By Andrew Muse-Fisher
Staff Writer

When Shinzo Abe became Japan’s Prime Minister in 2012 he initiated his plan to reinvigorate an aged and ailing economy. While this plan, widely referred to as Abenomics, focuses on monetary, fiscal, and growth policies to end deflation, Abe has included a call to encourage Japanese women to enter the work force to increase productivity. [1] One of his goals is to increase female employment in leadership positions to 30 percent in six years. To begin working toward this goal, he appointed five female ministers to his cabinet. [2]

Though he is setting a strong example, he is ignoring certain social and cultural issues that prevent women from entering or excelling in the work place. To make up for her husband’s shortcomings, first lady Akie Abe expressed the necessity to change social attitudes so that “women can shine” in the careers they choose. [3] Mrs. Abe, an accomplished businesswoman, serves as an example of the success women can achieve. In addressing the World Assembly for Women hosted in Tokyo this September, Abe stated how achieving similar success in a career for women is impeded by a “male dominated business culture” that fails to accommodate the needs of working women. [4] Specifically, she scorned the ways in which Japanese culture limits women’s opportunities to excel in the work place as well as the lack of flexibility offered by high-level career paths when it comes to raising a family.

Because Japanese women face unequal opportunities when compared to men, they are widely discouraged from entering the job market. Women are often paid much less than their male counterparts: one estimate suggests 27 percent less. [5] Though this is an economic issue, it has social implications. If a job is not as lucrative when compared with the same job done by a man, women are more likely to deem their time working as less worthwhile. If this is the case, they might attempt to find a job where their time is valued to a greater extent, or they may drop out of the job search completely. Such wage discrimination is also indirectly discouraging for women in that men are in greater demand, increasing the competition in an already sparse job market.

A significant barrier to women gaining access to positions that utilize more technology lies in their relative level of education. Women are more likely to receive a university education than men, but they are severely underrepresented in fields involving mathematics and sciences. [6] If Japan is to successfully diversify its workforce, it cannot only focus on job fields in which women are already competitive. Although it is largely beyond the priorities of individual businesses to influence personal education choices, it could prove fruitful to increase recruiting efforts geared towards immersing female students in these fields.

Japan’s gender gap is clearly visible when examining women in upper management positions. In 2011, Japanese companies with over 5,000 employees had fewer than three percent of their management positions filled by women. [7] Abe has made women in leadership positions a priority, but he has done so largely through the aforementioned goal. But rhetoric is not likely to be effective unless Abe or others address the social and economic issues that discourage female participation, while guiding women to these positions. For example, Nissan has struggled to maintain a gender-diverse management staff, but has recently established policies to change this deficit. The company uses career fairs and advisers, as well as women speakers to demonstrate the feasibility of a career in management positions. [8] Though this is one company’s efforts toward diversification, it acts as a model that could be emulated across other Japanese businesses in order emphasize the necessity of diversity while increasing the motivational efforts that enable women to access higher management positions in the Japanese business world.

As women struggle to obtain managerial positions, they are statistically less likely to hold a job for a long period of time. A report from the office of the prime minister showed that employment of mothers was failing to grow in 2004. [9] In 2008, women desired to work less time in order to spend more time with their children. [10] This highlights the plausibility that mothers are trying to find a balance between time at home and time at work. Their efforts are hindered by the tradeoff that arises from compensation. Because women generally receive lower wages, they have to work longer days for their commitment at work to be worthwhile. This creates two extremes that they then have to choose from: they can work longer hours than they prefer or, if they can rely on their partner’s income, they can decide to not return to work at all.

Traditionally, Japanese women are more successful as homemakers that rely on financial support from their husbands when compared to other nations such as the United States. [11] Though women are progressively breaking this trend, the option is still open to them. Because of this, they can stay at home and out of work for long periods of time instead of making the decision between their children and their income. An alternative is for women to remain single and childless so that family does not interfere with their careers. These women work long hours to maintain an income and job security. In between, they do not have time to meet or date men. [12] While this has its positive implications—women are increasing their competitive edge in the workplace—it is also unfair that they have to forego having a family just so they can work. These two extremes demonstrate how Japanese women are placed in an awkward situation stemming from a lack of businesses practices that encourage diversity and that take into account a woman’s desired length of leave for child care.

Despite a growing female participation rate in its overall labor market, Japan is facing social problems that do not represent an isolated phenomenon. During World War II, the United States experienced an influx of women leaving the home and working jobs previously filled by men. It is remarkable how quickly they left their traditional roles in the home, but it is important to note that they remained in lower level positions. Currently, women in the United States represent around only a third of managers, even after decades of women’s rights movements. [13] This indicates that there is a long fight for Japanese women to gain total or near total equality in the work force, but this comparison also suggests Japan can use the example set by the United States. A further comparison done in 2009 offers three crucial steps to increasing female employment. Having higher education, more social support from a husband, and a smaller gap in wages between husband and wife all increase the likelihood of a woman’s employment. Education overall is no longer an issue for women getting a job, but they still lack social support and similar wages. Promoting equal or similar wages based on experience rather than gender can guarantee partial mitigation of these issues, but as long as Japan’s dominant culture remains the same, gender inequality will persist.

Japan’s history is filled with continuity of male dominance with few exceptions, and only in recent decades has the nation begun to work against this entrenched trend. Japan is moving in the right direction towards this goal, but not without the occasional setback. In June of this year, an assemblywoman was heckled while speaking on the necessity for more women’s services. The hecklers, also members of the assembly, suggested that she get married and questioned her ability to bear children. [14] Such abhorrent actions at the center of government do not bode well for the current state of women’s rights in Japan in general. Indeed, in working towards workplace equality, the women of Japan will have to endure insults and setbacks until the very foundations of Japanese culture embrace equality of opportunity for both genders.



[1] Koo, Bon-Kwan. “Abenomics, Finally a Solution to Revive Japan?” SERI Quarterly 6.3 (2013): 29-37.


[3] Mari, Yamaguchi. “AP Interview: Japan’s First Lady Says Key to “Womenomics” is More Flexibility for Women.” Canadian Press.

[4] Matsutani, Minoru. “Japanese Women Still at a Disadvantage, First Lady Says.” Japan Times 19 Nov. 2014.

[5] Adema, Willem. “Closing the gender Gap Can Boost the Economy.” OECD Observer 298 (2014): 15-16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jie, Ma, and Yuki Hagiwara. “At Japan’s Carmakers, Women Managers are Rare.” (2013): 9.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Boyles, Corinne, and Aiko Shibata. “Job Satisfaction, Work time, and Well-Being Among Married Women in Japan.” Feminist Economics. 15.1 (2009): 57-84.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nishimura, Junko. “Human Resources, Household Economy, Social Support, and Women’s Employment in the U.S. and Japan.” Conference Papers – American Sociological Association (2009): 1.

[12] Yoshida, Akiko. “No Chance for Romance: Corporate Culture, Gendered Work, and Increased Singlehood in Japan.” Contemporary Japan – Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, Tokyo 23.2 (2011): 213-234.

[13] Jie, Ma, and Yuki Hagiwara. “At Japan’s Carmakers, Women Managers are Rare.” (2013): 9.

[14] Finley, JC. “Tokyo Assemblywoman Heckled by Male Colleagues While Speaking on Women’s Rights.” UPI Top News (2014).