Japanese Women in Society

Posted on 16 August 2013 in Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight, womenomics -

Blog May 2013

Japanese Women in Society

When I came back from Japan in 1999, I was invited to give a speech at the Japan Society about my experiences in Japan and to choose a subject of my choice. I chose to talk about my views on Japanese women in society and this speech was very cleverly edited and published in “‘Japan Experiences-Fifty Years, One Hundred Views-Post War Japan through British Eyes’. I remember it caused quite a stir as I was must have seemed quite judgmental and it was not the glowing insight into Japanese life that maybe some members were expecting.

It spoke mainly of my frustrations in Japan as a woman in such a male-dominated, patriarchal society, where office women performed menial jobs, poured the tea, took lower salaries although they weren’t expected to stay as long as their male counterparts and were woefully underrepresented in management and decision making. I also expressed irritation by what I perceived as social pressures on girls and women to “be cute and child-like, carry bags with little kittens on, speak in high child-like voices and exclaim “kawaii” at everything” (see April blog for insight into kawaii culture) On TV and in certain manga, women were portrayed as defenceless and infantile which I found and still find offensive and I believed that the way they were perceived by the media and how they behaved did not allow women to be taken seriously as equal members of society, especially in business.

In hindsight, I can honestly say I still agree with my views although I didn’t have the depth of understanding and maturity that I have now to see how culturally ingrained and multi-layered they are. I have described the culture of kawaii in my April blog and that certainly is as prevalent today as it was then, if not more so. (see News May)

However, things in the world of business do not seem to have improved significantly -the percentage of women in senior management in Japan in 2012 was an embarrassingly low 5% (one of the lowest in the world) compared to 46% in Russia and 32% in the ASEAN countries. However, there are so many  cultural, legal and political barriers facing Japanese women, it is not an easy issue to address by just imposing Western values or quotas, as some commentators on Linkedin implied, when it was suggested that the appointment of a high-profile woman Catherine Kennedy as the next Ambassador to Japan would solve this issue by giving Japanese women something to aspire to!

According to Yoshio Sugimoto in her seminal sociological research on Japanese Society, Japan’s female labour participation rates  still lag behind other industrialised societies and part-time work has become the dominating option for women wanting to re-enter the market after child rearing. This has led to a predominance of housewives who go back to work later in life not for economic independence or career progression but to supplement their family income.

She sees the reason for this as being because Japanese business leaders have traditionally split female labour into two tiers. The first tier are the largest category, who are expected to play less important roles in their company and are not expected to follow a career path. The second tier of female employees, who want to carry on working full-time, are expected to take on the same working conditions as men: working long hours, accepting transfers to jobs far away from family and to carry on working without interruption during the child-rearing phase of their lives.

This split can be better understood by looking at the traditional cultural expectations placed on Japanese employees-until relatively recently, Japanese employees (traditionally the male) have stayed at one company for life, have dedicated themselves to that company above all else and have received many benefits by doing so. Japanese corporations place great emphasis on intensive on-the-job training and expect their employees to take part in high levels of work-related socialising-an integral part of Japanese business practice-used in building relations and cementing deals. From a human-capital point of view, this training is not given to women who can’t fulfill these obligations to the company because of child rearing. If you add into the mix the rapidly ageing population and the cultural expectations that women take on the traditional role of carer alongside the fact that the majority of Japanese companies don’t let their employees take leave to look after elderly relatives not to mention the woeful lack of childcare places and the intense competition for the existing ones, you can see why the female participation figures are so low.

There is hope though- although the LDP have in the past expressed rather chauvanistic views, Abe san has hopefully recognised the potential of his under-utilised female workforce in his growth strategy and has included it on his 3rd arrow of Abenomics (see April News)  It remains to be seen and believed but I for one believe in the women of Japan!


Cortazzi, H. Japan Experiences Fifty Years, One Hundred Views, Post-War Japan Through British Eyes, 2001, JAPAN LIBRARY

Sugimoto, Y. An Introduction to Japanese Society 3rd Edition, 2010, Cambridge University Press

Grant Thornton International Business Report 2012, Women in Senior Management: Still Not Enough www.internationalbusinessreport.com

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