Understanding Japan’s Gender Inequality

The Japanese government is slated to pass the fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, which will be put into operation from 2021. While new targets will be added, the core of the plan is likely to resemble the plan presented in 2015. Although empowering women was one of the key strategies of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe with his so-called “Womenomics” policy, the results of this policy remain questionable as Japan failed to reach many of its gender equality targets for 2020. Given that Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, will likely follow in Abe’s footsteps, it seems ever more imperative to ask why Abe’s approach to achieving gender equality did not succeed in addressing the roots of the problem and what issues remain in the long run.

The Faultline of Economic Considerations

A central feature of Abe’s approach to gender equality was the fact that it focused almost exclusively on economic participation with the government presenting “Womenomics” primarily as an economic strategy. “Utilizing women (女性活用)” was the original term used when he addressed the need for more women to support Japan’s ailing economy, citing women as a key resource to address labor shortages. Emphasis was on the pragmatic benefits, such as the potential GDP growth as a result of empowering women, instead of the societal aspect which would have also included improving Japanese women’s overall well-being, from safety and health to dignity and self-fulfillment.

However, gender inequality is beyond an economic issue. Japan ranked 121st out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, marking the country as one of the lowest ranking in the world when it comes to female political empowerment. The ruling party LDP has long been representing its conservative values on gender and family when it comes to non-economic discussions, despite growing public opposition, especially among the younger generation. For instance, former prime minister Abe was the only one, among six other political party leaders, opposing amending a law allowing separate surnames for married couples in a debate in 2019.

Moreover, Abe’s approach to achieving gender equality overemphasises the role of women in the debate. A report issued by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting claims that this dominant female-focused approach was effective in terms of raising awareness of gender inequality but proposed that the next step is to shift the focus from “women” to “everyone”. While Japan is shifting from a single-income society to dual-income one, discussions and strategies over gender equality in Japan tend to be focused on introducing a better working environment for women which enables them to balance work and family life. It is as if in this very important debate on gender balance that men have been taken completely out of the equation. In fact, despite that more women are working, they on average spend 224 minutes a day on unpaid work while men spend merely 41 minutes, the lowest for men among OECD countries. As a result, women’s empowerment has simply added more responsibility for women both at work and at home.

Toothless Legislation?

For Japan to succeed in achieving gender equality in the long-term the next steps must go beyond economic considerations and an all-out female-focused approach. On October 01, 2020, the Ministry of Labor started discussing a plan to promote paternity leave, considering making it obligatory for companies to encourage their male employees to take such leave. In Japan, although men are entitled to take parental leave for up to one year, only 6 percent of eligible men took this offer in 2018, and more than half of those 6 percent took less than five days. A major contributing factor for this is believed to be the social expectations at work. When Environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi announced in January 2020 that he was going to take two weeks parental leave for his newborn baby, he was showered with both praise and criticism, with many questioning his commitment to being a minister. His experience vividly illustrates the dilemma men in general in the labor market face when they attempt to prioritize their family lives. Men in Japan have long been socially expected to devote themselves to their employers, and women were expected to be at home as domestic caretakers. The legislation to encourage paternity leave might play a major role in putting the spotlight on men in the gender equality debate, but reform in people’s mindset about gender roles should come along.

Other legislations to improve gender inequality have also been discussed recently. For instance, the #MeToo movement revealed Japan’s poor legal support for victims of sexual assault. As a result debates over legal reform of sexual crimes have been accelerated in order to protect sex crime victims. In addition, recent issues such as allowance of separate family names and enabling easier access to emergent birth control pills have been actively discussed among politicians.

The road to achieving gender equality in Japan has been riddled with controversy. Yet, the fact that more women are working in Japan than the past is at least a positive indication. However, to realize a gender equal society, recognizing gender equality not only as an economic opportunity but as a social challenge is crucial, and it should consider all genders holistically. One indication whether the Suga administration decides to move Japan’s gender equality ambitions to the next level might be seen in how they will handle the discussions over allowance of separate family names in the upcoming months, since this issue is rather a discussion over values and gender norms instead of economic considerations. In case the Suga administration actively steps up, more significant changes on gender equality can be expected in the near future.