Japanese Women: In Pursuit of Gender Equality

Sherry L Martin. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


Crown Princess Masako of Japan embodies contemporary debates about the demographic crisis of a generation of women caught between traditional and modern gender roles. Masako Owada completed an undergraduate education at Harvard and graduate work at the University of Tokyo before joining the elite Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a bureaucrat. When this modern career woman left her job at age 29 to marry the crown prince, she married into the most traditional household in modern Japan where the pressures to produce a male heir began to mount almost immediately. After giving birth to her daughter and only child, her failure to produce a male heir created a crisis of succession. The anxiety over the future of the imperial family echoes widespread anxiety over the reproduction of the nation at large. Masako is symbolic of a generation of Japanese women who, in delaying marriage and childbirth to pursue their personal goals, seem to threaten Japan’s very existence.

Western stereotypes maintain traditional images of women while simultaneously positioning Japan at the outer edge of the technological, postmodern frontier. This static characterization of Japanese women underscores an inherent comparison that would be impossible if gender was not categorically defined in opposition to some imagined “other” who has been robbed of her agency to provoke change. Gender and Japanese womanhood have been constantly under construction by a state seeking to define, legitimize, and project its own version of modernity. Similarly, Japanese women have consistently contested patriarchal norms and have grown increasingly adept at using the gap that emerges from an ongoing juxtaposition of self and other to increase their own agency in rearticulating and subverting a gender-based hierarchy.

This essay focuses on select moments that capture transformations in gender role norms at different stages along Japan’s developmental trajectory. The first section draws on the work of historian Sheldon Garon and others to provide a broad overview of public debates around the role and status of women within the new Japanese state, from the Meiji period (1868-1912) through the short-lived era of Taisho democracy (1912-1926) and the early Showa period (1926-1945). Many parameters of political participation that privilege men at the cost of women’s subordination and serve to heighten institutional and structural barriers to gender equality in contemporary Japan were set during the prewar era. The remainder of the essay brings into focus institutional and structural factors that limit women’s political and economic participation in postwar Japan. Like the story of Japanese politics, the relationship between women and the state is one of continuity and change.

Historical Context

Between 1890 and 1945, the Japanese state actively intervened in civil society, redefining personal relationships in support of gender role norms deemed beneficial to its developmental goals (Garon 1997, ch. 4). Historical debate revolves around the extent to which women’s groups resisted or complied with the state as part of a strategy to forge a larger space for women in public life (Garon 1997, 115-116). This essay, in contrast, situates interaction between the prewar Japanese state and women’s groups within a broader global context. Modernization and development over the course of the 20th century, and globalization at the turn of the 21st, yielded new opportunities for the state and women’s groups to forge a new gender equilibrium.

Family registration supported the Meiji regime’s efforts to create a nation-state and consolidate its own power by controlling the lives of individual citizens. Established in 1872, the family registry (koseki) continues to loom large in the lives of individual Japanese despite changes to the system in response to legal challenges by those historically most disadvantaged by its enforcement (see Bryant 1991 for a comprehensive discussion of landmark court cases): resident Koreans, the outcast burakumin (the descendants of the occupationally based outcasts of the Tokugawa period [1603-1867], see McLaughlan 2006), illegitimate children, and women. Births, marriages, divorces, and deaths must be recorded in the family registry for formal recognition by the state as it is used to determine eligibility for state-conferred benefits such as education, income support, and issuance of passports (Bryant 1991).

The family registration system is central to the reproduction of hierarchy in Japanese society. Adoption of the family registration system fundamentally altered women’s status inside and outside the home by imposing a restrictive upper-class model of family upon all Japanese to delineate relationships that facilitated mobilization of a “family-state.” Although arguably women’s status during the Tokugawa period was lower than that of men, peasant women under the feudal order enjoyed relatively more privileges than elite samurai women, and the disparities between peasant women and men were fewer. Lower-class women exercised greater choice in ordering their intimate relationships as kinship structures were more fluid and legitimacy was conferred by local communities (Bryant 1991). Ostensibly adopted as a means of monitoring population growth and patterns of migration, family registration became a means of undermining local communities’ power by establishing a clear chain of command and responsibility, from grassroots to the state, through the figure of the male head of household. The head of the family held authority over all members and ensured their loyalty to the emperor (Mackie 2003, 23). After family registration was adopted, women were only recognized by the state through ties with male relatives.

The family registration system operated in tandem with the Criminal Code (1880), the Meiji Constitution (1889), the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), and the Civil Code (1898) to consolidate women’s subordination in the private sphere while excluding them from the public. At the same time that the Civil Code recognized individual rights, it established women as legal nonentities and codified paternal authority so that these rights would not undermine the patriarchal (i.e., family) system (Tokuza 1999, ch. 2). The male head of the family was financially responsible for all other family members and his authority extended to deciding permanent residence and granting permission to marry to women under 25 and men under 30 years old. Women could not own property or enter contracts, had no custody rights, and suffered penalties for adultery. The Imperial Rescript on Education used Confucian norms of loyalty and filial piety to construct an education system that bolstered the family system, taught women to be “good wives and wise mothers,” and “… creat[ed] subjects willing to serve the nation and the emperor” (Kaneko 1995).

Women’s resistance to the increasing encroachment of the state, evident from the start, began to gain momentum that culminated in an identifiable women’s movement during the short-lived era of Taisho democracy, the brief flourishing of party politics and popular participation that preceded Japan’s descent into militarism. The women’s movement took advantage of the state’s interest in harnessing women’s labor to meet its own developmental goals. The service of Western women during World War I in manufacturing, nursing, and philanthropy suggested to some Japanese leaders a need to relax their position that women’s place was in the home. As the state adopted the position that women had to be taught to become members of the state in order to work on behalf of the state, individual women and groups sought to influence the debate over women’s proper public role and expand their citizenship rights. A direct result of this effort were “moral suasion” campaigns, launched by Home Ministry and Ministry of Education officials, that organized women at every administrative level and focused on instructing women on how they could rationalize their home and work to improve the quality of life while fostering a spirit of sacrifice central to increasing household savings during a period of recession and high prices (Garon 1997, 125).

In harnessing women’s energies for national purposes, the state inadvertently aided the women’s movement in overcoming many of its collective action problems. Official recognition of the importance of women’s “municipal housekeeping” to state developmental objectives created an opportunity for women to stretch officially established parameters to shape their public roles. Women saw collaboration with the bureaucracy as a direct means of influencing policy making during a period when they were disenfranchised and barred from membership in political parties (Garon 1997, 117). Contemporary feminists are critical of women’s collaboration with the state during this earlier period because it committed subsequent generations of women to working within an established framework of collaboration with the state, which posed a considerable hindrance to an independent movement and its stated goals. But women’s efforts to work with and through the state during this earlier period produced some favorable results. In 1922, the prohibition on women’s right to sponsor and attend political meetings was lifted. Though women’s groups proliferated during this period of collaboration, the women’s movement had nearly 50 years of relatively independent development before establishing close ties with the state during the interwar period. As freedoms of association and speech were increasingly curtailed as the nation descended into militarism over the course of the 1930s, all groups were organized by the state. In collaborating with the state, women’s groups were able to secure a more important legacy in ensuring continuity between prewar and postwar movements. Indeed, the U.S. occupation revived many prewar women’s organizations to build a civil society that would support democratic norms over the long term.

Like movements for women’s political incorporation elsewhere, ideological tensions between those advocating equality versus difference were evident in the types of competing groups that emerged in prewar Japan. One author classifies women’s organizations of this period as Christian, patriotic, socialist, and feminist in an effort to capture the full ideological spectrum (Mackie 2003). The Japanese Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned against prostitution, actively critiquing male sexual norms while aiding prostitutes who sought escape. The Patriotic Women’s Association (Aikoku Fujin Kai), founded by Ioko Okumura in early 1901 to become the largest women’s organization of the Meiji period, was an outlet for nationalist women in their roles as wives and mothers. Between 1904 and 1909, socialist women wrote articles, signed petitions, and lobbied government officials to lift the ban on women’s political participation (Mackie 2003, 32-35). “New Women” embodied the anxieties extending from visible contradictions between a dominant rhetoric that sought to contain women to the private sphere and the increasing numbers entering the public sphere as students, laborers, artists, and activists (Mackie 2003, ch. 3).

Prewar activists Raicho Hiratsuka, Fusae Ichikawa, and Mumeo Oku led the New Woman’s Association (NWA) to work for suffrage and women’s liberation in December 1919. Efforts of the NWA are often credited for the government’s 1922 decision to lift the ban on women’s participation in political discussions and meetings. Fusae Ichikawa continued to struggle for women’s suffrage, spearheading the movement as leader of the League for Women’s Suffrage, established in 1924. With the aid of such organizations as the All-Kansai Federation of Women’s Organizations (Zen Kansai Fujin Rengokai), the largest women’s social service organization of the 1920s, Diet debate showed signs of thaw by 1931.

Just as the suffrage movement was poised for success, militarism took hold. The military-supported Women’s National Defense Association was founded in 1932. Ichikawa’s association, seeing that the push for suffrage was losing momentum, changed course to focus on concerns deemed more in line with those of the military state, such as consumer issues and social welfare supports for mothers and children. Ichikawa, after attending a meeting of the Women’s National Defense Association, came to see participation in this organization as instrumental in getting women out of the home (Kaneko 1995, 10). Consequently, she strengthened ties with the military regime when she accepted an invitation to participate in the Home Ministry’s election purification campaign of 1935-1936, an effort to rid electoral politics of corruption that masked the campaign’s true purpose of undermining party politics (Garon 1997, 141). Though the League for Women’s Suffrage disbanded in 1940, two years later Ichikawa assumed a prominent position within the Greater Japan Women’s Organization (Dai-Nippon Fujinkai), the state-sponsored umbrella organization that subsumed all existing women’s organizations for wartime mobilization. Ichikawa survived the war and, after being purged by the U.S.-led occupation for wartime collaboration, was elected five times to the national parliament where she continued the struggle for gender equality.

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

Rapid social change has not helped women to move from the periphery to the center of the formal political arena. The Japanese constitution of 1946 promised formal equality between men and women, stating, “all people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin” (Japanese Const. art. XIV). Even so, women have been unable to use the ballot as a means of increasing the number of women parliamentarians. Further, the ballot has not enabled women to hold elected officials responsible for ongoing gender-based disparities in society at large.

Women currently hold 9.4 percent (45/480) of seats in the Lower House and 18.2 percent (44/242) of seats in the less powerful Upper House of the Diet (Interparliamentary Union 2008). Ranked 102 of more than 136 nations evaluated by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the proportion of women in Japan’s top legislative body is far below what one would predict given the length of democracy and level of economic development. Though there is some debate about what constitutes the tipping point, scholars of women and politics agree that women must attain between 25 percent and 40 percent of any decision-making body to alter institutional norms and effectively pass legislation that benefits women as a group (Dahlerup 2006).

The number of women elected to the Lower House during the September 2005 election included a record number elected for the first time. Then Prime Minister Koizumi backed female “assassins” against Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) incumbents who, in not supporting his postal privatization project, were painted as members of an old guard opposed to a larger effort to reform the Japanese way of doing politics. Women candidates challenging incumbents were given preference on the proportional representation list to ensure their success even if they faced defeat in their showdown with incumbents in the single-member districts. Consequently, the LDP trebled its number of women politicians from 9 to 26, and women represented one-third of all lawmakers elected for the first time in the 2005 election cycle (Curtin 2005).

Cross-nationally, women tend to achieve higher levels of representation in local offices because the issues that animate local politics—public schools, municipal garbage collection and recycling, food safety, and social welfare—resonate highly with women who encounter these concerns within the context of their daily lives as wives and mothers. Until recently, Japan was an anomaly. The representation of women decreased at the prefectural and local levels. Women held less than 4 percent of all subnational assembly seats until the mid-1990s when women began to pick up more seats in the ensuing decade than in the five preceding decades. After the 2007 Local Unified Elections, women held 10.4 percent of all local assembly seats. Women have made the greatest advances on the ward assemblies in Tokyo where they approximate a critical mass.

Though women continue to be underrepresented at every level of government, women have turned out to vote at higher levels than their male counterparts since the late 1960s. Higher turnout among women, however, has not resulted in political parties that are more attentive and responsive to issues that resonate among women voters, because women do not vote as a bloc. Women’s activism of the 1970s and increased consciousness around gender-based disparities have not produced a consistent and significant gap in voting, where women are more supportive of left-wing parties and men are more supportive of right-wing parties, as has been observed in other advanced industrialized democracies. Equal proportions of men and women have supported a one-party dominant regime led by the conservative LDP.

Scholars have attributed conservatism among Japanese women, especially older generations and rural women, to socialization to traditional gender role norms. This view holds that because women tend to vote out a sense of civic duty that lacks an underlying interest in politics, they take voting cues from their husbands and are an easily mobilized base of conservative party support. Recent trends have motivated scholars to reevaluate the accepted wisdom as women voters now constitute a disproportionately high number of nonpartisan (or swing) voters who have brought a new level of uncertainty to national-level elections (Patterson and Nishikawa 2002; Martin 2004). Voting behavior analysts are exploring the possibility that different political orientations underlie similar vote choices among men and women (Steel 2004).

The weakness of the Japanese women’s liberation movement relative to parallel movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the West has often been attributed to the fact that a strong “gendered” consciousness did not develop among Japanese women because they did not have to mobilize to fight for the broad rights articulated within a constitution authored by the U.S. occupation. This perception is strengthened by the fact that nonfeminist grassroots movements that mobilize behind women’s roles as mothers have had more success than elite-led or feminist movements in mobilizing women to participate in the political process. Though women have been overrepresented in recycling campaigns, environmental movements, consumer movements, and anti-U.S. military base campaigns that are not fueled by gender consciousness, their efforts have resulted in policy outcomes that have improved the overall status of women while forging alternative pathways to participation in the formal political arena. In stretching their primary roles as wives and mothers to justify political participation, women in a variety of movements have been able to gain broad societal support and enter the formal political arena (Eto 2005). The Seikatsu Consumer Club has gained considerable attention as a citizen’s group dominated by “ordinary housewives” who have successfully stretched this role to cross into the formal political arena. The consumer cooperative evolved a political arm that runs slates of primarily female candidates for local assembly seats (LeBlanc 1999).

In fact, like its Western counterparts, the feminist arm of the Japanese women’s movement originated from broad experiences with student activism. Women activists who rallied against renewal of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and protested the war in Vietnam were deeply dissatisfied by their consignment to supporting roles that underscored their subordinate status in society at large. Heightened awareness of women’s subordinate status as a group translated into a broader consciousness of discrimination and the reproduction of inequality in Japanese society based on ethnicity, race, nationality, sex, and class (Mackie 2003). Though media ridicule of uman ribu (“women’s lib”) participants did not help the movement to gain widespread support, the concerns that feminist women articulated have gained increasing currency over time, giving rise to an ongoing and increasingly widespread debate. A number of scholars now agree that the lower visibility of the Japanese women’s movement fuels misconceptions about its impact. The women’s movement in Japan is difficult to locate, and its impact is difficult to measure, precisely because it does not resemble the movements in the United States and Europe. Small, grassroots organizations exist alongside national, mass membership organizations and, together, make up the approximately 900 women’s organizations primarily concerned with women’s issues that are currently active throughout Japan (Murase 2006). Aside from divisions that revolve around “equality” versus “difference” debates, which are also evident within the Western context, the Japanese women’s movement is also hindered by requirements to conform to a policy-making framework that functions to contain conflict.

The 1975 United Nations (UN) International Women’s Year is viewed as crucial to the revitalization and institutionalization of the contemporary women’s movement (Nuita, Yamaguchi, and Kubo 1994). The consensus that identifies this moment as a focusing event for the contemporary movement also reaffirms the ongoing importance of gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, in bringing about political change in Japan. The UN 1975 World Conference on Women in Mexico City ushered in the first International Year of Women with a focus on equality, development, and peace that was to be sustained throughout the UN Decade for Women (1976-1985). From 1975 onward, attendees at regularly scheduled UN events have returned to Japan to exert renewed pressure on government actors. And on each occasion, Japanese officials have taken some action, ranging from national action plans to establishing bureaucratic machinery to narrow gender-based disparities.

Women’s activism was crucial in compelling the Japanese government to stay the course toward ratifying the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 (see Nuita, Yamaguchi, and Kubo 1994 for a complete discussion). Upon approving initial adoption of the convention, however, Japanese government officials discovered that it would need to take action on more than 150 items to be in compliance. Consequently, the government balked at signaling its official commitment to future ratification and made no plans to attend the signing ceremony at the Second World Conference on Women held in Copenhagen in 1980. Women’s associations organized under the umbrella of the International Women’s Year Liaison Group, founded in 1975 by Fusae Ichikawa (86 years old at the time), launched into action to directly lobby bureaucrats and politicians while using the media to mobilize public opinion. In response, bureaucrats agreed to a course of action to ensure compliance by 1985, and the convention was signed in Copenhagen by Nobuko Takahashi, Japanese ambassador to Denmark and the nation’s first woman ever appointed to the post of ambassador.

Signing CEDAW underscored the difference between legal guarantees of equality and the experiences of everyday Japanese women. The sharp contrast served to further mobilize women to intensify their pressures on the national machinery of government. Over the course of the past decade, the loosely organized women’s movement increasingly has relied on a two-pronged approach to bring pressure to bear on the state. Recent decentralization and the diffusion of power to local governments provide increased incentives for feminists to lobby local political actors while continuing to exert pressure on national-level machinery through participation on advisory councils (Bishop 2002).

Advisory councils have opened up, in part, as a result of international pressure. In an effort to meet commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, the Japanese government pledged to meet a 20 percent target for women’s representation on all national advisory councils and committees. By September 2006, women had been appointed to 99.1 percent of all councils and committees and made up 31.3 percent of all representatives (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2001). Women’s participation on councils and committees has been credited as influential in decision making on long-term care insurance (1992) to assist in caregiving for the elderly, revisions to the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (1997), the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society (1999), and the Domestic Violence Law (2001) (Eto 2005).

Women’s access to advisory councils was also attributed to a chain of events triggered by the LDP’s brief fall from power in 1993, which culminated in the state’s acknowledgement of the cultural, structural, and institutional roots of gender discrimination in Japanese society. When the LDP returned to power in mid-1994, it was in coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) and New Party Sakigake. In June 1994, the Council for Gender Equality (CGE) was established by government ordinance as an advisory body to the prime minister. By 1996, Takako Doi and Akiko Domoto, both women, had ascended to the leadership of the SDPJ and New Party Sakigake, respectively; Domoto later became governor of Chiba prefecture in 2001. Party leadership afforded both women the opportunity to further their personal commitment to gender equality. The CGE, largely composed of senior feminist intellectuals, issued a report to Prime Minister Hashimoto on July 30, 1996, entitled, A Vision of Gender Equality: Creation of New Values for the Twenty-First Century. Mari Osawa, a political scientist and participant in the advisory process, notes that this was the first time “gender” appeared in a government document and the first time such a document framed a “gender equal society” that challenged the long-accepted norm that differences in the social functions performed by men and women are not inherently discriminatory (Osawa 2000). A Vision of Gender Equality formed the basis of the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society, which now defines a policy-making agenda on gender issues and constitutes a general framework for action plans that are encouraged at every level of government.

Limits to Women’s Political Participation and Representation

Though Japan ranks highly on the UN Human Development Index (8 of 177 nations ranked), it performs poorly on the Gender Empowerment Index (54 of 93 nations ranked) (United Nations Development Programme 2008). Japan’s low Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) score reflects the barriers women face in political and economic participation and decision making and the relatively limited control they exercise over economic resources. Political scientist Robin LeBlanc compares metaphorical “taxi citizens,” who are male, and “bicycle citizens,” who are predominantly female, to convey how differential access to resources lengthens the route by which Japanese women enter politics (1999, ch. 1). As taxi citizens, men have resources that guarantee them a direct route to participation in elite politics. Although this direct route may be open to a select number of women, most bicycle citizens must take a circuitous route, traveling back roads to arrive at the same point as taxi citizens. Upon arrival, bicycle citizens find that they must still behave like taxi citizens if their goals are to be heard within the elite political sphere.

Women lack the resources needed to successfully navigate the direct road to elite politics in Japan. Jiban (a local support base), kanban (name recognition), and kaban (financial resources) remain important to candidate success even after electoral reforms intended to eliminate the institutional incentives that made these resources necessary were adopted in the mid-1990s. During the pre-reform era, the nontransferable vote cast within a multimember district system pitted candidates from the same party against one another, resulting in an emphasis on name recognition and the delivery of pork as candidates were unable to distinguish themselves on the basis of ideology. Additionally, short and highly regulated campaign periods made it necessary for candidates to evolve some means of maintaining close ties with their support bases between elections.

Koenkai, candidate support organizations, represent one strategic response to institutional impediments to reelection. For a party to win the maximum number of seats in any multimember district, votes had to be distributed among the various candidates to ensure that no one candidate received so many votes as to undercut the success of another candidate from the same party. Koenkai offered a means for any one candidate to determine the minimum number of votes he or she needed while delivering the remainder of votes to the competing candidate from the same party. Politicians solidify ties with their support base through constituent service and repeated interactions at community and family events. Cultivation of ties over time requires deep pockets as politicians are expected to observe seasonal holidays and major events such as weddings and funerals with an exchange of greetings and gifts. Upon death or retirement, support of the koenkai can be transferred from one politician to another, and the transfers most frequently occur between fathers and sons or other close male relatives. The term “inherited seats” is used to refer to politicians whose legislative seats were previously held by a family member or political sponsor (see Taniguchi 2008 for discussion). Though replacement of the multimember district system with single-member districts was thought to alter incentives for koenkai, a loyal base of support is crucial to electoral success across all systems. Consequently, women remain barred from one of the most direct channels to political power in Japan.

Amakudari (descent from heaven), which refers to when elite national bureaucrats retire to begin a new career in business or politics, represents yet another avenue to elected office at every level that has also been traditionally closed to women. Amakudari is comparable to the “revolving door” and similarly functions to maintain iron triangles (close relationships between elected politicians, bureaucrats, and business interests). As a result of amakudari, former bureaucrats are overrepresented among candidates for office. Because Japan is a unitary system with power concentrated at the top, in Tokyo there is a strong local incentive to vote for candidates with strong ties to the central government to ensure equitable distribution of pork. Because women are underrepresented within the elite bureaucracy, they have not developed the personal networks that enable them to deliver pork to their districts.

Increasing women’s representation in elite politics is contingent upon gaining women’s increased access to those resources associated with “quality” candidates. Successful women candidates have typically looked more like their successful male counterparts: they have served at the local or prefectural level, they were former bureaucrats or secretaries to politicians, or they came from political families. At present, many women are unable to break into the male political arena because they do not enjoy the benefits that accrue with occupational prestige (Ogai 2001). Efforts are under way to change conventional understandings of what it means to be a “quality” candidate and forge alternative routes to elite politics. These efforts are extremely important given that the career paths of Japanese women and men diverge sharply. Consequently, women do not gain the mentoring, experience, and networking needed to facilitate their entry to politics.

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

The image of the self-sacrificing, full-time housewife is just as iconic as that of the harried and overworked Japanese salaryman. Yet the salaryman receives a disproportionate amount of credit for Japan’s “miraculous” rate of economic growth in the 1980s while the contribution of women’s unpaid domestic labor is overlooked (see Brinton 1993). Women’s ongoing economic contributions as wage earners have been equally overlooked and devalued. Women’s work in textile mills was central to Japan’s rapid industrialization at the turn of the 20th century. At the turn of the 21st century, women were dubbed a “hidden resource” in forestalling an impending labor shortage. Women’s labor force participation rate in 2006 was 48.5 percent (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2008). This figure, however, underestimates women’s labor because it does not capture the fact that most women spend time in the workforce over the course of their lives and some hold multiple jobs.

As of 2004, women represented a mere 3 percent of directors, 5 percent of section managers, and 10 percent of section chiefs (Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare 2005). Thus, the number of women in managerial positions increases as one moves down the chain of command. Though discouraging, these figures represent an increase from 1985 when women were 1 percent of directors, 2 percent of section managers, and just under 4 percent of section chiefs. One feasible interpretation of this incremental increase is that more women are in the pipeline (Meyerson and Ely 2003), and thus, more women will be represented in managerial positions in the future; tomorrow’s directors will be chosen from among today’s section heads.

Japanese men and women are segregated according to industry and firm size as well as by occupation and employment status (see Brinton 1993; Broadbent 2003). The vast majority of women part-time workers are concentrated in the growing tertiary-sector industries of retail and wholesale, finance, and health. In the mid- to late 1990s, approximately 44 percent of women worked in firms with fewer than 99 employees, and 73 percent worked in companies with fewer than 500 employees. This is important because lifetime employment and the accompanying benefits—on-the-job training, regular promotions and salary increases based on seniority, bonuses twice a year, paid holidays, housing and family allowances, social security, health insurance, and a retirement package—are enjoyed almost exclusively by male employees working in large companies with 1,000 or more employees (Broadbent 2003).

Though the rate of women’s workforce participation has remained unchanged for the past 20 years, more women today are in “non-regular” employment positions (i.e., part-time or temporary work). Thirty-three percent of all women workers are employed part-time, and women represented 68 percent of the growing part-time labor pool in 2003 (Japan Institute of Workers’ Evolution 2003). Part-time and temporary employment has exploded in recent years, and it is expected to increase as a function of corporate restructuring. Companies are relying more and more on this contingency workforce as non-regular employment functions as a means of reducing record unemployment while keeping labor costs down (Pilling 2004).

Part-time work has been touted as a way for people (women) to work and balance other responsibilities. In Japan, part-time work does not mean less work done in less time. As part-time work is defined as work up to 35 hours a week, part-timers often work hours equal to or longer than full-time employees. The largest increase in the number of women working part-time has been among those working 15-34 hours. In recent years, increased overtime for part-timers means the gap in time spent at work between part-time (women) and full-time employees (men) is nominal. The difference lies in the terms of their contracts. Full-time employees enjoy higher wages, job security, and benefits. It is conceivable that part-time workers perform work identical to full-time counterparts employed by the same company with the only difference being that the former are paid hourly and the latter are salaried (Nakakubo 2002). Thus, employers are able to get exactly the same quality of work from part-timers for less money.

For now, part-time and/or temporary employment lies in the future for most single, full-time women employees. Most full-time women employees are young and single, whereas overall most part-timers are middle-aged, married women with older children. How can this be said with such certainty? The M-shaped curve captures women’s employment patterns over the life course. The graph shows an increase in women’s workforce participation from the late teens through the mid- to late twenties. In 1985, there was a sudden dip as women left the workforce upon marriage and birth of the first child. Women began to rejoin the labor force in their late thirties and early forties when their last child entered school. Their labor force participation began to taper off again as they approach retirement. The M pattern has become less articulated in recent years in response to younger women staying in the labor force longer and spending less time away upon marriage and childbirth. Though the M seems to have disappeared by 2005, women’s employment rates drop between 30 and 40 years old, a pattern that is more evident when women are grouped as 5-year rather than 10-year cohorts. That women become part-timers is due to the fact that the barriers to re-entry in a full-time position are enormous. Because Japanese companies provide on-the-job training to new graduates and promote cohorts in a set fashion, women who return will have fallen behind.

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

The Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, 1986) proved largely ineffective in altering discriminatory practices in hiring, training, promotion, and dismissal because it lacked enforcement mechanisms.7 Although the EEOL did lead to an increase in the representation of career women, it also led to the institutionalization of a two-tiered employment track for women. On the surface, contemporary employment practices are in compliance with the law; in practice, they remain discriminatory. Japanese employers began to offer women a choice between two employment tracks. The managerial track allowed women advancement opportunities similar to that of men as long as they worked “just like men.” That is, whether married or not, women were expected to work long hours, commute long distances, and be willing to accept a company transfer. Women who chose this track were not given the same “family allowances” given to male counterparts to support wives who stayed at home or worked part-time. Consequently, most women continue to enter the “general” or “clerical” track from which it is expected they will retire upon marriage or the birth of their first child. Five years ago, women constituted only 2.2 percent of employees on the managerial track in large firms (Weathers 2005); the clerical track remains almost entirely female.

The shortcomings of the EEOL, many extending from the ability of business interests to capitalize on divisions among women on issues of difference versus equality during the decision-making process, were immediately clear. Guidelines for employers were sufficiently ambiguous to allow broad interpretation, relevant bureaucratic entities were not given sufficient power to force compliance, and women could not use the mediation system to their benefit without agreement of employers (Kobayashi 2004 , ch. 6). The 1997 revisions to the law, effective in 1999, contained strong language explicitly banning discrimination. The Ministry of Labor could now publicly identify employers not in compliance with the law and the government could intervene when women employees issued a complaint. For the first time, the law demanded that employers adopt measures explicitly aimed at preventing sexual harassment. The revised EEOL fell firmly on the side of equality in its eliminating protections for women with regard to overtime and night work. Despite significant adjustment, the EEOL remains weak and is again being targeted for further revision.

Gender-based disparities in occupational status reflect similar disparities in education. Generally high levels of educational attainment in Japan mask the fact that women are overrepresented in two-year junior colleges (88.7 percent in 2002) and men are overrepresented in four-year institutions (62 percent in 2002). Curtin (2003) reports comparably high rates for men and women (48.8 percent and 48.5 percent, respectively, in 2002) in colleges and universities. Women are confined to the clerical track and other forms of low status employment because most are not competitive with their male counterparts upon graduation. Even as increasing numbers of women have advanced to four-year institutions, evidence suggests that this only serves to weaken women’s position in the workplace by undermining potential cooperation between graduates of two-year and four-year institutions (Curtin 2003).

Women have been unable to use unions to advance their status within the workforce. Unions are organized at the level of the firm, not the industry, rendering collective action an ineffective tool. Further, unions have traditionally limited participation to salaried employees. Declining membership, from a 1975 high of 34.4 percent to a 1999 low of 22.2 percent (Bishop 2002), has motivated unions to look to the growing pool of part-time and temporary labor as a means of revitalization. Whether unions become strong advocates for women remains to be seen. It is more likely that women are their own best advocates, as companies begin to compete for their labor under the strain of demographic trends. According to recent reports, some companies are offering benefits that include extended paid child care leave and access to fertility treatment in an effort to secure qualified, female workers to offset a future decline in the working population (Masaki 2006).

Impact of Transnational Feminism

Japanese women have taken advantage of the UN World Conferences on Women to narrate a role for themselves in contesting the gendered dimensions of international relations in the Asian region (Nuita, Yamaguchi, and Kubo 1994; Mackie 2003 , 202). Prominent feminists and grassroots activists alike have used these conferences to form ties with other Asian women and to bring pressure to bear upon their respective governments. The resulting networks have helped Japanese women forge a sense of common fate with other Asian women, effectively bridging historical differences to promote transnational organizing.

The Asian Women’s Association, founded in 1977 by Yayori Matsui and Masako Goto, is one of the many organizations formed in the immediate aftermath of the 1975 UN World Conference on Women; it later joined the International Women’s Year Liaison Group. Over time, the group has transformed its initial concern with the conditions under which goods are produced by Asian women and consumed in Japan into a broad consciousness about gender and transformations in production and reproduction against the backdrop of economic globalization. Domestic groups such as this one are taking advantage of the shifting power relations between international and domestic institutions of government produced by globalization. The Asian Women’s Association uses ties with women’s groups in South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand to protest how militarism and cultures of violence alter local political economies in ways that exploit women (Mackie 2003 , ch. 9).

The example of women in Okinawa demonstrates how activists successfully garner support for gender equality by recasting women’s issues as a broad question of human rights (Takazato 1996). Okinawa, the site of a three-month ground war at the end of World War II, remains an occupied territory long after U.S. Occupation Forces officially withdrew from the mainland in 1950. Though the island was officially returned to Japanese control, the U.S. military maintains de facto control through long-term leases. The high concentration of U.S. military facilities and personnel on the island perpetuates a culture of violence disproportionately borne by women; there is a high incidence of rape and prostitution. In response, Okinawan women have effectively framed their experiences against a process of militarization that is generalizable and connected to the global human rights discourse (ibid.).

Japanese women’s transnational activism has been a highly effective means of evoking response from the Japanese state because “the UN is extremely well regarded in Japan, and therefore campaigning using UN documents, protesting at UN conferences have proved to be effective strategies for women’s groups with little formal influence at the domestic level” (Bishop 2002). Women have been active in shaping how the Japanese public perceives the UN. A strong Japanese presence at international conferences (multiple sources report that about 6,000 Japanese women attended the Beijing conference) translates into broad transmission at the grassroots level of discourse that emerges from the floor of the proceedings.

The Nature of Civil Society; Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society

The vertical, or hierarchical, organization of Japanese society facilitates state management of conflict through neocorporatist structures (Nakane 1970; Murase 2006). Consequently, those who fall outside established networks have not been sufficiently recognized in the democratic process (Otake 2000, 130). Rapid postwar development and relatively even division of the economic benefits across all segments of society also helped the state to manage society while containing conflict. Over the past two decades, the lean Japanese welfare state has grown unable to meet the increasing demands placed upon it by the social care costs associated with a rapidly aging population. State capacity in Japan is eroding with economic globalization, the effects of which are intensified by a protracted economic slowdown. Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are assuming functions that the state is unable or unwilling to perform and, in doing so, are actively engaged in creating a civil society that is increasingly free from state management.

Passage of the NPO Law (Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities) in 1998 loosened strict governmental regulation of the “third sector,” precipitating a dramatic increase in NPOs and NGOs. The new law makes it easier for organizations to gain legal recognition to conduct activities that serve the public interest by relaxing governmental regulations (see Pekkanen 2001; Murase 2006, 36-40). Despite a dramatic increase in the number of NPOs and NGOs (see Pekkanen 2004), women’s organizations still constitute a fraction of the total. In light of examples, past and present, of women’s groups that collaborate with the state, the bulk of women’s organizations remain unregistered and independent. Acomparison of registered and unregistered women’s groups reveals that the former are more conservative and enjoy advantages in resources and infrastructure unavailable to unregistered groups (Murase 2006, ch. 2). Evidence to date suggests that, despite barriers to organization and collective action, women have been and remain vital actors in civil society. Less studied has been the question of how information technology and new laws granting wider access to government documents bridges the resource gap to help civil society actors that struggle to work autonomously from the state.

Child Care Provision and Parental Leave in Japan

On paper, Japan’s publicly funded child care system and parental leave rights compare favorably to other advanced industrialized democracies. According to Priscilla Lambert (2007), prior to 1990 the relationship between economic performance and child care provision was strong. When the economy expanded, generous child care policies were provided. When the economy contracted, services were rolled back. The state began to deviate from this pattern in the early 1990s when officials concerned about the long-term economic impact of declining fertility expanded child care despite the dreary economic climate.

The 2005 and latest version of the Childcare and Family Leave Law (the 4th revision since 1991) guarantees working parents a one-year job-protected leave at 40 percent of their salary while the government pays the employer’s and employee’s share of social security contributions. If unable to find child care at the end of the leave, employees can extend their leave for six more months. Workers can take up to 3 months at 40 percent of their wage to care for a close relative. Parents are entitled to 5 days leave per year to care for a sick child. It is illegal for employers to fire, demote, or transfer leave applicants (see Lambert 2007; Hassett 2008 for details).

These developments in child care provision and parental leave have not increased the birthrate. Nor have they decreased the likelihood of women leaving the workforce or increased the likelihood of men taking paternity leaves. Only 0.5 percent of fathers took paternity leave in 2005, far short of the government’s 10 percent target (Iwao 2007). The small number of men taking paternity leave does not reflect men’s changing attitudes about gender roles and care responsibilities. More young men want to share child care responsibilities, but the gender dynamics of the Japanese workplace work against men taking paternity leave (ibid.). Perhaps the logic of earlier expansionary periods for child care persists and impedes the success of new child care measures. Prior to 1990 officials promoted child care to sustain women’s employment in important sectors of the economy, NOT gender equality (see Lambert 2007). Calls for work-life balance to allow women to have children and remain in the workforce place economic interests over gender equality.

Social Care Policy: Child Care and the Falling Birthrate

A nation must maintain a minimum birthrate of 2.1 births per woman to replace its population from one generation to the next. Declining birthrates have been observable in Japan since the mid-1970s, reaching a low of 1.28 births per woman in 2004. In that same year, Japan entered a period of overall population decline. Officials fear this trend is irreversible despite the fact that the fertility rate increased to 1.34 in 2007 (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2008). More than half of the women born between 1971 and 1974—second baby boom—remained childless at age 30, prompting fears that the overall decline in population will be precipitous if this large demographic cannot be convinced to have children. At the same time, the rapid rate at which the population is aging means the state can no longer afford to lose the workforce participation of mothers even though the current social policy mix encourages women to drop out of the workforce to care for young children and aging relatives. Beginning in the 1990s, the state adopted new child care policies to increase women’s workforce participation by helping them balance work and family responsibilities.

The Basic Direction for Future Child Rearing Support Measures (1994), commonly known as the Angel Plan, encouraged local governments to adopt measures that would (1) help parents reconcile work and family responsibilities, (2) improve the quality of child rearing within the family, (3) provide affordable housing to families with children, (4) target child development, and (5) lower the economic burden imposed by having children. The 1999 Basic Principles to Cope with a Fewer Number of Children, referred to as the New Angel Plan, specified broader objectives within the areas of employment, health, education, housing, and child care. The cabinet’s 2001 Basic Direction for Policies Supporting Work and Childcare Compatibility broadened the role of firms and reaffirmed the need to expand child care through longer hours, more flexible services, and the help of local communities. The 2002 Measures to Cope with a Fewer Number of Children Plus One went a step further in its recognition of the need to change working patterns among men and women (Chitose 2003 , 14).

The government has failed to fulfill women’s rising expectations that they would soon be able to reconcile family and work. Not only did the number of working women decline between 1997 and 2000 (Gelb 2003, 117), but women continue to leave the workforce for the same reasons they left before the Angel Plans were introduced. Social expectations that women will stay at home until their children are school-aged remain prevalent. Women who seek to combine family and work still encounter long waiting lists for public child care and a dearth of certified private facilities. Women who are successful in enrolling their children in public day care soon find that the limited services and hours of operation do not allow them to meet the expectations of full-time employment.


In September 2006, the Imperial Household announced that Princess Kiko, wife of the crown prince’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, gave birth to a son, Prince Hisahito. In the wake of the announcement, the Japanese parliament shelved revisions to the Imperial Household Law that would have permitted a woman to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Many fear that this response captures the shallowness of state commitment to addressing enduring gender-based disparities (Curtin 2006).

Those interested in the status of women in Japan have asked whether women as a group would benefit if a woman were permitted to become emperor (Molony 2005). On the surface, this is a curious question given that the imperial family wields no real power. It is not misguided, however, because a female emperor would constitute a visible disruption of gender role norms that challenges collective memories of a shared past that figures prominently in contemporary myth-making about what it means to be Japanese. Retention of the Japanese monarchy for ceremonial and symbolic purposes by the postwar U.S. Occupation Forces underscored the significance of the monarchy to the reproduction of national identity. Though the emperor is no longer worshipped as a god, the imperial family is still revered as an unbroken connection between contemporary Japan and a past to which only the Japanese can claim ownership. Changing the line of succession requires a reexamination of past female emperors that runs the risk of exposing the degree to which contemporary gender role norms are socially constructed.

The succession debates are also of interest because the pressures for change are internally generated. Japan holds unique ownership over its monarchy, and on this issue the state is not susceptible to foreign pressure. Before the announcement of Princess Kiko’s pregnancy, more than 75 percent of Japanese polled favored revising the Imperial Household Law to allow a woman to ascend to the throne (Curtin 2006). A woman as the symbolic leader of the nation would underscore gender-based disparities in society at large and perhaps promote widespread support for affirmative policies for change. Most importantly, internally generated pressure for change would reflect a deep-rooted commitment to gender equality.