Women Advancing in Japanese Society: Part Two - Economic Position of Japanese Women in the Coming Decade
Jeff Kingston (Professor of History, Temple University Japan), Yoshio Maya (Professor of Health, Social Care and Insurance Studies, Graduate School of Commerce, Nihon University) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Sean Curtin: Do you think the overall economic position of women will improve in the coming decade? On the positive side, we see more women than ever before in the workforce, higher levels of female education, women advancing into new employment areas, better family-friendly work policies, more daycare places and a genuine discussion in society about gender roles. On the negative side, we see increasing numbers of divorced, separated and unmarried mothers living in poverty, cuts in the social welfare budget for needy mothers, an increasing number of poor divorced elderly women, all of which means that certain groups of women are becoming the poorest section of society. On the employment front, women have still to break through the so called glass ceiling. Thus, currently Japan has the lowest female representation on corporate boards of the world's 200 largest companies.
Jeff Kingston: I agree that women's position remains disadvantageous. As you allude to, divorce in Japan is much more prevalent in Japan that people generally acknowledge. If you go round Japan and tell people, "Well Japan's divorce rate ranks along side Germany and by international standards is relatively high." People do not believe you. They are convinced that Japan has stable families. Another point is that Japan has a number of housewives who stay at home. So, quite a considerable amount of government policy related to the family or women is based on the assumption that housewives stay at home despite the reality that 60 percent of households are double income households.
The problem in Japan is the reality that higher divorce rates lead to a higher incidence of poverty, and that a lot of women are working, these two facts have not yet caught up with social policy. What I mean is that policy has been trying to catch up with the emerging realities but policies have generally been based on a false assumption of stable families with one breadwinner. Now there is growing recognition that this is not the case, policymakers are scrambling to catch up with these emerging social realities and revamp their ideas. So, the problem is that the ideology of the strong, stable, secure family with the husband who is the breadwinner with a secure job does not match the reality. Thus, the policies that are currently in place are clearly inadequate. As in other areas, there have been persistent calls for innovations over the last few years, aiming to address the various issues related to the key demands on women of home and work as well as caring for aging parents. So, I think that everyone realizes that more needs to be done and they have put into place some significant and positive reforms. The question now becomes, where are we going from here?
One area that is not encouraging is the wage gap, which is growing in Japan. Of all the OECD countries, I believe Japan is the only one where the gender-based wage gap is actually widening. As a study by Professor Machiko Osawa has shown, this is because of the proliferation of non-standard forms of employment for which remuneration tends to be low.
On the positive side, we can be encouraged by the increasing enrollment of women at elite universities. If you look at American Ivy league universities, you see that maybe somewhere in the region of half the students are women, but look at Tokyo University or Kyoto University and you discover the figure is about 18 to 20 percent. While this seems pretty low, this represents a doubling of the percentage over the last 15 to 20 years. So you have quite a sharp increase in numbers over a relatively short period of time, but the overall percentage remains low.
Also you have an increasing professionalization of the workforce, where you need a qualification to get a job, which benefits qualified women. Generally, speaking this is a trend we saw in the United States during the 1970s, when they began to use professional degrees, meaning that you are not relying on some personnel manager to control the course of your life and career. This shift helps break the glass ceiling that confronts many women.
So, I think there are positive developments, which we can see in the statistics. For example, between 1980 and 2000 the percentage of women at Tokyo University doubled. Over the last 15 years, the number of women passing the bar exam has tripled. One third of all new doctors and lawyers are now women. These are definitely positive trends, but there is a long way to go.
One of the factors that will probably improve the situation for women is the need for new workers. Despite the chairman of Keidanren calling for more immigrants, I do not think they will achieve their target of 60,000 immigrants per year as recommended in a UN report. So, women will have to be more positively integrated into the workforce. When that happens, that is going to improve their position. I think that up until now women's human capital has been squandered. Many of Japan's most highly educated women tend to retire from the workforce to have babies and these women are the least likely to return to resume their careers. The human capital, their education and their training is more or less being wasted. So, I think that corporate Japan has to rethink its employment strategy and this will also have the knock-on effect of helping with the solvency of the pension system.
Yoshio Maya: With regard to the wage gap, inequality and employment conditions for female workers, it is probably true, as Sean suggests, that women are dissatisfied with the current situation. Even so, I think we need to take a broader perspective of this issue. While women do face workplace inequalities, at the same time research indicates, they have more enjoyable lives than men. We need to ask ourselves why this is so? Japanese society is complex, many men feel locked into their stressful work roles, while women have more freedom. That might perhaps explain why women live longer and happier lives than men.
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Profile - Jeff Kingston
Jeff Kingston has taught at Temple University Japan since 1987 where he is currently Director of Asian Studies and Professor of History. His talk will focus on his recently published book, Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2004). Dr. Kingston has regularly contributed to the Japan Times since 1988 in addition to a variety of other regional publications.
The above comments were made at Chatham House, London on 5 November 2004