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  • Christina Theodorakis

The Reality of Gender Inequality in Japan, Part 2



In honor of International Women's Day today, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the topic of gender inequality in Japan to shed light on Japanese culture and how it affects business practices. There are plenty of articles about sexism and gender roles in Japan, provided by the Japanese government and news outlets like BBC, but despite the government’s efforts, there’s little it can do with laws to change Japanese culture.


As a woman, gender inequality really strikes a chord with me, and seeing the degree to which it exists in Japan is very disheartening (if at any point I sound angry, it's because I am). Before I even start, I did a little research in Japanese on Google as well as asked some of my Japanese friends if they knew what International Women’s Day was, and all of them told me that they had never heard about it before, even though it’s existed for over a hundred years and is supported by the U.N., of which Japan is a member state. This was shocking to me, but also not surprising given that #MeToo (or, rather, #KuToo) came and went in Japan like a puff of air. Even when they do mention International Women’s Day in Japan, it’s in articles like this where they have to explain what International Women’s Day is with mimosa flowers, which are a symbol used mainly in Italy.


Note: I would strongly recommend that you read part one before continuing with this blog to learn some important background information on where Japan stands in the global rankings for gender equality.


Post-WWII Japanese society is a heavily male-oriented place: women are forcefully kept in their gender role as caretaker of the family, house, and finances, while men are expected to work full-time at an office, devote extra time to their company in the form of unpaid overtime (usually), feel pressured by their male peers to go out drinking after work, and come home to a well-tended home. If a woman were to work as a regular full-time employee at a Japanese company, the interview process would go a little something like this: the interviewer will ask the woman how old she is, if she's married, if she'll have kids soon, and proceed with more extremely personal and inappropriate comments about how she may be quitting the company when she does have a family, in spite of the fact that Japan legally provides women with six weeks’ paid maternity leave before giving birth and eight weeks’ paid maternity leave after giving birth. The bar for invading someone's privacy, especially a woman's, is very low in Japan, which is ironic because Japanese people take privacy very seriously. This is how ingrained gender roles are in Japan: men don't see the aforementioned interrogation-style questioning as invading the woman's privacy. As I said above, the government can’t do much to change Japanese culture; Japanese women are still widely expected to quit when they get married or, at the latest, when they get pregnant, and there's even a Japanese word for it: 寿退社 (kotobuki-taisha, literally “celebratory resignation”).


Another unequal part of Japanese society for Japanese women is higher education. Until the 1980’s, Japanese women weren’t allowed to go to college or have the same jobs as men, and at the time, Japanese women were very excited about the changes made at the national level. And while progress was made in terms of gaining access to higher education for female students, it’s not quite the same as you would expect in a Western country. Even now, there’s still a “separate but equal” style of education for women in the form of two-year colleges. These colleges specifically focus on enrolling young women who want to move up the job ladder – keep in mind that these are specifically geared towards women. And as recently as three years ago, Japan’s top university, the University of Tokyo, found itself in hot water when it was found that they were purposely limiting the enrollment of female students, further showing the sexism involved in elite institutions in Japan. Not only that, the required entrance scores for female applicants were much higher than their male counterparts.


There’s more: nursing jobs are over 95% female staffed because nursing is “a nurturing job that women are good at.” Comparatively, most doctors are men, but the ratio of male to female doctors is lower than with nurses. The same goes for Japanese preschool teachers and receptionists, which are predominantly female.


Don’t work or attend a college in Japan? Even if you avoid those two parts of society, you’ll find sexism when you go to ride a train during peak commuting hours in the form of a train car that’s designated as the “Women Only” car, created to protect them from shameless male gropers. While there’s a whole other issue at hand here – lack of respect for women being one and lack of self-control being another – the fact that this car is needed says a lot about the treatment of women in Japan and who's to blame (hint: it's the female victim). On a similar note, if you own a Japanese cellphone (including iPhones), you can’t turn off the camera shutter sound while in Japan – the option doesn’t even exist in the settings. This completely took me by surprise in my third year living in Japan when I found out about the law. That’s because some Japanese men have a compulsive "upskirt photography" problem that’s resulted in the Japanese government making it illegal to turn off the camera shutter sound.


At the heart of Japan's gender inequality and painfully-slow progress is — you guessed it — Japanese culture. This vicious cycle has been going on and on and on because in Japanese culture, people don't want to cause any commotion (direct or indirect) for fear of embarrassment, awkwardness, or – at worst – ostracism from people who know them. In Japanese culture, there's a very real and very persistent fear of what people really think of you but don't express to your face.


Being a foreign woman in Japan, I can dodge these bullets because I’m automatically labelled as different and strange for being raised outside of Japan and Japanese cultural “rules.” In addition. I’m not afraid of the same things that Japanese people fear in their culture. I can stand in solidarity with Japanese women, but it’s important for Japanese women to stand up for their own rights and not fear the backlash from people who think that they just want attention or are annoying people if they speak out. There are also plenty of women who submit to the patriarchal system and carry on these unnecessary hurdles for women to jump over when they try to attain the same position as a man. Japanese women need to be brave and loud enough to be heard among all the men in power because if the treatment of women in Japan doesn’t change, I believe that the Japanese population will continue its devastating fall, literally and figuratively.


Above all, Japanese women need to have each other's back because that's what female empowerment is all about.


If you want to support women’s rights in Japan, you can check out these groups:

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