Does Japan undervalue women?

[:en]This week, the Financial Times – which is usually very balanced in its coverage of Japan – ran a piece with a headline condemning “Japan’s culture of discrimination” against women.

Gender roles in Japan often provoke negative reporting in the international media.

For example, the Diplomat recently ran an article about Japan’s “embarrassing ranking” in the latest global gender gap index. Apparently, it  ranked 111th out of 144 countries, just behind Ethiopia and Nepal.


Actually – as is often the case on the website version of newspaper pieces – the headline in the FT suggested more drama than the actual article.

The piece was by the Tokyo Bureau Chief, Robin Harding and Kana Inagaki, a female correspondent who was brought up in the US. They explained that there has been slow progress in the number of high level managerial jobs obtained by women in Japan, despite a push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to open up the boardrooms of large organisations to women.

This policy is known as Womenomics. Everyone in Japan is familiar with the term.

Although women may not be making the board very often, they are working more. The FT article also makes the point that a sharp increase in the rate of female employment has been an important factor in terms of the country’s recent strong economic growth.

Family or job?

That reminded me that until fairly recently, most women in Japan would have regarded it as crucially important that they were able to marry and have a family before considering what they might do as a job.

I was discussing this issue with friends the other day when a Japanese woman asked me whether I, as a foreigner, thought that Japanese women “look unhappy” about their work situation.

A glance around the table suggested no such thing.

We were having lunch with a family in which the mother has a full-time role caring for two young children and the father has a stimulating and well paid job at a university.

All four of them looked extremely happy and close.

Who’s happy?

My friend’s question left me wondering about the most helpful way to think about gender in a country like Japan. Is it appropriate to judge Japanese women harshly for being less “successful” than women in other countries?

I often hear women in Japan say that they have little wish to be burdened with the heavy obligations, long hours and boring meetings which go with senior roles in big companies.

That’s not to say that they don’t want to work hard or to be leaders: it’s more that the idea of being a “salaryman” of a different gender doesn’t sound particularly appealing.

Ask women if they’d like a well paid exciting job, though, and most of them say yes – provided they also have the freedom to pursue their own interests and, in many cases, have time for a rewarding family life.

Outside perspective

Women’s roles are going through profound change.

I think the best way for an outsider to understand the role of women – and men – is to try to gain a feel for the value system which guides Japanese society.

Otherwise, there’s a danger that foreigners will go seeking signs of discrimination – whereas in fact most women are asking themselves how they can best find happiness, in accord with their personal values and social expectations.