“How would you like your tea, San?”: a tale of Japanese women’s working conditions

By Amandine Bruchet

One of the lessons about Japan I remember best from my Economic History teacher in Classes Préparatoires is the following piece of advice: “Girls, don’t go there for anything but tourism. Otherwise you will end up serving tea to men that may be less skilled than you are.” The recently released Gender Gap report suggest that this sentence, however dreadful it might sound, may not be an overstatement of current Japanese women working conditions.

Office Ladies (OLs)

Indeed, according to this report1, released on October 23rd of 2012, Japan ranks 101rd out of 135 countries on the Gender Gap Index 2012 that seeks to assess women participation in a nation’s economy and politics. Despite the fact that the female to male ratio with regard to enrolment in tertiary education is of 0.9, while that of literacy, enrolment in primary and secondary education is of 1, the overall female to male ratio of labor force participation is of 0.68, that of Estimated Earned Income ($ PPP) is of 0.53 and that of Legislators, senior officials and managers is only of 0.1!

Along the same line, Japan ranks as the most unequal of the world’s rich countries according to the UN’s Development Programs “gender empowerment measures”.

Given these figures, we may wonder: how could a country that is regarded as displaying one of the highest level of human development in the world still allow for such poor working conditions and consideration for its women? Are there any glimmers of hope for improvement on the horizon?

The problem of inequality between women and men as of economic participation is fourfold. To tackle it, Japan would first have to get more women in its workforce as only 67 % of Japanese women between 25 and 54 are currently employed. Second, Japan would have to battle to keep its active women in the workforce since 70% of Japanese women give up on their profession after giving birth to their first child, resulting in an “M shaped” Female Labour Force Population curve by age, instead of the inversed “U shaped” curve commonly found in other developed countries (See below). The third challenge Japan would have to take up is to improve women working conditions in terms of wages, responsibilities and stability. In Japan, only 43% of women succeed in finding full-time employment and only 10% of management jobs are held by women versus 73% and 43% respectively in the US.  Japanese women are paid on average 32 % less than men for equivalent positions and skills and typically occupy low-responsibility, part-time or clerical positions. Widespread employment patterns for Japanese women include tedious activities in factories and fisheries, nurses, school teachers, home care assistants and Office Ladies or OLs with duties such as serving drinks, opening doors, answering the phone and taking care of secretary work. The latter are described by their male counterparts as the “flowers of the workplace”. Finally and on a farther reaching scale, Japan would have to upset the way women are perceived within the workplace. In a recent Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey on why Japanese women do not play a more active role in companies, 43% of respondents said they lacked knowledge, experience and judgment. In October of 2010 the Japanese minister of the Economy raised an outcry by declaring: “Japanese women find pleasure in working at home and that has been part of Japanese culture” before using this assertion as an argument to raise men’s wages2.

The reasons for this disparity are likely to lie in a mix of cultural beliefs, policies and lack of care services.

Confucianism, Buddhism and Samurai-based feudalism are three of the most important sources of influence on the Japanese culture and society and all three contain some discriminatory features against women3. Confucianism states that a woman is to obey men as fathers, husbands and sons, Buddhism does not entitle women to salvation and the Samurai culture urges women to take care of men as if they represented heaven. Furthermore, in the absence of a welfare state, familism is at the core of the organization of the Japanese society and in this system women are expected to stay at home to take care of the children and the elderly while men are meant to be the breadwinners and provide financially for the family. It is a widespread belief that marriage and giving birth are the necessary conditions and priorities for Japanese women to reach self-fulfillment and husbands are commonly assessed on three criteria: the three highs- high level of education, high salary and physical height- or, more recently, the 3 Cs- Comfortable, communicating and cooperative- with both these formulas laying emphasis on the level of wages a man should earn in order to guarantee their wives with financial security.

In this overall setting, Japanese corporate culture has been especially unfavourable to women. Among its three pillars: lifetime employment, seniority-based pay and enterprise unionism, the first proved particularly harmful to the fairer sex’s economic participation. In addition, Japanese corporate culture relies on a morning-to-midnight work hours rule in which overtime and drinking and karaoke after work are crucial displays of loyalty to the company and opportunities of employee socialization. As a result, Japanese employers often prefer men because they stay with companies longer, don’t require maternity and child-care leaves and can work longer hours than women who in parallel have to cater to children and house chores. Women have to choose between committing to a career or raising a family because both are too time consuming to be carried out simultaneously, and husbands typically are not of much help- indeed,  a 1999 government survey found that Japanese fathers spent only 17 minutes per day on average with their children. Japanese women cannot turn to childcare and nurse care services either since the number of facilities to accept children are insufficient and ill-considered. However, while the lack of childcare is the primary reason for which most Western women quit their job after giving birth, the main reasons for which Japanese women give up on employment are “unsupportive work environments and managers who do not value them”4.

A unique series of policies in the 1980s further embedded the predispositions for a low women participation in the national wealth and set a breeding ground for full time housewives: Japan granted a rise in legal spousal heritance in 1980, established of a pension for full time housewives in 1985 and special income tax reductions for spouses earning less than 1 030 000 yen -about 12 500 $ less than a living wage- in 1986.

Nevertheless, emerging demographic changes in the Japanese population might be on their way to force change and bring along glimmers of hope for improvement. Indeed, the 1990 “1.57 shock”, the media denomination for the plummeting birth rate, was acknowledged as the direct consequence of Japanese women’s growing reluctance to surrender their careers to raise children. This propelled the government to develop a succession of laws to provide women with better job security and allow for compatibility between building a family and leading a successful profession with the Childcare leave law in 92 and the Basic law for a Gender-Equal society in 1999. The combination of low fertility and expanding graying populations unbalance the active to total population ratio. While in 1990, there were 7 working age Japanese for each 3 children and elderly, the ratio should collapse to a 1 to 1 rapport by 2050. In this context, the necessity of bringing more women into the Japanese workforce and entitling them to higher responsibilities has been brought into limelight and begun to sink in. A 2010 Goldman Sachs report estimated that an increased economic participation of women could accrue the Japanese workforce by 8.2 million while boosting the GDP by 15%.

Current generations can already feel the change as both the number of women into the workforce and the % of those who hold on to their employment after conceiving are on the rise. However, much remains to be done as women participation is still of no comparison with that of men and since its growth fueled almost exclusively low-job positions. The laws that were created also need to follow up with sanctions against discriminatory companies in order to have greater impact.

Today, Japan can no longer afford to turn its heels on its highly educated women pool. In the short term, Japanese women may rather bet on working for foreign companies which match women consideration and rewards up to their true skills. In the medium term, however, Japanese employers might have to drive the transition by making flex time a priority. In the long term, mentalities of both Japanese men and women will have to change so as to break what has come to be commonly referred to as the “thick glass ceiling”, the lack of advancement opportunities for women in Japan.

A few courageous women such as Fumiko Hayashi, the mayor of Yokohoma and former top Honda salesperson, Takako Ariishi5, the only woman in a group of 160 heads of Nissan suppliers, Masako Nara, the first women to attain a senior executive position in Japan or Ari Fujii, the first female Japanese airliner captain, are already leading the way towards a more cross-genders equal Japan and making sure that future generations of Japanese women will have models to look up to in the corporate world.

May the force be with them, they will need it.

1. http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2012/

2. http://www.japanprobe.com/2010/10/17/dpj-politician-raise-mens-salaries-keep-women-at-home/

3. http://www.adelphi.edu/peoplematter/pdfs/Kimoto.pdf

4. http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/11/japans-working-woman-problem/

5. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/06/world/asia/06equal.html?_r=0

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