Gender Inequality in Japan

Why is this an issue in Japan?

What is gender inequality like where you live? Drop a pin on your location by pressing the + sign in the top right corner and enter a number on a scale of 1-10 regarding what you believe is the status of gender inequality where you are (1 being the least gender equal and 10 being the most gender equal). I started off and added my number on Tokyo!


How do other governments deal with gender inequality?

I decided to compare Japan’s policies with that of Iceland, which has consistently been labeled the most gender equal country in the world. It’s important to note that no country in the world has achieved complete gender equality thus far—however, Iceland is the closest. I decided to focus on the issues of gender labor participation, pay gap, maternity leave and political participation and compared the policies and efficacy of the two.

Labor Participation There is around a 20% disparity between male and female labor participation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to bridge this gap through his “womenomics” policies: the primary goal of his program is to increase the number of women who assume leadership roles. The Diet passed a law that requires companies with 300+ employees to gather data on gender employment and outline how they plan to improve working conditions for females. Despite these progressive policies, the government is reluctant to require gender hiring quotas. There is around a 4% disparity between male and female labor participation. In an effort to close this gap completely, the Icelandic parliament, in cooperation with various members of women’s rights groups, passed an act regarding gender hiring quotas, stipulating that companies with 50+ employees must have at least 40% of both genders represented on their boards.
Pay Gap Women get paid 30% less than their male counterparts. Of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Japan has the third highest. Many have argued that a concrete “equal pay for equal work” law is necessary, which would introduce labor contracts that pay based upon productivity, rather than working hours—while the Abe administration has put equal pay at the top of their growth agenda, they have yet to legislate it. Women get paid 14~20% less than their male counterparts. In response to a strike by women workers that occurred late last year that protested this persisting gap, the Icelandic government has entered 2017 with a proposal for a law that would require companies to show they pay men and women the same salary for equal work. This law would apply to companies with 25+ employees and would be implemented on a national level.
Maternity Leave Women’s right to request up to 14 weeks of maternity leave with a guarantee of 60% pay during the leave exists. However, the governmental action contradicts the actual labor force participation pattern for women, which shows that most women stop working after giving birth. This is because of the aforementioned maternity harassment women face, and companies often create their own rules about the timing of leave payments in such a way that would motivate employees to quit rather than to return after a leave, rendering this policy ineffective. In addition, taking the leave itself is frowned upon, as Japanese work culture emphasizes face time, required social gatherings, and commitment to the company, which creates a corporate environment that is difficult for mothers to manage. In 2000, Iceland passed a landmark parental leave act which grants every parent three months’ paid non-transferable leave, and an additional three months for the parents to share at their own discretion. Both parents get paid 80% of their salary, and 90% of men take up their paternity leave. To summarize, in total, parents receive up to 9 months of paid maternity leave. This has rewired the social engineering of the country by including both parents in the leave process through specific legislation, and has also improved the quality of work of mothers, as they return to work after giving birth at a faster rate.
Political Participation Of the 717 members who serve in the Diet’s upper and lower houses, only 78 are women. While a few prominent females have pushed to top government positions (the governor of Tokyo, for example, is a recently elected female), they still only hold a small minority. Abe has created a target of raising the number of women in political leadership roles to 30% by 2020, but a 2016 poll found that over 70% of those surveyed called this goal “unachievable”. Of the 63 seats in parliament, female members hold 30 seats, putting female representation at 48%, or the most equal in the world without a quotas system. This success despite the lack of government intervention has been accredited to both the government’s close cooperation with women’s advocacy groups, as well as the country’s more gender equal culture.


“Womenomics”: An Interview

Kathy Matsui, a Harvard University graduate, is not only the chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, but also the woman who coined the term “womenomics”: she argues that the economic development of women in the workforce will work to solve the issue of economic stagnation in Japan. Her research has served as the basis of Prime Minister Abe’s economic reforms and growth program. As she is both a woman in the Japanese workforce and a primary contributor in the Japanese policy-making aimed at empowering women, I interviewed her and asked her questions regarding her experience.

Q: What prompted you to come up with the term “womenomics”? Have you had any personal experiences with gender-based discrimination?
A: Since my job is advising global investors about Japan’s economic and financial market outlook, the consensus view back in 1999 (when I wrote my first research report on Womenomics) was that Japan’s long-term growth prospects were fairly gloomy because of the severe demographic outlook. However,

I noticed that while I returned to work after having my first child in 1996 (Tycho), it dawned on me that many of my Japanese female mother friends were not all returning to work. While I naturally respect the individual decisions of those who chose not to return to their careers, I also have many friends who wanted to return, but for a variety of reasons, were unable to. This is when I thought that if some of these obstacles could be overcome, and more women could participate in the workforce, Japan’s economic prospects would improve. Importantly, I was trying to advocate the need to give women more options with their lives. Since I noticed that Japan’s female labor participation ratio was one of the lowest in the developed world at the time, I simply tried to propose that one part of the solution to Japan’s demographic challenge was to find ways to raise female employment; hence: Women + Economics. I’ve not experienced gender-based discrimination myself, but since I’ve only worked for foreign companies in Japan, I don’t think my experience is typical, since I know other women who have experienced such challenges at Japanese organizations.

Q: Is there anything unique you observe about the way in which gender inequality manifests itself in Japan?
A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily unique to Japan, but I have observed that the level of self-confidence among Japanese women tends to be somewhat lower than women in other Asian countries, so it is important to find ways to build self-confidence.

Q: What can young people do to promote institutional change in regards to gender inequality?
A: Education to raise more awareness about the realities of gender inequality. Clarifying misperceptions and educating society about the facts is critically important. It’s also crucial for young people to be aware of their own unconscious biases.



Through both the comparison between Japan and Iceland and the statements made by Kathy Matsui, it is clear that Japanese policies must do the following three things: work-related laws must be more stringent, parental leave reform must occur, and lastly, the culture and work environment of Japan must be altered. Following the Icelandic model, I revisited the four aforementioned issues and came up with possible solutions that the Japanese government could implement in an effort to combat gender inequality.


Labor Participation

  • An expansion on “womenomics”
    • While a requirement for companies to outline future plans for reform is beneficial, a gender hiring quota must exist to expedite the process of securing equality. Mirroring Prime Minister Abe’s goal for females in politics, a provisional requirement for 30% of both genders to be represented in management positions in companies could create a concrete outline for companies to follow. Once this quota is met across all companies, the government could look into increasing the proportion.


Pay Gap

  • “Equal pay for equal work” law
    • The Abe administration should make more strides towards legislating equal pay for equal work (as no concrete law currently exists), rather than by time worked, which would create more flexible contracts and a better working environment for women who wish to balance their careers while still taking care of their children. This could also curb maternity harassment, as women would begin to be viewed as a more valuable resource in business.


Maternity Leave

  • Inclusive leave
    • Expanding parental leave to include paternity leave would both increase the amount of time parents can spend with their children, but also ease the pressure on women to return to work before they are ready, or from quitting altogether. This could take the form of more family-focused legislation, as well as a higher pay ceiling that would incentivize fathers to take the leave as well. In addition, making this a quota based nontransferable system instead of a shared leave system would ensure that fathers would not just force mothers to take male leave time.


Political Participation

  • Cultural reform
    • Abe’s 2020 promise is one that should be kept and the stigma that surrounds Japanese women in power must be eliminated. This is, however, a two-way street: cultural reform would follow equality-driven legislation, and legislation would be more effective with a change in culture. Once more women participate in politics, the previously mentioned issues would be much easier to solve through the passing of laws that seek to protect and empower Japanese women. Eradicating “unconscious biases”, as Kathy Matsui stated, through the raising of awareness among young people is imperative and could change the tides of gender in Japan.


What underscores Japanese gender inequality is a culture that affirms it. Although quotas and regulations may seem to falsify a gender equal society, in actuality it will facilitate the creation of one: the increase of female role models in both the workplace and in politics will surely begin to reform the stereotypes held of Japanese women today.


Your Turn

Which issue do you believe is the most important to solve first?

Labor participation
Pay gap
Maternity leave
Political participation


Want to do more?

The National Women’s Education Center is a resource that is great for people with little Japanese ability. It provides databases that pertain to the struggle women face, and also lists non-profit organizations that you can get involved in that raise awareness and seek to change the unequal culture of Japan. If you live in Japan/visit, you can participate in orientation seminars held by the organization. Visit their website here:

Gender inequality in Japan is a microcosm of gender inequality worldwide—raising awareness and promoting institutional change in your community will begin to bridge the divide between the sexes on a broader scale and inevitably bring about global change.




**all video footage is self produced


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