Author: Emma Dalton, RMIT
Gender inequality is a stubbornly entrenched problem for Japan. It ranked 120 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) Report 2021, which measures the gap between men and women in political representation, economic empowerment, education and health. This puts Japan at the bottom of the ladder among the developed world.
In comparison, neighbouring China, South Korea and Singapore were ranked 107, 102 and 54 respectively, while the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom were ranked 30, 24, 50 and 23 respectively. What is remarkable about these reports is the fact that Japan’s ranking has not improved over time, unlike in other countries.
In 2006, the first year the Report was published, Japan ranked 79 out of 115 countries while France and Bangladesh ranked 70 and 91 respectively. France and Bangladesh gradually narrowed their gender gaps, rising to 16 and 65 by 2021. Japan has not followed the trend of other countries — even those not considered ‘advanced democracies’ — in closing the gender gap.
Japan’s poor GGI ranking is due to women holding low status positions in the workforce and the underrepresentation of women in politics. Although 77 per cent of Japanese women work today — a higher rate than the OECD average of 66 per cent — more than half of them are employed in non-regular roles. In comparison, less than a third of working men hold non-regular positions. ‘Non-regular’ work includes temporary, part-time or casual jobs that offer limited security, few benefits, low wages and low prestige.
Japanese women’s salaries hardly rise throughout their career. Men and women usually start working in their 20s, where they receive similar average monthly salaries of 214,600 and 209,200 yen (US$1600 and US$1560) respectively. By their late 50s, the average working Japanese man will be earning 420,100 yen (US$3130) per month, while his female counterpart will only be earning 271,100 yen (US$2020), a minor increase from her starting salary.
The increased number of women entering the workforce has brought about some positive shifts in workplace cultures and practices. The tea lady, or ochakumi — once a mainstay of the Japanese workplace — has mostly vanished. Legislation and heightened awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination have, to some extent, influenced management practices.
Although the practice of having a female ochakumi is vanishing from workplaces, often for economic reasons rather than social ones, the idea that women should pour tea or serve drinks still permeates the social culture. During after-work parties or dinner events outside the workplace, women find themselves obligated to pour alcoholic beverages for their male colleagues.
Sexual harassment like physical touching and sexist comments at these after-work social events is also common. The divide between how men behave at work and after work suggests that while the new legislation is certainly a step in the right direction, shedding harmful social stereotypes and eradicating sexist behaviours might take a bit longer.
Japan has done very little to address the lack of women in politics. In 2019, the Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field (the Gender Parity Law) was implemented to increase the number of women elected to office. Regrettably, this law contains no enforcement mechanism and so has had minimal effect. The 2021 Lower House election saw the number of women representatives drop to 45 — two fewer than in the 2017 election.
The key to getting more women into politics, at least at the national level, lies with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP has controlled the National Diet almost continuously since 1955, but is opposed to introducing gender quotas.
The 2022 Upper House election will be the third national level election since the Gender Parity Law was introduced. So far, the CDPJ, the SDP and the JCP have achieved or exceeded their target of 50% female candidates. The LDP, by contrast, has no target and around less than a quarter of its candidates are women. Unless the Gender Parity Law is given teeth, it is very difficult to predict a significant increase in the number of women elected to the Diet.
There is also the question of supply. Do many women in Japan want to run for office? Given the hurdles facing politically ambitious women, it is perhaps not so surprising that many women are put off by the idea. As for all working women, sexual harassment and assault is one of those hurdles. For women to enter politics, legislative councils and parliaments need to be attractive workplaces.
Eradicating sexual harassment from all workplaces should be a priority. In 2021, the Gender Parity Law was revised to include a clause on eliminating sexual harassment in politics. While a welcome development, given the lack of influence the law has had so far, it is difficult to be optimistic about the potential impact of this revision.
Dr Emma Dalton is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).