Women of the World, Unite!

Today is the International Women’s Day, one of the last remnants of socialist ideology in today’s (western) societies, so let’s take a brief look at the situation of women in Japan.

Google's doodle on International Women's Day 2015

Google celebrates the International Women’s Day 2015 with a doodle.

In theory, i.e. by law, men and women are equal in Japan pretty much the same way they are equal in every other industrialized society. But numbers often speak a clearer language than ideology. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014 Japan ranks 104th of 142 countries, behind Armenia and way behind its big neighbour China (ranked 87th). Why is that? Japan appears to be one of the most advanced countries in the world, but still over half of its population is left behind? Well, not everything is bad for women in Japan. They are very well educated, girls’ grades in school are at least as good as boys’ grades. Many women graduate from Universities, although disproportionally many women visit 2-year universities, while 4-year universities are still dominated by men. Still, not bad. In terms of life expectancy women are even far superior to men with an average life expectancy of 77 compared to men’s 72.

The reason why Japan’s rank is that low is the lack of female participation in the economy and in politics, a problem most western countries are also still struggling with, but which is especially grave in Japan. One of the most astonishing inequalities between men and women is the huge wage gap. On average women get for similar work only 68% of their male counterparts’ wages. This, understandably, discourages women from pursuing careers at all, which also partly explains why only 12% of legislators, senior officials and managers are women. Even though Prime Minister Abe tried to install more female ministers in his recent cabinet, still only 9.1% of lower house MPs and 16.1% of upper house MPs are women. To install a female Prime Minister is unimaginable in Japan. But Mr Abe is at least trying to mend the situation. Besides his economic reform program dubbed famously “Abenomics” he also started a campaign to promote women to 30% of positions of authority until 2020, which accordingly came to be called “Womenomics”. Unfortunately I don’t know what concrete measures Mr Abe is going to implement in order to achieve this goal. A fixed quota for women in managerial positions, as the one that was recently established in Germany, seems not to stand up for discussion yet.

The root of the problem though lies buried deeply in the mindset of society. The ideal women is still the “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母 ryôsai kenbo) from the Meiji period. While the male breadwinner is at work or drinking with his colleagues, which is still obligatory in many Japanese companies, she stays at home, rears the children and keeps the house tidy. Until very recently it was (and to a certain extent still is) expected from women to leave their jobs for good as soon as they get married or at the latest when they get children. This is the reason why women never were even considered for promotions and were automatically stuck in lower positions. After their children started going to school, many women returned to the work-force as part-timers, but still were barred from career advancement. And almost every woman was pressured to marry in her early twenties. Unmarried women at the age of 26 came to be called “Christmas cakes”, since nobody still wants to eat Christmas cake after the 25th of December. And yes, Christmas cake is a real thing in Japan.

The trend nowadays is slightly changing. Even though society is still extremely patriarchal, an increasing number of young women decide to break out of the system by simply not marrying at all. They realize that their chances of career advancement is much higher if they stay unmarried and that they can make a decent living for themselves and even are able to enjoy the money they earned as long as they don’t have a family to take care of. This unfortunately further aggravates Japan’s ageing society and extremely low birth rates, because children born out of wedlock also are socially unwelcome.

Now, there is obviously no quick-fix for this whole mess, but I think a fixed quota for women in parliament and managerial positions would be a first step to show the society that it won’t break apart if women fill positions of authority. Also a more liberal approach in early education, one that encourages girls to pursue careers instead of preparing them to serve their husbands, would help a great lot, but since the Ministry of Education is in a tight grip of conservative bureaucracy, this probably won’t happen in the near future. I am very curious to see if Mr Abe’s Womenomics will make a difference. I really hope so. Until then brace yourselves for yet another set of International Men’s Days lasting from Mar 9th until Mar 7th.

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