Can Japanese Women Serve the Nation by Serving Tea? The Jietai, J-Jobs, and Justice

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by Robert Moorehead

Japan’s Self-Defense Force is joining the nation’s efforts to offer more employment opportunities for women, through this recruitment campaign. Women can get a “j-na shigoto,” or a j-job. What’s a j-job? Actually there are 3 j’s, so you know it’s good: Jietai (self-defense force), joyful, and job. “Won’t you try?” says one of the uniformed women, photographed lounging about.

If Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to recruit more women into the workforce are to be successful, employers like the Jietai might want to rethink how they treat women. Are they workers, or are they eye-candy? Can they help defend the nation, or can they answer the phones? Serve the nation or serve tea?

As Laura D’Andrea Tyson noted recently in a blog post for the New York Times, Japanese women’s employment rate is 25 points lower than men’s, and when women are working, they are paid on average 28% less for equivalent jobs. Japanese tax laws also penalize two-income families, and Japanese women face a greater “mommy tax” than women in any other OECD country.

Plus, not only is childcare rarely available, but the burden of childcare remains clearly gendered in Japan. Policy debates of how to enable more women to work discuss how women, and only women, can better work the “second shift,” balancing work and family. Such proposals ignore men completely, even though my male Japanese students often tell me they too would like to be able to have a career and raise a family.

What’s behind the move to get more women into the workforce? Japan’s aging society needs more workers. As Tyson notes:

These initiatives are not motivated by softhearted political correctness but by hard-headed economic logic. Japan needs to expand its work force, which is shrinking rapidly as a result of a sagging birth rate and an aging population. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Japan’s working-age population will fall by almost 40 percent by 2050. The share of citizens older than 65 is expected to jump from 24 percent in 2012 to 38 percent in 2050, when the ratio of the working population to the elderly population will be 1 to 1.

“Japan is growing older faster than anywhere else in the world,” the I.M.F. reports. Unless the nation can shore up its work force, it faces a long-term drag on economic growth at a time of soaring obligations for old-age entitlements.

My university classrooms are filled with intelligent, highly trained women who are looking for career opportunities that take advantage of their skills. They do not want to be asked to serve tea, or be expected to quit when they get married or have children.

They want real jobs, not j-jobs.

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5 thoughts on “Can Japanese Women Serve the Nation by Serving Tea? The Jietai, J-Jobs, and Justice

  1. With due respect, couldn’t it be the high status of the institution you work for that’s making it appear as if young Japanese women want careers with growth and responsibility? I think if you drop down a bit in hensachi levels you’ll find a lot of women explicitly embracing “traditional” female roles as helpers, supporters, and potential wives of their future male coworkers.

    • Fair enough, but people’s goals and aspirations are shaped by their sense of what is attainable.

      For example, see David Slater’s 2010 piece on social class and education in Japan. After working-class male students make way through very low-status high schools, the very types of jobs that the men end up wanting are the ones that end up offering the lowest wages and least security. Slater’s article is great. I highly recommend it. (http://japanfocus.org/-David_H_-Slater/3279)

      There are women who embrace more traditional roles, including lower paying, less secure, service work. We need to understand such views as occurring in a system that systematically devalues women’s work. That’s not the only reason someone might want such jobs, but it’s an important one.

      Much of the potential growth that economists have said Japan could achieve if it had more women in the workforce would come from professionally trained women, including women who’ve graduated from institutions like Ritsumeikan. The economic cost of not having such women in the workforce is greater than that of women who attended a 2-year college or only graduated from high school.

      You’re right that my students’ views would likely be quite different if I were teaching in a different school. (Again, see Slater’s piece.) But I think my students show the potential that’s being lost, when women are reduced to service roles.

      • Thanks for the recommendation; that was an excellent article. It seems like there’s at least the potential for greater equality among “dry” jobs, as they don’t carry the baggage of being a virtual family with female workers the daughters. Maybe it would help women in full-time jobs if some of the “dry” connotations of contract work (exchanging a skill for pay rather than playing a role in a pseudo-family) were no longer seen as signs of deficient moral character.

      • Agreed. Women not wanting to take such jobs is just as problematic as the fact that there are less women in those jobs. What is it that is discouraging women from taking them? This is a global problem and everywhere seems to be struggling with it.

  2. Pingback: Japan Gender Reader: Sept. 2013 | The Lobster Dance

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