Articles Japan Japan Futures

Gender Equality Policy in Japan: Current Difficulties and Signs of Change

Written by Shunta Mori

Shunta Mori


In the 1980s and the early 1990s there were three camps competing for representation of women’s roles in Japan: the Neotraditionalists; “New Women”; and Radical Egalitarians. Neotraditionalists promoted the idea that women’s primary roles were as wives and mothers. New Women believed in “the primacy of wife-mother role but believed that women should also be able to play other roles simultaneously and on an equal basis with men. Any individual pursuits, however, must fall within the limits imposed by home duties” (Pharr and Lo, 1993, 1704-1705). Radical Egalitarians maintained that women should be treated on an equal basis with men across all arenas of life. Pharr and Lo argued that the majority of women in Japan during the 1980s and the early 1990s were divided into either the Neotraditionalists or the New Women, while the social circumstances had been changing in favor of New Women. They remarked, however, that the gender stereotypes of motherhood and of practices in the workplace were likely to remain (Pharr and Lo, p.1705). The radical egalitarians, although salient in the media and urban communities, had little support in Japan in the 1980s and the early 1990s.


It was in this climate that the design of the “gender equality” policy underwent development and was finally passed in 1999 in the form of the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society” by the Japanese national government. The law reflected the radical egalitarian idea described above. Its objectives were to weaken and nullify the gendered division of labor “men at work and women at home,” to promote women to work without interrupting their career after childbirth, and at the same time to encourage men to commit themselves to child care and homemaking. Given the fact that the ideology of gendered division of labor was still strong in Japanese society, the law was quite remarkable in its objectives, even compared to what could be called “the international standard”.


In this chapter I will outline the gender equality policy and discuss its historical context. Then I will delineate the difficulties the policy encounters in Japanese society. I shall point out backlashes from the conservatives which reflect the deeply rooted idea of the gendered division of labor.[i] I will also examine contemporary gender divisions in the workplace. Finally, I will discuss signs of change that may influence Japan’s future, noting several emerging trends including: an increasing level of commitment amongst younger men to child care; a growing number of corporations implementing the “positive actions” of gender equality; and a slow but steady breakdown of the Japanese management system which is built upon the gendered division of labor.


In short, I will argue that the policy has been making gradual changes in Japanese society.  I conclude by asking whether this cumulative, aggregative change can take gender equality from policy to social reality, and whether it will truly take hold in a Japan of the near future. I shall answer the question in part by illustrating that gender equality in Japanese society at large can be achieved if gender equality can become actualized at work. To meet that objective, however, both a transformation of the ideology of the gendered division of labor and the Japanese management practice based on that ideology are necessary. In other words, the crux of gender equality in Japan lies in the degree to which child care and work are seen as compatible pursuits. The future of Japanese society depends on the success of gender equality policy, and in turn the future of gender equality policy depends on the extent to which work and child care become compatible. This requires changing a gender-based division of labor both at home and in the workplace.[ii]


My arguments are based on the following data: 87 interviews conducted from December 2002 to December 2007, consisting of 35 college students (25 women and 10 men) and 52 Japanese workers from a variety of professions (30 women and 22 men).[iii] In addition, I utilized a survey research “Report on the Conditions of and Supports for Child Raising in Shizuoka Prefecture.” The research, conducted in 2004 by a research institute associated with a labor union, collected structured and unstructured responses.[iv] Also, I drew data and insights from the research survey “How are Men Balancing Their Work and Family?: A Research Project on Gender Equality,” conducted in 2007. The project was financed by the Shizuoka Prefecture Bureau of Gender Equality.[v]


I also examined documents and minutes of councils of the national, prefectural and municipal governments on gender relations. Having served as the chair of three municipal gender equality councils and also a member of a prefectural council on gender equality from 2000 to 2008, I was able to witness the dynamic processes of instituting policies of gender equality. The analysis will use direct quotes from my interviews and statistical data of the national and prefectural levels to support my arguments.


The law, its historical context and implementation


The Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society


First of all, let me briefly describe the Law for a Gender-equal Society and put it in historical context. The Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society was established in 1999 (Law No. 78 of 1999). The government site in English states:


A gender-equal society is a society in which both men and women, as equal members, have the opportunity to participate in all kinds of social activities at will, equally enjoy political, economical and cultural benefits, and shared responsibilities. In such a society, the human rights of men and women are equally respected. Women who desire an active role in society may participate in activities of their own choosing, while men could enjoy a fulfilling home and community life. A gender-equal society is a society built by men and women as equal partners.

(Gender Information Site, “What’s Gender-Equal Society?”


The policy was quite remarkable in its content, clearly stating the equity of both genders and the relative nature of gender. Articles 4 and 15 in particular were unprecedented in comparison to the remit of such laws in other nations. These articles referred to social systems, social practices and policies with any impact on the formation of a gender-equal society as objects to be scrutinized and made “gender-neutral” by the national and local governments. Such a policy could have a far-reaching effect if rigidly followed by authorities and the state’s legal machineries.[vi]


The historical context of the Law for a Gender-equal Society


The establishment of the policy of gender equality was of course the result of the cumulative efforts of many who believed in the cause in Japan, both in and out of the government. For example, the movement to promote gender equality gained further momentum since International Women’s Year was established by the United Nations in 1975. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 also had a strong impact on advancement of women’s movements in Japan, as well as in other parts of the world. While both governmental and non governmental movements had been important in realizing the gender-equal policy, there were other factors contributing to the policy.


There was also a major political factor, which worked in favor of the promoters of gender equality policies in convincing the conservatives.[vii] The conservatives had been quite anxious about the declining birth rate in Japan, which reached 1.29 in the year 2004 and the record low of 1.25 in 2005. The rate increased to 1.32 in 2006 and 1.32~1.33 in 2007. But these increases were due to births of the third generation baby boomers in Japan, thus the trend of decline is expected to continue in the long run. The decline was due to the growing number of: unmarried women; women who married at an older age; and women who chose not to bear children. Of those who chose to have children, many had only one child although they thought that the ideal number of children to have was two or more. The gap was due to factors such as the high financial cost, (child care, schooling etc.), as well as the perceived physical and mental burden of raising children.


The conservatives were convinced that the demographic combination of the declining birth rate and the rapid growth of the aged population would result in a serious labor shortage and a chronic deficit in the social security fund, which was already in effect. However, unlike in many other advanced nations such as the United Kingdom and France, the Japanese government was still quite strict in maintaining a low level of foreign workers. Foreign workers have never been considered as a major solution to the labor shortage in Japan.[viii] One feasible solution, therefore, would be to further the incorporation of women into the labor market. Under these circumstances, the Gender Equality Law would provide the solution to this problem of labor shortage.


The State legislature passed two laws in 2003 as a part of the governmental effort to reverse the continuously declining birth rate. The Basic Law in response to the declining number of children declared that the citizen has a responsibility to find happiness in family and raising children. The “Law to Support Raising the Next Generation”, a law effective for 10 years, stated that a deeper understanding of the importance of raising children is necessary in families, organizations, and communities, and that the act of raising children had to be a satisfactory activity. Despite their quite dogmatic tone, these laws specified concrete plans to realize these goals. The two laws were considered to be in accordance with the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society, which in effect was calling for the creation of better social environments for women to raise children while working.


In addition to the potential that Gender Equality Law offered for solving the problems of an aging Japan, the rhetoric of “international accordance” had also been a major force in advancing gender equality policy in Japan. Here, the gender equality movement had taken advantage of an UN-centered international climate to influence those in power in Japan, especially the state legislators and the government. This rhetoric saw Japan as lagging behind the other nations regarding the position of women in society based on statistical data sensitive to gender. For example, according to the 2006 Human Development Report  published by the United Nations Development Plan, while Japan stood 7th in the Human Development Index (indicating a quality level of daily life based on average life expectancy, educational standard, GDP), Japan stood 42nd in the Gender Empowerment Measure (indicating the degree of women’s participation in decision making processes). When the CEDAW (United Nation’s Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) reviewed the report on the situation of gender equality presented by the government, members of the commission criticized Japan on its slow improvement in the condition of gender equality. Those comments also included criticism that discriminatory remarks against women were still being made by government officials and politicians. The Japanese government admitted the situation in general. The official web site of the Gender Equality Bureau stated as follows:


[A]lthough gender equality has more or less been achieved in Japan as far as laws and legislations are concerned, women’s participation in the policy- and decision-making processes remains insufficient, and women still have few opportunities to realize their full potential. The traditional tendency to view men’s participation in housework and child-rearing as unmanly and the heavy burden of housework, child care and nursing that is still placed on women testify to the fact that Japan is lagging behind other countries in terms of gender equality. (Italics by the author) (Gender Information Site, “What’s Gender-Equal Society?”


This official acknowledgement of the situation materialized as Article 7 of the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society, which specifically stated “international cooperation” as a necessary condition of the law. In this context, international cooperation meant that Japan should be aware of its dishonorable position regarding gender-equality in the international community, especially that of the advanced nations, where gender-equality has become the global standard. I argue that those who promoted gender equality in Japan appealed to the resulting sense of “shame” and set about manipulating the psychological complex of the conservatives, who felt that they had to keep “face” as an advanced nation.


While the two laws aiming to reverse the trend of decreasing birth rate were written and implemented swiftly, the proposal for civil law reform, aiming to increase women’s legal power in the family, has been stuck in the State legislature due to the resistance by the conservatives since 1996. The conservatives have been particularly opposed to the part of the proposed reform which would make it much easier for women to keep their maiden family name after legal marriage. They felt that this family name reform directly challenged what they see as Japan’s patriarchal social structure. The conservatives’ persistent resistance to the name reform is an indication of the strong gender ideology in Japan, and this ideology finally resulted in backlashes to the Gender Equality movement.


Backlashes to the Gender-Equality Movement in Japan


Following the establishment of the Gender Equality Law, there have been many critical reactions, which can together be characterized as a “backlash” movement. One reactionary statement claimed the policy was a conspiracy of radical feminists disrespecting Japan’s cultural traditions. The conservatives in particular focused their criticism on the notion of a “gender-free” society. A major reactionary remark came in November 2002 when the Chief Secretary of the Cabinet at that time, Fukuda, (later Prime Minister), stated that “as long as sexual differences between men and woman exist, differences between men and women will continue to exist.” This statement was seen to support traditional gender role models, providing an opening for the reinterpretation of the basis of gender equality. The fact that the statement was issued by the top official in charge of the national Bureau of Gender Equality served to legitimize the conservatives’ traditional view of gender relations and unleash their criticisms against the Gender Equality Law and it supporters. The government decided not to use the term “gender-free” in official documents, and local governments followed that decision.


The conservatives who were against the Gender Equality Law had begun to openly make sexist remarks. For example, a state legislator advocated sexual aggressiveness of male students when he commented on a planned group rape committed by university students by stating “A young man should be energetic enough to want to commit rape.” A former prime minister stated that women who do not bear children are unqualified for receiving social security support such as pensions. In August 2004, the educational commission of Tokyo Metropolitan District, headed by the right wing politician Shintaro Ishihara, ruled out a guideline suggesting abolishing a gender-separated school students’ roll. The commission ruled the student roll a discretionary matter of school principals, but stated that the idea of a ‘gender free’ society is dangerous for society, especially in the sphere of education.


To the conservatives, who once supported the Gender Equality Law unanimously, the Gender Equality Policy reappeared as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”[ix] As local communities began to establish their own laws reflecting the specific features of each community, the conservatives both at the national and local levels had begun to realize the progressive nature of the policy and felt threatened by it. Several prefectures and municipalities had either decided not to make such laws or in fact made laws in which the content did not observe the principle of the national law, especially the idea of a gender-free society. Ube City in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2002 set up a gender equality ordinance which assumed traditional gender differences. The conservative ruled legislature of Chiba Prefecture, headed by a female governor Domoto, turned down a gender equality ordinance plan in 2002. Chiba prefecture is the only prefecture in Japan without gender equality ordinance. The legislature of Kagoshima prefecture passed an appeal to abolish any gender-free education.


The rhetoric of international accordance for the realization of gender equality worked at the national governmental level in spite of occasional reactionary remarks, but the rhetoric meant little at the local level. Even in the majority of local communities where ordinances followed the basic ideas of the national law, tensions existed in the process of making and implementing such ordinances. Through my participation in writing, passing and maintaining such ordinances of gender equality in local communities, I encountered resistance from the citizens, representatives, and local government staff. One such resistance strategy was a blunt rejection of the very idea of gender equality. For example, a male member of the council of gender equality of a city in the central part of Japan stated that “men and women are biologically different, thus social and cultural roles are different. The gender equality ordinance must honor such roles and characteristics.” Further resistance to the gender-free idea came in the form that it is contrary to the Japanese tradition of gender. These responses were not unusual in community and legislative meetings where local councilors would solicit the opinions of citizens. A man in his late 60s stated that “the term gender-free means a total abolishment of the male and female virtues of Japanese culture. We should not treat men like women and women like men.”


In addition, apathy among some local government officials was prevalent. In workshops and lectures that I had given on gender-equality in general, many middle-aged and older male officials expressed little interest in promoting it. Generally, female officials were eager in promoting the idea of the Gender Equality Law, but many in smaller communities felt isolated and quite a few of them were reluctant to be promoted to positions of responsibility because of burdens, such as long working hours resulting in sacrificing their time and energy for family duties, and being labeled as “feminists,” by both men and women.


These backlashes reflected the deep roots of the gender stereotype, “men at work and women at home”, in Japanese society in general. I shall now turn to explore how this gender stereotyping is built into the system of Japanese management. I will set out to demonstrate that the gendered division of labor in the family and workplace are interdependent on each other for their existence. If change does not occur in one conceptual arena, the other remains intact. And likewise, if one changes, the other will necessarily change. I believe that acknowledgement of, and action with regard to, this interlocking mechanism is the major challenge of gender equality policy-making.


Gender division in the work place


The main objective of the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society was to improve the working environment so that more women can work full time and raise children without interrupting their careers due to child care responsibilities. However, this objective has not been achieved. In the early 2000s, about 40 percent of the workforce were women and 60 percent of employed women were married. Also, between 30 and 40 percent of employed females worked part-time. Because about 60 percent of the employed women were married regardless of employment status, the figure would be even higher for part time women employees. In other words, the majority of female part time workers were married women. Surveys indicated that about a half of women in urban areas believe that women should quit work at childbirth until children reach school age.


I argue that the reason for the slow increase in women filling full time worker positions lies in the fact that the expected amount and style of full time work in Japan is so demanding that workers, regardless of gender, are expected to sacrifice their private family lives. Furthermore, as I described before, the gendered division of labor, “men at work and women at home,” still remains firmly embedded in Japanese society, thus working mothers cannot expect much support from their husbands for childcare and housework. Considering this combination of the gendered division of labor on the one hand, and the heavy demands of full-time work on the other, it is understandable that women and their husbands too, would be reluctant to decide to continue working full time while attempting to raise children at the same time.


In her study comparing two generations of mothers with four-year university degrees, Sasagawa argued that mothers from the younger generation now have the choice to “pursue a career and climb the ladder of professional success if they have strong motivation and sufficient childcare support” (2004, p.184). It is true that the number of working mothers has been increasing slowly but steadily, and among them are those who hold managerial positions. Sasagawa also pointed out that a variety of childcare support services are available in Japan, and younger working mothers are asking and getting support from their husbands for housework and childrearing (p.185). I agree with Sasagawa about the prevalence of childcare services. The quality and cost of childcare services in Japan is better on average than many advanced countries. However, I would point out that despite the availability and quality of childcare support, the majority of women leave their work at childbirth because they feel the dual responsibilities of working full time and mothering to be too demanding, both physically and mentally. The amount of help they can get from their husbands is usually not sufficient to allow them to become full time working mothers.


Let me illustrate this point with some quotes from the interviews I conducted with students and working women and men in their 20s and 30s. Masako, 21, a junior at a four-year university says[x]:


My father’s days are just work. He goes to work early in the morning and returns home late at night, sometimes after midnight. Even at weekends, he often has to go to the office or on business trips. He looks tired all the time, and he even has some chronic problems with his health. I feel sorry for him. I plan to find a job I like upon graduation. Almost all of the women who graduated from this university are working at various companies. They say working is much harder than being a student. But even so, they are satisfied. They are real adults, you see, an ichininmae no shakaijin (full-fledged member of the society)…. Hopefully I will find a good man, get married and have children, 2 or 3 children. But I do not want to work after I have my first child. If working full time means working like my father, it seems impossible for me to work full time after I have a child. I would not like to do that unless I really have to do so…. I wish my future husband would not have to work so hard either. Do all men in Japan work like he does? I can really understand well why the majority of women after childbirth are working part time like my mother.


Yuka, 28 years old, who worked for a mid-sized firm for six years and recently quit her job after her first son was born, says:

I think it is impossible to work full time while raising small children. It is only possible with some exceptions, such as living with grandparents who are willing and are able to do child care or if your workplace has special childcare support systems. Our grandparents live far away form our home, and I was so physically exhausted from mothering my son that I decided not to return to my work, which was a busy editorial job with irregular working hours. You cannot count on your husband because the majority of managers of Japanese companies do not think men are supposed to take care of kids on a regular basis. My husband wants to come back home early and spend time with our children, but he can only do so at weekends. Furthermore, many small companies do not have a child-care leave system, although all companies are required by law to have such a system they informally coerce women not to take it. I was the first case to take it at my company. Those male managers have no experience of raising children, I guess. They had their wives take care of their children. They have no idea how hard it is to raise children and work full time.


Akira, a man in his mid 40s, whose wife is a freelance interpreter, says:


I am a full time teacher and my wife is a freelance worker, but she works more than a full time worker in terms of working hours. We are often working at our desks past midnight to meet our deadlines. Both of us can work like this, like workaholics, even though we have two small kids, one is four years old and the other is six years old, because our work schedules are more flexible than the regular salaried persons. Small children can get sick often, you know, and somebody has to take care of them. Either mother or father has to stay home to do that, or a babysitter. When you have a lot of work to do, as we usually do, and go all over Japan or sometimes even overseas for work, you really have to juggle your childcare schedule. It is really like walking on a tightrope. My male friends working for banks and in electronics, management consultants or the government cannot even imagine what I have been doing as a parent in terms of child rearing. One friend of mine from my secondary school days, said he had never noticed his baby crying during the night because his wife, a schoolteacher, took leave for a year and did everything for the baby. I was shocked to hear this because I slept next to my baby for a year because my wife had a sleeping disorder problem. She slept upstairs alone in a quiet room. Our baby cried several times every night for a year. It was a terrible year, and I understand why some parents commit child abuse in extreme situations. I actually developed a stomach ulcer, atopic dermatitis, and nettle rash while he kept crying at night. I still do about two to three hours of parenting every day in addition to housework. When I mention this to my married women friends they are surprised and admire me. I often have heated conversations with mothers about parenting, how their husbands do not, or cannot even if they wanted to, do parenting, how unsympathetic or unknowledgeable their male bosses and colleagues are at work, how different working mothers are to those mothers who stay at home, etc. The hours and energy I have spent on taking care of my kids, I could have spent on my work and been more productive, or spent time on creative hobbies and sports I like, or hanging out with my friends. But without shared parenting and household chores, our marriage would have collapsed, and we would never have been able to have children. So I have this feeling of pride and satisfaction over having done a great deal of parenting. I have a hard time trusting a man who has not experienced the hardship of parenting. They know nothing about real life!


In the typical Japanese work environment, men’s working conditions do not allow them to spare any reasonable length of time for housework or childcare. Even if they did have such time, about half would not participate in housework or childcare because their minds are so immersed in the traditional gender role model. Even many women accept, unconsciously or unwillingly, the traditional gender role. Statistics reveal that men spent 32 minutes per day on average on housework in 2000, while women spent 3 hours and 49 minutes. This means that women spend a longer time working both at work and at home if they get married. Furthermore, women’s wages, excluding those of female part-time workers, are only 65.5 percent of men’s on average. Given the fact that more than one-third of employed women are part-time workers, and still more are temporary workers, the wage gap becomes wider. Under these conditions, many women are forced to leave full time careers at childbirth and refrain from working while they raise children. About the time when their children enter first-grade, they start working again but usually as part-time workers because their role as the primary caretaker of the family and household makes it difficult for them to be a full-time worker again. In addition, companies tend to avoid employing mothers with small children because they are more likely than fathers or singles to decline overtime work or sudden business trips. It is true that working mothers tend to bring binding parental demands into the workplace. Understandably, they have to do so.


This “double-bind” situation of determined gender roles in the family and workplace is in no way unique to Japanese society. However, what is unique about the Japanese situation is that gender bias in the workplace has been serving as the basis of the Japanese management system. In theory, the Japanese management system consists of long-term employment, a seniority system, and company labor unions. In reality, the system makes the workplace a total institution, in that it requires workers to make a total commitment to their organization. Work practices such as long working hours, overtime work, and being a “business bachelor” result in little time and energy left for private family life. In this kind of work environment, only men without responsibilities of parenting and household chores are suitable to become candidates for full time worker positions in Japan. In short, the gendered division of work is a prerequisite for the standard traditional Japanese management model.





The future of the Gender Equality Policy


The gendered division of work at home and at the workplace is the root cause of gender inequality in Japan. The two divisions are mutually interdependent and reinforcing. I believe possible solutions to this deadlock lie in simultaneous efforts to change the attitudes and behavior of Japanese people, especially men, and the Japanese management system. In a collection of papers looking at Japan’s possible futures, we must ask: is there any evidence that such changes are happening?


Generally speaking, I maintain that the idea of gender equality has been slowly but steadily gaining support in Japan, although it is not clear whether the changes are due to the policies themselves or to changing social circumstances.[xi] At the individual level, I see younger men as more willing to participate in childrearing. At the organizational level, the number of corporations implementing gender equality policies has been growing. At the societal level, the Japanese management system, whose prerequisite was the gendered division of labor, has begun to erode.


Changes among younger men


Japanese men, especially from younger generations, are becoming more involved with childrearing. In 2007, over 80 percent responded affirmatively to the question “men should be actively involved in childrearing and education” in a large scale survey conducted in Shizuoka prefecture (Mori, 2007). In a 2004 research report concerning workers with children in the prefecture, 37 percent of men in their 20s responded that they would want to take child care leave, while only about 20 percent of men in the other age groups responded likewise (Shizuoka Work Life Research Institute, 2004).


My interviews with working fathers (such as Akira, above) also supported this trend. Masaru, 33 years old, was working for a major newspaper but then quit and became an editor of a small publishing house. Eventually he became a freelance journalist and shared parenting responsibilities with his wife, who was a psychological counselor. He said:


We married young, at the age of 23, and we had a daughter and a son. When I was working as a reporter on a local newspaper, I regularly came back home after midnight, slept for about 6 hours, and returned to work. That’s it. So I only saw my children asleep from Monday to Friday. But when I quit that job, we shared housework and child care almost equally because my wife was studying to get a certificate in counseling and then had to do internships for several years. I was able work at home after the kids went to bed. Since I wanted to be a freelance journalist, which had little guarantee of financial stability, it was important that my wife become a professional with a stable and decent income. So it was a sensible decision that we shared housework and child care. My father was a corporate executive and my mother was a housewife. I imagine that my father would have never thought about sharing housework and child care like I do. My wife’s parents, who run a small factory, are the same in that they believe in the clear gender role division. My brother, 37, does not do much housework either even though his wife works full time.


Kiyoshi, 27, works for a city government office. His wife works at a department store in the same city.


I bring our daughter to the nursery school at 7:30 in the morning, and pick her up at 5:30. My wife does laundry in the morning while I bring my daughter to the nursery. She comes back home around 7 or 7:30 p.m. and then cooks. I sometimes cook but I am not a good cook. When I have work to do, I go back to my office at night or work at home. We sometimes ask her grandparents who live in the same city to help us out when both of us are busy. But they have some heath problems, so we cannot rely on them too much. We also use a private daycare center. I think I can spend a reasonable amount of time taking care of my daughter because I am a public servant working for the city. Compared with companies like banks, manufacturing factories, and retail stores, public offices are less demanding in terms of working hours. But this does not mean that men working in the public sector are taking care of their own children. Older men do not do this. I only hear of younger men in their early 20s, 30s and 40s, whose wives are working full time, doing things like me. The retail industry is very competitive nowadays, so they work hard. Shops are open late, you know. But I am glad that my wife is working so that we can save money and go overseas for travel. We are not too worried about money although we are renting an apartment. We plan to buy a house in a couple of years….


The positive actions of corporations


The other sign of change is in the private sector. The number of corporations instituting “positive action” to utilize women in managerial positions has been increasing. For example, Shiseido, with 3,700 employees, elected “gender free” as one of the governing principles of the company in 2000, and boosted the number of women recruited for sales from 29.4 percent in 2002 to 43.6 percent in 2004. The company also plans to double the proportion of women in the managerial positions from the current 15 percent to 30 percent in 2013. Matsushita Electronics, with 68,200 employees, chose “positive action” as a guiding principle of the mid-range reform plan of the corporate culture in 2001 and has strengthened the training programs of women employees since then. As a result, the number of women as section chiefs increased from 636 in 1999 to 1,404 in 2004, and the number of women managers has increased from 87 in 1999 to 353 in 2004. Because of these corporate policy implementations, these companies received the Award for Corporations Promoting Gender Equality by the Ministry of Welfare and Labor along with 3 other firms in 2004. (Asahi Shimbun, “Josei wo ikasu, Shiseido, Matsushita Denki,” 2004.)


Changes in Japanese work styles


The Japanese management system was established during the period of the rapid economic development and has persisted since then. It was primarily responsible for Japan’s remarkable economic growth after WWII and making Japan an economic giant. But now in the age of slow or no economic growth, younger Japanese men and women have been losing trust in a system which still demands hard work and long work hours incomparable to many other advanced countries. The main reason for this eroding trust is that younger generations do not benefit much from the current social institutions, such as pension and seniority systems, because of drastic changes in the economy and demography (Mori, 2000, p.164-166).In other words, younger individuals and their partners cannot count on older rational life strategies to maximize their potential. The slice of the economic pie has been shrinking steadily and younger people just do not get a share commensurable to their hard work anymore.


The lasting economic downturn has been eroding the Japanese management system, and younger Japanese do not place trust in the idea that the mainstays of life-long employment and seniority promotion and its pay raise mechanism, once associated with the system, will provide for them a stable foundation for their life design. The system was built on the assumption that a household consisted of the father being the sole income earner and the wife being the housewife or a part time worker. The gendered division of labor both at home and in the workplace was the basis of the Japanese management system. Furthermore, fundamental social institutions and systems, such as taxation, medical insurance, pensions, work benefits, child care, schooling, community associations, sports clubs, and banking were organized on the assumption of the gendered division of labor. But the ongoing breakdown of this intricately interconnected system has meant that young Japanese men and women, with the most to lose over the long-term if they invest themselves in such a system, have begun to realize that the single income family is too risky an option. The man of the house may lose his job due to a “restructuring” of his company. He may not count on higher salary based on seniority. As a result, an increasing number of wives have begun to work full time and, in turn, corporations have begun to seriously utilize women as labor equal to men. Corporations too cannot afford to linger on the traditional division of labor if they are to survive and be competitive in the marketplace. Gender equality policies fundamentally support these processes of social transformation.


Other evidence comes from the numbers of part-time and/or temporary workers among the young Japanese, who are increasing steadily while the full time workers are decreasing in Japan (Mathews, 2000, p.124). Growth in the number of these types of workers results in the weakening of the lifetime employment and seniority mechanism, the pillars of the Japanese management system. The number of young men and women who could obtain jobs with high security, like life time employment, are limited and those who did not get such jobs are less constrained by work but financially and psychologically more insecure. If these increasing numbers of men in temporary employment decide to get married, their wives will have to work in most cases to support the family.[xii]


If the younger generations of men and women are really starting to think that a gender-equal society benefits both men and women by reforming society, its working conditions, and balances the responsibilities of work and family for both men and women, Japan’s future could lead to a true state of gender-equality as projected by the Basic Law. If they do not realize this as a possible alternative and continue to propagate the current social system built on highly demanding work conditions, the situation of men and women being divided and conquered by the traditional management system will not face significant transformation, and the vision of the Basic Law will not be realized.


There are thus two possible futures awaiting Japan, the unfolding of one over the other contingent on the way in which a new generation will react to the current work conditions in Japanese society. Maintaining the status quo in work practices could mean that the gender divide remains the by-product of life strategies decided by individuals and their partners.




In this article, I have described the gender-equality policy from its inception as a progressive feminist idea to its conjoining with major societal issues such as the rapidly declining birth rate and the expanding aged population. In this transformation and application, the gender-equality policy has evolved into a remarkable and change-facilitating policy. I have also focused on “backlash” movements whose extremists claim the policy as a conspiracy of radical feminists disrespecting the cultural tradition, and the controversy over the idea of “gender free.” Then I analyzed the challenges the Gender Equality Law faces, such as the firmly rooted idea of gender division of labor both in the family and the Japanese management system itself. Lastly, I sketched some signs of the future of the gender relations in Japan by analyzing the views of the younger generations and corporations that have been influenced by the gender equality policy.


The Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society was passed partly because the conservative male legislators were convinced that the law would function as a solution to the labor shortage both in the short and long term, and therefore as a tool to keep up the international competitiveness of the Japanese economy. In other words, the law was a solution to the problem of aging and declining rate of childbirth, two grave demographic problems in Japan. Also, to legalize the Gender Equality Law was to follow the international trends set in motion and legitimated by the United Nations. This saved the “face” of Japan as a member of the advanced countries in the international community. The content of this law was quite progressive given that the reality of gender relations in Japan was still lagging far behind the standards set by it in many respects.


The law thus exhibits an internal tension: on the one hand its prime objective is to realize gender equality in Japanese society, but on the other, it is explicitly focused on solving the demographic problem of aging and declining childbirth. Despite this built in tension, there is a chance that this law could come to represent the social realities of new and emerging generations. The web site of the Japanese government states:


The realization of a truly affluent society is dependent on the establishment of a social framework that allows individuals to choose various lifestyles regardless of their gender, and without being bound by such rigid, stereotyped gender roles that assume that child rearing and nursing are exclusively women’s duties, while men are the workers, tax-payers and pension renderers who support the nation (Gender Information Site, “What’s Gender-Equal Society?,”


Whether the above vision presented by the Basic Law will be realized or not depends on how these younger generations of men and women in Japan understand and act on the current social system, and act to shape their current realities. Only they can decide whether a vision of true gender egalitarianism will be seen in their lifetime; will they have the foresight to challenge the institutions of work that stand in the way of its realization?  Only time will tell.





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Shunta Mori


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