Whilst on my year abroad in Japan, I have become increasingly aware of many things. Coming from a Western perspective, some of these things are particularly notable, such as the ever-problematic issue of the gender gap.
Although Japan is often thought of as a well-developed and forward-thinking country, in terms of gender equality, this may not be the case.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2015 published by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks 101st out of 145 countries. Although this is a step up from their position of 104th last year, it is still well below the UK, for example, which ranks at 18. Women in Japan not only face severe gender inequality in the workplace, but elsewhere in daily life.
For example, it is not hard to come across sexism simply by watching any number of Japanese television programmes. In anime (Japanese cartoons), women and girls are over-sexualised or seen as very cute. However, this sexism is not restricted to cartoons. In the new season of popular TV reality show “Terrace House”, the first episode shows the men commenting that they won’t be able to make use of the kitchen, but the girls will. Later on in the series, the women are pressured by the men – and each other – to find a boyfriend and get married early on, as they won’t have the opportunity later in life, putting the main focus on finding a husband. Simple comments like these show the reality of the often sexist attitude that prevails in Japan.
This gender inequality is not only evident in such overt ways, but also manifests itself more subtly in the Japanese language. Japanese involves many levels of politeness, and with this comes gendered speech. Although this is becoming less pertinent, with young women starting to speak more like men, there still exists the odd word or phrase in which gender differences are clear. For example, there are many ways to say “I/me” in Japanese, but the version “ore” or “boku” is most used by men, and “watashi” by women. Men have the option to use “watashi” but it is seen as more formal. Girls using “boku” are considered boyish, whereas “ore” is almost never used by women. This also manifests in the written language: 女 is the character for woman, and it can be found in many other characters, many of which have a negative meaning. For example, putting together three of the characters for woman “姦” can mean noisy, wicked, or even rape. In contrast, the character for man (男) is rice field (田) and power (力). As these characters have such ancient roots, they often go unnoticed by native speakers, but with sexism rooted in the language, it could explain why it is such a part of current society.
Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is quick to express his encouragement and support of “Womenomics”, continually pushing his statement that he wants women to represent 30% of leadership positions in the public and private sector by 2020. However, some have questioned whether his commitment is superficial, and that he is not addressing every woman, but rather those elite few at the top of the career ladder. Many say a more pressing issue is the lack of day care facilities, and the lack of flexibility of jobs for working mothers.
Searching for work when you have children, starting a family when you have a job, or continuing both together can be a struggle for women. In short, for women, work and family life rarely gel. Although Abe’s goal of raising the number of women in leadership positions is in place, in reality, many companies do little to make this achievable. Women are often offered less pay when they return from maternity leave, and when they already have children and need to leave early their hours are inflexible. Although they may be able to work efficiently and get their tasks done before picking up their children, they are often chastised for doing so. This is made ever more difficult by the fact that day care centres are usually only open until 6, and require that the mother works a certain amount of hours. If the mother doesn’t work enough hours, they must turn to private day care, which can be extremely expensive.
As women often face harassment or sexist comments when trying to be a mother and a worker, a support group, Matahara Net, was created online by Sayaka in order to tackle the problems caused by maternity harassment. Women are expected to be either a mother or a worker, and not both, and often face harsh comments such as, “You need a lecture because you don’t understand the value of life — I made my wife quit her job as soon as she got pregnant. What is your husband thinking?” This was a comment that Osakabe received at her previous job, highlighting the social norms that inhibit women from thriving in the workplace.
The problem lies not only with the fact that women are often not as respected in the workplace, but also in the fact that women are still expected to be the main care providers for children. Talking to Japan Times, Yuki Honda, a professor at Japan’s leading university and mother of two, said, “I notice that Japanese mothers typically feel really guilty about working, thinking it inconveniences the family,” she says. “I would like to tell them that they don’t have to feel guilty, and there are lots of good things that come from moms working.”
In regard to this, high-profile and government figures making sexist comments bring forward the underlying gender-biased thoughts of society. In 2007 Japan’s Health Minister referred to women as “birth-giving machines” and asked them to “do their best” to put a stop to the country’s ageing population. More recently, in September of this year, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, made a similar comment, imploring mothers to “have many children”. This drew accusations that he was encouraging a return to the wartime era, when political leaders encouraged women to reproduce to support the country’s militarist ambitions.
Although there are attempts to make the country more gender equal, it would seem that there is an underlying problem in the attitude towards women, particularly within the workplace. This is not a problem that is easily solved, but one that is seen as necessary for the country to move forward.