring in International Affairs and Economics. He had done an internship as a research assistant at the Development Research Center of the State Council of the People's Republic of China.

[1] “Global Gender Gap Report 2020”, World Economy Forum, 16 December 2019, https://www.weforum.org/reports/gender-gap-2020-report-100-years-pay-equality

[2] “Gender wage gap”, OECD Data, Accessed on 01 May 2022, https://data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm

[3] Deanna Elstrom, Erina Miyazaki, and Yuko Yamanobe, “The Devil you know: Gender inequality in Japan”, Ipsos, 11 February 2022, https://www.ipsos.com/en/flair-collection/flair-japan-2022/gender-inequality

[4] Kazuo Yamaguchi, “Japan’s Gender Gap”, International Monetary Fund, March 2019, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/03/gender-equality-in-japan-yamaguchi.htm

[5] Deanna Elstrom, Erina Miyazaki, and Yuko Yamanobe, “The Devil you know: Gender inequality in Japan”, Ipsos, 11 February 2022, https://www.ipsos.com/en/flair-collection/flair-japan-2022/gender-inequality

[6] Deanna Elstrom, Erina Miyazaki, and Yuko Yamanobe, “The Devil you know: Gender inequality in Japan”, Ipsos, 11 February 2022, https://www.ipsos.com/en/flair-collection/flair-japan-2022/gender-inequality

[7] Chika Kitano, “Tackling gender inequality in the Japanese job market”, European Association for International Education, 23 June 2020, https://www.eaie.org/blog/gender-inequality-japan-job-market.html

[8] Mariko Oi, “Why Japan can't shake sexism”, BBC, 8th April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210405-why-japan-cant-shake-sexism

[9] “Japan's LDP party invites women to 'look, not talk' at key meetings”, BBC News, 17 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56095215

[10] Charlotte Jansen, “Japan Hasn't Updated Its Rape Laws Since 1907—But That Might Finally be Changing”, VICE, 1 March 2017, https://www.vice.com/en/article/vb4dmb/japan-hasnt-updated-its-rape-laws-since-1907but-that-might-finally-be-changing

[11] Teppei Kasai, “Japan’s not-so-secret shame”, Al Jazeera, 29 July 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2018/7/29/japans-not-so-secret-shame/

[12] Brooke Larsen, “Where Does Japan Stand In Its Approach To Women Rights in 2019?”, Savvy Tokyo, 21 May 2019, https://savvytokyo.com/where-does-japan-stand-in-its-approach-to-women-rights/

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