Written by Annie H Jones
Japan has the third largest economy in the world and storms ahead in the field of technological innovation. But despite its advancement on many levels, Japan is one of the least progressive developed countries in terms of gender equality. This covers a number of areas from the gender pay gap, maternity leave rights and laws against sexual harassment.
Japanese women are stereotypically portrayed as the submissive housewife that dutifully looks after the children, does all the housework then serves her husband when he returns from work. She is passive and unopinionated leaving the man to exercise his power as the aspiring breadwinner. Now, it goes without saying that stereotypes often miss the mark with out-dated or exaggerated versions of the reality. However, this typecast is so widely believed to be true, inside and outside of Japan, that the expectation to fit this mould is drilled into women’s heads from all directions.
While the more recent generations in Japan tend to have less traditional views of male and female roles, it is hard to deny the lingering presence of sexism. Found in adverts, popular variety TV shows and on entering the workplace, this suffocates many women in Japanese society. This all appears to contribute to the acceptance of objectifying or patronising comments, the denial of women’s rights at work and the expectation of girls to be ultra-feminine.
I can confidently say that my own experiences living in Japan have brought me into contact with inspirational, assertive and ambitious Japanese women that tear this stereotype to pieces. You’ll be able to read a lot more about these women later on in this blog but, in order to set the theme, I wanted to take a closer look into the affect this stereotype has on Japanese women today. While it’s easy to sit back and judge a nation and their actions from the sidelines, I decided it was best to temporarily put my own speculations aside and get the answers straight from the horse’s mouth. I, therefore, created a survey covering the issues of work, marriage, children, sexual harassment and feminism. Thirty-nine Japanese women between the ages of 19 and 64 took part. So, here’s what I found out.
For the readers who identify as female, ask yourself this question: “What do you find hard about being female?” A number of answers came out of my survey, many revealing the difficulties that Japanese women face on a day-to-day basis. One woman felt that the hardest thing about being female is that “it is accepted that girls are brought up into a society where they are sexually objectified.” Japanese women are sexualised in the media not only within Japan but in a lot of the world. This objectification not only puts pressures on girls to obsess over the way they look but, even more worryingly, normalises the sexualisation and subsequentially the harassment of women, whether through words or actions.
“It is accepted that girls are brought up into a society where they are sexually objectified”
In many ways, Japan is a safe country with the conformist attitude resulting in one of the lowest crime rates in the world. You can see iPhones, laptops, purses – you name it – left on café tables while customers pop off to the toilet, even in the centre of Tokyo. In line with their disciplined public behaviour, it is not in the Japanese culture to cat-call girls in the street. On an eventful cycling trip around Japan, my friend and I were pleasantly surprised when cycling past large groups of workmen didn’t result in embarrassing fits of objectifying comments. (This was something we had grown quite used to after spending three months in South America). While this demonstrates that, of course, the majority of Japanese men don’t agree that women should feel intimidated in the street, unfortunately, sexual harassment is still very present in Japan but on a more discrete level. This ranges from subtle misogyny, that often goes unmentioned, to hidden physical harassment.
Several of my participants talked about experiencing sexual harassment in Japan, whether on the train, at work, at school or in the street. This ranged from face-to-face comments to physical violations. In more recent years, the frequency of these acts has been recognised and there are currently some preventative measures in place. These include “women only” carriages on the train at rush hour and the mandatory shutter sound on all iPhones made in Japan, which was introduced following the “upskirts” phenomenon where women, especially school girls, were having photos taken up their skirts in public.
Visitors to Japan are often amazed that women don’t speak out when harassed in public. However, in a culture that values a reserved, conformist attitude, it is extremely frowned upon to make a scene in public, regardless of your gender. Fear and embarrassment allow harassment to slip under the radar, all the while leaving women feeling powerless.
In a society where it is drilled into both men and women that youth and beauty are a woman’s two most valuable qualities, it doesn’t come as a great surprise that many women in my survey felt that they aren’t taken seriously, especially at work. One hundred percent of my participants under the age of 60 were in some kind of work. However, a large number of these 38 women felt that they were looked down on by men in the workplace. One woman voiced that: “Working in a male-dominated company can be tough.” Women in higher positions than men felt that they had comparatively less power and were still expected to tiptoe around men. One employer had even stated that he didn’t wish to hire a female candidate applying for a managerial role because he would feel “uncomfortable having to take orders from a woman”. Unsurprisingly, the majority of my participants also stated that the top positions in their company were largely filled by men, even those working in primarily female-dominated industries.
“Working in a male-dominated company can be tough”
If women make up 43% of Japan’s workforce, as the Japan Times reports, why are they often made to feel that they are dispensable? A conversation with a recruitment agent revealed to me that employers will often quite openly express their reluctance to hire women. Their reason being that a woman with children has less time for work and if she doesn’t yet have children she will probably get pregnant at some point and have to leave. This means that a woman in her late twenties or early thirties has a lower chance of being hired for a job or promoted at work, regardless of whether it has even crossed her own mind about having children.
Interested to know whether this was something that put women off having children, I asked the 35 women without children in my survey if and when they wished to have a child. While over 90% of the group did want children, the majority were happy to have them after the age of 30; with 34.3% saying between 32 and 35, and another 17.1% between 36 and 40.
Now, if we go back to our housewife stereotype, what are all these women going to be doing up until their thirties if not house-keeping and nappy-changing? Just like a lot of the western world, it’s clear that women are starting to prioritise other things before settling down. The difference is that, while some gradual advancements are being made to change the modern woman’s role in other countries, the laws and opinions in Japan are much slower on the uptake. According to OECD statistics, in 1970, women in the UK and Japan were entitled to a similar amount of maternity leave, with women allowed 14 weeks off in the UK and 12 weeks in Japan. But take a look at the stats in 2015 and you’ll see that Japan’s guaranteed maternity leave has increased to just 14 weeks while the UK has increased to 52 weeks. Only 25% of the women in my survey received maternity leave and, even then, this was in the form of insurance, which has a limit much lower than their salary. With the decision in the hands of the companies as to how much maternity leave women receive, the future looks unpromising unless the government takes more drastic measures.
Women are entitled to 14 weeks’ maternity leave in Japan and 52 weeks in the UK
Given the difficulties in juggling work and kids, the decreasing population suggests that more and more women may be choosing their careers over a family. However, societal pressures don’t facilitate this route either. Almost 70% of my participants felt that there was pressure on them to get married and have children. Although a lot of women felt that they put that pressure on themselves, they also felt that there were external expectations, including those from society, friends and, most strikingly, from their families. With almost 50% of the 39 women feeling pressure from their family to get married and have children, this demonstrates the expectations from older generations to fit the traditional female role. One participant talked about how unmarried women are pitied in Japan and treated as outcasts. In a culture where not conforming can cause shame to your family, it’s easy to see how women so easily slip into this role set out for them.
With women’s traditional role so deeply engrained in Japanese culture, the nation’s progression towards gender equality will most likely lag behind for some time. However, to finish on a hopeful note, when I asked my survey participants what they liked about being female, the overruling response was refreshingly positive. My research proved to me that this generation of Japanese women does have the strength to overcome the stereotype; to prove to others that they are not submissive, unopinionated or unambitious. As disproving this typecast is one of the main aims of my blog, I’ll be taking a closer look at individuals that are breaking down barriers and proving that gender should, and will, never be an obstacle.
Written by Annie H Jones