Does macho Japan oppress its talented women?

Some people regard Japan as a macho society, where powerful men work long hours, play golf and ignore the house work while the women do menial office jobs or stay at home to raise children.

Such stereotyping is common in the international media, which often presents a rather pitiful image of Japanese women, suggesting that they are oppressed by men and lag far behind their western sisters in terms of gender equality.

I have often felt this rather negative picture is based on misunderstandings and fails to appreciate the warm and affectionate relationships which thrive between men and women throughout Japan.


Nevertheless, the role of women is changing and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has outlined a policy of “womenomics” to encourage more organisations to promote women to top level jobs. In the past few years, women have reached unprecedented positions in public life, such as Leader of the Opposition, Defence Minister and Governor of Tokyo.

This week, I attended a symposium about gender at SOAS, part of the University of London. SOAS asked a team of experts what social changes they have observed since the enactment of Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986.

“The changes seem slow in comparison to the United States or the UK; they do not amount to a revolution. Yet things are changing, partly due to demographics,” said Professor Machiko Osawa, Director of the Research Institute for Women and Careers. She noted that the shrinking pool of working age people due to the ageing population creates more job opportunities for women. She also said she would like to see more legislation, education and career development programmes so that women and men can reach similar levels of income and responsibility.

Women “don’t want to work like men”

Another theme of the symposium was how to create working environments in which both men and women are productive and happy. Professor Peter Matanle from the School of East Asian Studies at University of Sheffield noted the workplace pressures facing Japanese men.

He claimed that half the overtime that men do is unpaid. He also said: “Men also have unpredictable career patterns, so that they are transferred at short notice to other parts of the country or abroad, away from their family and without their consent.”

Professor Matanie said that his research shows that many women in Japan choose not to take full-time regular employment because “they don’t want to work like men.”

Professor Matanie condemned the culture of long hours which permeates many Japanese organisations, saying it undermines productivity and efficiency.

His views echo those of Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, who said recently that long hours are not appropriate to the modern era and have a negative impact on people’s life–work balance. Governor Koike has initiated a programme within the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to reduce overtime – a move which she hopes will benefit people who want to spend more time with their families.


The symposium’s moderator Professor Helen Macnaughtan, who teaches at SOAS, acknowledged that in some respects “the gender dividend difference has worked rather well for Japan” and cautioned against stereotyping Japan as a society which is as “anti-women.” She explained that many women gain satisfaction from fulfilling traditional roles, such as raising children.

However, Professor Macnaughtan bemoaned the fact that many well-educated women drop out of their careers because they find their work frustrating and restricting. She also criticised a system which traps many married women in low-paid jobs.

What are your views on gender in Japan? Does there need to be more social change to create equality in the workplace? How do you think the role of women is different from other countries in Asia or the rest of the world?

Please share your thoughts below.

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