Women in leading positions, like the mayor of Sendai City, are rare in Japan. © Sonja Blaschke
Women in leading positions, like the mayor of Sendai City, are rare in Japan © Sonja Blaschke

„Japan’s biggest problem is the many old men everywhere who are clinging to their posts“

Japan’s workforce is shrinking. The government’s solution: women. Will this plan work in a country which lags behind in gender equality?

Sayaka Osakabe, an employee at a publishing house in Japan, was in her mid-thirties when she first became pregnant. She was unwell, and it was a busy time in the office. She soon lost the child. Her second pregnancy six months later didn’t go any better. Her doctor put her on sick leave and strongly advised her to take it easy for a while. After a week, her boss visited her at home. Her absence was causing problems, he said. Wanting to have both a child and a career at the same time was greedy, he told her. Osakabe went back to work. She lost her unborn child again. That’s when she quit.

A decade has passed since then. Osakabe’s story caused a public uproar at the time precisely because so many working women recognized themselves in it. According to surveys by the Japanese Trade Union Federation Rengo, one in five mothers, including expectant ones, were affected by discrimination, and one in four among temporary workers.

Even today, Japan is not exactly known as a poster child of equality. In the World Economic Forum’s June gender gap report, Japan fell nine places, ranking 125th out of 146 countries – a negative record and the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region. While Japan performs well in terms of access to health care and education, the large salary gap pushes Japan into 123rd place in terms of economic participation and opportunity.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been trying to counter this: Since August 1, for instance, companies with over 300 employees have to disclose gender pay gaps. In April, Kishida announced his intention to fill 30% of management positions in large companies with women by 2030.

Longtime leader Shinzo Abe had already wanted to achieve the same goal by 2020, however. But despite buzzwords such as „womenomics,“ which at least brought more attention to women’s advancement, Japan didn’t even reach half of its goal. Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, moved the finish line to „as soon as possible in the 2020s“. Now Kishida is trying his hand at it.

Women to lift Japan out of demographic crisis

Incentives to integrate women more into the work force are increasing. Japan is aging and shrinking at a record pace. Figures released in July by the Ministry of Interior show that there were only 122.4 million Japanese citizens in 2022, more than half a million fewer than the previous year. There is no improvement in sight: The birth rate has been falling for years. Only 87 million people are expected to live in Japan by 2070.

Compensation by more immigration is only an option within strict limits – selected industries, limited length of stay, rigorous testing. Japan’s government prefers to focus on women.

While only 15 years ago around 70% of Japanese women dropped out of the labor market with marriage or their first child, women’s employment rose from 64% (2010) to 74% (2021) thanks to measures such as more childcare and career advancement, according to World Bank data.

But in leadership positions, women remain scarce at companies with more than 5,000 employees, accounting for just 8%. The situation is slightly better for small and medium-sized enterprises at least, where women account for 21% of higher positions.

While men are almost automatically placed on the career path, women are often only confined to the path of assistance work, temporary employment or part-time work. This does have some advantages: less overtime, fewer busy nights with customers and colleagues and no risk of being transferred to a different location every few years.

The disadvantages, however, are reflected in the lack of opportunities for advancement and on the pay slip: Japanese women on average earn only about 67% of men’s salaries, according to consultancy Willis Towers, which analyzed the balance sheets of 2,000 companies in July.

More and more Japanese fathers taking paternity leave

Something has at least improved: Talking about discrimination against women and mothers in the workplace is no longer taboo. Back then, she felt very alone, Osakabe tells us in our conversation. Today, the expression „mata hara“, short for „maternity harassment“, has entered the Japanese vocabulary.

In 2014, Osakabe founded the charity Matahara Net. In 2015, she was one of only a few recipients from non-developing countries to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the American State Department. This external pressure helped: Two years later, Japan passed an anti-discrimination law.

The new head of Matahara Net, Naoko Sasaki, writes that requests for help have since decreased. In general, the awareness among companies that they are breaking the law has increased – as has the fear of a controversy on social media. And with labor shortages, more and more companies are realizing that they cannot afford bad publicity.

In the mid-1980s, a popular saying went: „A good husband is healthy and not at home.“ Not much about this has changed to this day – except that after three decades of deflation, fewer families can afford a woman to be a „sengyo shufu“ (professional housewife) than in the times of the country’s economic miracle. The Japanese parenting ideal of the self-sacrificing mother, who shapes her child especially in the first three years of life and therefore has to take a step back professionally, also persists.

Many women feel suffocated between raising children, working and caring for aging family members, Osakabe says. And few husbands are as dedicated as her partner, who works at a consulting firm: While she does the cooking, he does the laundry and the dishes.

In this area, too, there is potential for Japan to change course. In addition to the level of household income, support from their spouse plays an important role in women’s decision for or against children and for or against careers. A change in thinking is already taking place. It has become easier for Japanese men to take parental leave, for instance. While just a few years ago every man who took a week off was celebrated, the trend is now moving towards one month and more. According to the latest data, 17% of fathers took a break after giving birth – however, these numbers include anyone who takes off even a single day for their newborn.

„What’s with the children?“

Japan’s crash in the gender gap report despite visible progress is also due to the fact that the situation in other countries has improved much faster. Especially in Japanese politics, there is still a lot of room for improvement for women: Japan ranks 138th in the world in this regard. Only one in ten people in parliaments is female, and there are even fewer female ministers. A photo of the G7 ministerial meeting on gender in June earned Japan derision as the only G7 country to appoint a man to the post.

Osakabe, who has since entered politics herself, knows this from experience: „Japan’s biggest problem is the many old men everywhere who are clinging to their posts,“ she says.

The reaction to Osakabe’s election poster, with which she ran for political office for the first time in 2019, was symptomatic of the lack of understanding towards women and mothers in politics. „What’s with the children?“ she was asked. Her poster showed two young children hugging her. They were her own, then under one and two years old.

The now 46-year-old has been sitting in the district parliament of Aoba in the city of Yokohama since spring. She’s the only „Mom Representative“ there. She says she now hopes to set an example for other women through her political work – despite having two young children.