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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #104: July 30, 2003

Women and Labor in Japan

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)

A friend of mine used to say that in Japan there exist two social classes: men and women, with the latter inevitably occupying the lower ranks. It was precisely this aspect of Japanese society that Howard W. French tried to capture in his article of July 25 in the New York Times entitled, "Japanís neglected resource: female workers".

The reality for women in Japan is much more difficult than it should be. As a democracy that has a highly educated and skilled female population and represents the second most powerful economy in the world one would expect women to be equitably integrated into the work force. However, the facts tell a different story. As French tells us, while 40 percent of Japanese women work, only 9 percent of managerial posts are occupied by women. He also points out that womenís wages in Japan are on average 35 percent lower than their male counterparts. This in addition to Japanís poor performance in other gender indicators has ranked Japan 69th out of 75 World Economic Forum members in terms of gender equality and 44th behind countries such as Botswana, the Philippines and Peru on the UNís Gender Empowerment Measurement (See Europe Report # 55).

As Howard points out the reasons for this are largely social. He speaks of entrenched biases that force women to accept inferior conditions to men in the work place. He then describes the psychological abuse women have to endure from authority figures such as former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori when he blames Japanís falling birthrate on the "overeducation of its women".

Culturally speaking, it is hard to find a country where public and private domains are more gender-coded than in Japan. As has been documented in countless studies, the household in Japan is inevitably considered the womenís domain (see Weekly Media Review #39). In a way, it is not an overstatement to state that the gender division of labor has not much changed since a hundred and fifty years ago when labor in early Meiji society was distributed as follows: women and slaves Ė household duties; men of lower social class: trade, agriculture and crafts; and high society men Ė politics and philosophy.

Everyone still hates housework. As philosopher Angela Davis puts it, this labor is "invisible, repetitive, exhausting, unproductive and uncreative". In Japan, as in most countries, household duties are at the bottom of the hierarchy of human activity and women in Japan are often openly pushed towards this traditionally female occupation due to limited professional opportunities and poor working conditions. As stated earlier women in Japan are paid less, are promoted less and as unemployment statistics consistently demonstrate, have less job security.

Even if they do succeed to stave off being subject to the house and instead pursue more visible and valued societal roles, women are saddled with what philosophers such as Sandra Lee Bartky and Susan Bordo have called "beauty work". Unlike for men, there is an expectation in Japan that women employees have to display an attractive and professional appearance and this implies a lot more work.

For Japanese women to achieve gender equality in both the private and public spheres, a social transformation is required. This will not come easily. Although, the work done by Japanese housewives is invisible and unpaid, its importance in sustaining the economic system is by no means neglected. All recognize that the Japanese housewife makes it possible for the husband to dedicate all his energy to the company. In addition to alleviating their husband from any household burden, the housewife raises the next generation of workers, thereby, perpetuating this "perfectly" functioning system. By challenging this framework Japanese women put into jeopardy the smooth functioning of the entire economic, political and social structure. The sheer magnitude of change required to reach gender equality in Japan makes change slow and painful. This ultimately explains why Japan is considered to be the most oppressive society for women in the industrialized world.

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