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Japan: why workplace sexism remains endemic

October 09, 2022
topics: Women's rights
by: Sasha Kong
located in: Japan
tags: #metoo, gender equality, Japan, Sexism, sexual harassment, women's rights

Japanese women are still largely encouraged to become full-time homemakers and raise children, as rigid gender roles in post-war Japan remain strong, leaving the developed nation far behind its peers when it comes to gender equality at workplace.

As the highly-anticipated Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were blighted by COVID-19 waves, a different kind of scandal involving the games grabbed global media's attention: Japan's then-prime minister and organising committee chief Yoshiro Mori was caught saying that women "talk too much," and that having female board members in the meetings meant they would "drag on."

Mori's remark had triggered a wave of protests from female lawmakers and hundreds of volunteers withdrew their applications. Prime Minister Mori had to apologise, and later resigned over the outcry. 

Fast forward a year later, the former leader of the world’s third-largest economy insisted that he was "scolded for telling the truth."

This was merely one of countless incidents involving gender inequality and discrimination that Japanese women face at the workplace.

Out of 156 countries, Japan ranks 120 in the Global Gender Gap Index report of the World Economic Forum. 

Former prime minister Shinzo Abe attempted to change that, and promoted the "womenomics" policy, which sought to boost female employment between 2013 and 2020. The number of women working in Japan rose to 72 percent, but the average income of Japanese women remains over 40 percent lower than their male counterparts. 

Women are also underrepresented in the job market: Less than 15 percent of senior roles in Japanese workplaces are held by women - compared with 42 percent in the US, 40 percent in Sweden and 15.6 percent in neighbbouring South Korea. In Japan’s parliament, the National Diet, only one in 10 lawmakers and ministers are women.

Deeply entrenched gender roles

One reason for this state of affairs is that Japanese workplaces are still dominated by older men who mostly hold outdated views of women, according to Dr Kumiko Nemoto, professor of management in the School of Business Administration at Tokyo’s Senshu University.

"Some of the very old generations of Japanese leaders do not hesitate to employ traditional gender beliefs and prejudices in decision making scenes," Dr Nemoto told FairPlanet.

"Japanese politics and businesses [continue] to be dominated by the elderly men who have maintained their private and public lives based on the pre-WWII and pre-modern patriarchy and authoritarian views of women.

"Thus, it is not surprising that they simply see Japanese women either as housewives or their assistants who are to serve men both in private and in public."

these stereotypical perceptions of women run so deep in Japanese society that a prestigious medical school in Tokyo was found to have been curtailing women’s test scores for at least a decade. School officials wanted to limit admission and job opportunities in the field for women, fearing they might quit their positions after marriage.  

"This belief that women’s place is at home and [with the] family [originates in] Japan’s pre-war national gender ideology, which was encouraged by the Japanese government," the business expert explained, adding that "such strong gender beliefs viewing a woman as a caretaker or homemaker continue to hamper women’s career development even in professional fields in Japan."

The adherence to these rigid gender roles also means that men are expected to work hard and spend less time assuming child-rearing responsibilities. So deep-rooted are these views that a Japanese minister taking a paternity leave in 2020 still managed to spark a social media storm.

The East Asian nation offers one of the longest paternity leaves in the region, but as few as 7.5 percent of employed fathers actually took advantage of this leave in 2021, an OECD report shows. 

Sexual harassment

In the government’s most recent survey on sexual harassment, one in three women reported to have experienced such harassment at work, with about 40 percent being touched against their will or asked sex-related questions.

However, less than 40 percent of them actually filed a complaint, and of those who spoke out, one in 10 said they received penalties. 

In 2017, freelance journalist Shiori Ito made a rare move and publicly accused prominent television journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi of raping her after they had met to discuss a job offer. Ito was slammed on social media for being "seductive" and "ruining" the reputation of a senior journalist in a society that also maintains a rigid age hierarchy.

A male lawmaker even said that Ito’s rape was "errors on her part as a woman" as "being able to properly turn down" is a skill. 

Yamaguchi denied the allegations against him and said the sex was consensual; he even counter-sued Ito for damaging his reputation. In 2019, Ito secured a victory in a civil lawsuit amid the outpouring of support from women’s rights advocates in Japan and overseas.  

"The Japanese public and media initially did not support her [and] even blamed her," said Dr Nemoto, "but Japanese people now see her victory in the lawsuit positively and are inclined to show more understanding about sexual violence and harassment." She added, however, that she believes victim-blaming remains rife nonetheless in Japanese society. 

Progress on the horizon? 

Many hope that Ito’s high-profile victory would pave the way for female victims of assault and discrimination to speak out at workplaces and beyond.

In 2021, Tokyo revised its gender law to include a clause on eliminating sexual harassment in politics, but critics have reservations about its impact, citing the law’s lack of influence. 

Experts say that the atmosphere in Japanese companies has been changing, however, with companies hiring more female board members due to pressure by foreign investors. They say women in Japan find less motivation to take up leadership roles due to societal norms, and encourage them to find peers and role models in order to explore their strength in careers.

Additional trainings and activities are suggested to be offered to women to gain confidence in pursuit of leadership positions. 

Dr Nemoto urged more diversity in senior positions, not just in gender, but also in age. 

"Currently, most decision makers and leaders in Japanese organisations are elderly men," she said, "and their gender biases and expectations continue to shape the Japanese workplace and organisational customs."

Image by Victorinao Izquierdo.

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
Author
Japan
Out of 156 countries, Japan ranks 120 in the Global Gender Gap Index report of the World Economic Forum.
Former prime minister Shinzo Abe's “womenomics” policy sought to boost female employment between 2013 and 2020.
The average income of a Japanese woman is over 40 percent lower than her male counterpart.
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