Japan reaches top rank – in gender inequality

by Michelle Liebheit

As The Mainichi reported last month, Japan has been slipping down on the gender gap ranking for the last couple of years. This year it finally reached the lowest rank in gender equality within industrialized countries. We talked about this topic various times in class too, but most of our discussions were based on perception rather than data. I was therefore interested how gender equality in Japan is really doing and the data I found was still surprising.

First, the gender gap report shows some interesting numbers. Whereas the unemployment rate is very low for both genders in Japan (women 4%, men 5%), we see a huge difference in the type of employment. 35% of the female labour force works part-time. If we compare this to their male counterparts, of which only 10% are part-time employees, the difference is clearly visible.

Other major points for Japan’s bad performance are due to a lack of political empowerment (ranking 118 out of 135 in the subindex). In the current diet, only 8% of the parliament seats are hold by women. Moreover, Japan has had no female head of state since the establishment of a parliament in the late 19th century.

This numbers seem quite shocking, but actually Japan has established a very good basis for empowerment in all areas of life for women. A high number (56%) of women is attending tertiary education such as universities and specialized schools. Japanese women are more educated and skilled than ever before. They hold their own bank accounts and have good health. However, at some point most of the female population drops out of the system and their potentials are being overlooked.

So what is still hindering Japanese women from becoming more equal to their male peers?

The major changing point in the life of a Japanese women is having children. Women’s maternity leave is from 6 weeks before childbirth to up to 8 weeks after childbirth. The (expecting) mother will be receive at least 2/3 of her last salary and other benefit, during this time. After childbirth both parents are eligible to take 12 month parental leave each with receiving 50% of their last earnings. However, a survey (2008) found at that only 1.23% of male employes take parental leave, compared to 90.6 percent of mothers. Only receiving half of one’s income can be a huge burden to families. Since the father’s income is likely to be higher than the mother’s, he will keep his job in order to financially secure his family. However, because kindergarten placements are very scare and difficulties in re-entering the job market, childcare often becomes the mother’s task only.

OECD’s studies have shown some further indicators of Japan’s gender gap. Japanese women spend around 270 minutes per day on domestic work, whereas Japanese men are spend around 60 minutes for housework per day (the OECD average being 131 minutes!). Housework clearly seems to be a female task. Moreover, childcare seems to be a female task too, since many women are only employed part-time. Only 28% of Japanese children under three are enrolled in a childcare institution, this meaning that the rest are being cared for most likely by their mothers. In comparison with other OECD countries, Japan ranks fourth lowest when it comes to public spending on childcare and preschool services.

Once women dropped out of the workforce due to maternity and childcare, it becomes very difficult for them to get a similar position afterwards. What the job market offers mothers will be most likely temporary, low paid, non-regular and part-time. Japanese mothers earn on average 61% less than men (full-time workers between 25 and 44) and even the total average income gap of the working force is still nearly 30%, without taking children into account. Due to this fact many Japanese mothers would rather stay at home than work, if their husband’s income can allow it. Additionally, the Japanese tax system actually disfavors married couples with two full-time incomes.

Creating more opportunities for mothers to re-enter the job market would have a huge impact on Japanese economics. Solving this problem and creating work possibilities for these women would rise Japanese GDP by 16% as the gender gap reports states (2010). Moreover, a change in Japanese society‘s perception of motherhood is urgently needed, if Japan wants to stop its population declining and create a more friendly atmosphere for women.


The Mainichi. Japan slips further to 105th in gender equality ranking. 10/25/2013. http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20131025p2g00m0dm026000c.html

The World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report 2013. http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2013/

OECD Better Life Index. Work-Life Balance (Subindex). http://oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/work-life-balance/

The Japan Times. Pay gap worst for Japan’s mothers. 12/19/2012. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2012/12/19/national/pay-gap-worst-for-japans-mothers/

The Japan Times. Parental leave still finds dads in huge minority. 06/02/2010. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2010/06/02/news/parental-leave-still-finds-dads-in-huge-minority/


Structural Denial of Ethnic Diversity in Japan

by Sten Alvarsson

Japan’s ethnic diversity is continuing to be denied at the expense of a more equal and inclusive society. Ironically, equality and inclusivity are both at the heart of mainstream Japan’s perceived identity. This could be described as “ethnicity blindness” and is best described by Professor Kondo (2013) who states that, “Japan is still the only developed industrialised democracy that does not have an anti-discrimination law” (para. 6). This can be seen as a result from the belief that racism and discrimination do not exist in Japan so, therefore, there is no need to have laws targeting such behavior. On the whole, however, ethnicity blindness is not the most accurate depiction of the situation regarding ethnic minorities in Japan. Instead, the inequality and exclusivity regarding the country’s ethnic diversity is what I would describe as being “ethnic denial”.

While Japan’s ethnic diversity is fully comprehended by the country’s ethnic minorities, amongst the Yamato majority, however, the belief in a monolithic and homogeneous national identity persists. This belief is structurally enforced which was highlighted by the country’s 2010 census which failed to provide a measure for ethnicity (Japan Times, 2010). Instead, only nationality was measured without the acknowledgment of the ethnic diversity that exists under the umbrella of Japanese citizenship. This structural denial of the ethnic diversity of minority groups includes the Ainu, Koreans, Ryukyuans, Chinese, naturalized citizens and children from mixed marriages. Ethnic minorities are ignored despite the fact that minority groups such as these make up around 10 percent of the local population in areas such as the Kinki region of central Western Japan (Sugimoto, 2010). This structural denial is one of the keystones in maintaining the myth of a national identity that is both monolithic and homogeneous.

Japan’s structural denial of ethnic diversity within the country in order to enforce the myth of a monolithic and homogeneous national identity is not only a domestic issue but is also of international consequence and concern. Japan uses its perceived ethnic and cultural purity to ignore its international obligations as a signature member of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Instead, Japan maintains a policy of neglecting asylum seekers and rejects the overwhelming majority of their claims (Dean & Nagashima, 2007). In fact, from 1981 to 2007 Japan only accepted 451 refugees (Sugimoto, 2010). Sadako Ogata, a Japanese national who served as the former High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 – 2001 stated that one of the fundamental reasons for Japan’s exclusion of asylum seekers is due to, “prejudice and discrimination against foreigners which is based upon the mono-ethnic myth” (as cited in Dean & Nagashima, 2007, p. 497). It must be remembered that this mono-ethnic myth has no historical routes and was brought into popular consciousness after the Second World War.

Ethnic diversity in Japan needs to be acknowledged and accepted. Unlike the country’s last census in 2010, Japan’s next census in 2015 should strive to measure its ethnic diversity. In order to achieve this, such questions as, “Where were you born?”, “Where were your parents born?” and, “What national origin or ethnicity do you consider yourself to be?” should be included in the census. As a multicultural country, Australia recognises 275 different cultural and ethnic groups in its census (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). For Japan, there is no excuse not to also measure the diversity that exists amongst its citizens.

The structural denial of ethnic diversity in Japan needs to end in order to contribute to a more equal and inclusive society for all its members. After all, in Japan there are over 100 different varieties of the chrysanthemum flower (kiku 菊) with a myriad of different colors, scents, sizes, textures, patterns and durations. Wouldn’t it be a shame if Japan only recognised a single variety of chrysanthemum and denied the existence of the rest?


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/1249.0main+features22011

Dean, M., & Nagashima, M. (2007). Sharing the Burden: The Role of Government and NGOs in Protecting and Providing for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Japan. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(3), 481-508.

Japan Times. (2010, October 5). Census blind to Japan’s true diversity. Retrieved from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2010/10/05/issues/census-blind-to-japans-true-diversity/#.Umt_AflmhcZ

Kondo, A. (2013, May 6). Can Japan turn to foreign workers. Retrieved from http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/05/06/can-japan-turn-to-foreign-workers/

Sugimoto, Y. (2010). An Introduction to Japanese Society (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Japan to Foreigners: Tell Us How Impressive We Are

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From the Japan Times

by Robert Moorehead

The above photo and caption from the Japan Times really says a lot about Japanese attitudes toward the country and the rest of the world.

The article is about a symposium in which youth from various countries, and dressed in their ethnic attire, gave short speeches in Japanese about peace and communication. Hailing from the United States, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Romania, Kazakhstan and China, the speakers spent a month in Japan, visiting various sites, including Toyota Motor Corporation and tsunami-hit areas of Tohoku.

One speaker discussed the need to challenge Japanese stereotypes of Romania as a dangerous place. Another discussed the need for people in Poland to become more rule-abiding, like the Japanese.

We can analyze the symposium, and others like it, as performances that are staged to define meanings and relationships. In particular, the symposium is about “internationalization” and “native place-making.”

As Jennifer Robertson notes in her article “Empire of Nostalgia,” “internationalization and native place-making exist coterminously as refractive processes and products, and … together they index the ambiguity of Japanese national identity and its tense relationship with cultural identity (or identities)” (p. 98).

While the symposium includes the views of non-Japanese, the event is less about “securing a place for ‘real’ foreign bodies in Japan and more about reducing the level of ontological anxiety supposedly experienced by Japanese” (p. 101) who worry about Japan’s place in the world, or who are exposed to non-Japanese inside Japan.

The photo at the top of the article captures a telling moment, in which the speakers are asked to hold up signs displaying their thoughts on “the most impressive feature” of Japanese corporate culture. In other words, they were asked to tell their hosts how great they are.

The cynic in me imagines the conversation going a little like this: “First question, tell us how great our corporations are. Second question, tell us how great our culture is. Third question …” you get the idea. “Now go back to your countries and teach everyone how great we are.” By implication, the message is also how inferior the youths’ home countries are.

After spending a month in Japan, these youth are not going to be offering analytical insights on life in Japan, or on the merits or demerits of the organizational culture of Japanese corporations. But that’s not the point. The point is to reify differences between Japan and the rest of the world by dressing up foreigners in ethnic attire and having them talk about Japan from “foreign” perspectives.

Robertson notes something similar in the inclusion of foreign residents in a parade during the city festival in the Tokyo suburb of Kodaira. In 1992, City Hall allowed the first foreigner contingent to march in the parade, and required the foreigners to dress in kimono.

Instead of using the parade as an opportunity to display visually the differences represented by a multi-ethnic assortment of resident foreigners, City Hall has insisted on their marching dressed in kimono. Accompanying the sartorially Japanized foreigners are Japanese residents wearing the stereotypical folk costumes of the representative foreign countries. Both parties are reduced to caricatures of cultural and ethnic difference in a spectacle informed by an underlying ontological anxiety (fuan). (p. 100)

… what is represented as ‘international’ is but dominant stereotypes of the national characters, as it were, on parade (e.g. lederhosen for Germany and Stetson hats for the USA). Not only do the kimono-wearing foreigners reify Japanese tradition, but the diverse cultures they represent are reduced to the quaint and unthreatening images embodied by the costumed Japanese. (p. 117)

In 2006, my family and I participated in the city festival in Kasugai, in Aichi Prefecture. Our role was to sit at a table in City Hall so that Japanese could come up to us and practice speaking English. We smiled as people approached us and said hello, or pushed their children use the English they had been learning in school and private lessons. After two hours, we had sufficiently performed our role of reducing English-speaking foreigners to “quaint and unthreatening images,” while making Kasugai seem like a cosmopolitan hub of cross-cultural communication. There were no tables where Japanese could try their hand at speaking other languages, and my neighborhood still had crime-watch signs in Chinese posted in front of nearly every home, so Kasugai still had a long ways to go before it became truly “international.”

These events define Japanese and foreigners as distinct entities, and internationalization as a controlled space where the twain shall meet only briefly, and under safe conditions—like going to the zoo, except in this case, the animals are not asked to tell the humans how impressive they are.


Robertston, Jennifer. 1997. “Empire of Nostalgia: Rethinking ‘Internationalization’ in Japan Today.” Theory, Culture & Society 14(4):97-122.