She’s blond, she dresses well, is a not so outspoken ‘feminist’ and manages to ‘have it all’, balancing her roles as successful entrepreneur, mother of three, and style icon. No wonder Ivanka Trump has become a media darling in Japan.
So why the empty seats when she went to Japan to talk about ‘female empowerment’? Maybe because ‘empowerment’ is a culturally contextualised concept and what Ivanka Trump represents is idealised within Japan but far from reality. Her ‘reality’ is something most Japanese women won’t ever achieve-not because they aren’t as beautiful or successful as Ivanka, but because societal norms surrounding gendered behaviour are so culturally different. I imagine most people who attended this conference wanted something a bit more meaningful, especially given the lack of progress for gender equality within Japan. According to the latest figures from the recently published Global Gender Gap Reports, Japan dropped even further down the rankings in 2017 to 114 out of 144 countries, with the highest gaps being, yet again, in the number of females in management positions or within parliament.
Gendered norms in Japan
The gendered norms in Japan are ingrained within society and are one of the barriers to realising the targets set by Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ policies back in 2012, not least because the way women are expected to act are still at odds with the traits needed to get up into the higher ranks of business. Japan is awash with portrayals of strong women but somewhere along the line, they get pressured into reflecting the archetypal feminine traits that Japanese society feels comfortable with or they are criticised as being too aggressive or unfeminine. When the trailer of the recent Wonder Woman film first came out in Japan, it was automatically given the cute ‘kawaii’ voice-over treatment to make it more palatable. Encouragingly, Japanese women called this out on social media, most probably recognising that constantly being expected to act in a ‘cute’ and ‘non-confrontational’ way is not always appropriate and will certainly not support any female empowerment initiatives.
Japan is facing a demographic time-bomb. If Japan is committed to solving this demographic time-bomb through creating a business environment that supports increased female labour alongside higher fertility rates, it will entail grass-roots societal as well as meaningful governmental intervention. Japan may soon be able to defend itself again but if they don’t start tackling this issue on a deeper level at every opportunity they get, they may not have a population to defend.