Sending A Man To A Women’s Empowerment Summit? Japan Needs To Do Better

Tokyo, Japan street photo
Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

One of the most advanced countries in the world, Japan’s economy rivals that of China and the United States. It is renowned for its far-reaching technological advancement and vibrant culture that has spread to much of the Western world. Their education system is ranked among the best, and they have one of the world’s highest average life expectancies at 84 years as of 2021. Which is why the tone-deaf decision to send a man to this year’s G7 Women’s Empowerment Summit left many of us scratching our heads.

Japan has long been embroiled in a battle for a more progressive, gender-equal society, with women long alienated from political and economic participation. Masanobu Ogura, the cabinet minister who attended the summit, explained at a press conference afterwards that: “Japan has been slow to make progress in promoting [women] in the political arena, but such moves are starting to gain momentum. Despite being the only male minister [in attendance], I received warm support from the other representatives.”

This lacklustre progression Ogura speaks of is highlighted in the latest annual Global Gender Gap Index released just days prior to the G7 summit. It revealed the country had slid down nine places to 125th out of the 146 participating countries, below the United Arab Emirates, which is ranked a more respectable 71st. Japan is one of just seven countries whose The WEF also described the country’s gender gap as, “the largest among advanced economies.”

Only two years prior, ex-prime minister and then Olympic Chief Yoshiro Mori’s misogynistic comments that women “talked too much” hit international headlines. He was subsequently forced to resign after public demonstrations.

Following Mori’s resignation, Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, announced that they would be allowing women to attend their all-male board meetings for the first time. However, they would not be permitted to speak while said meetings took place; they could only submit their opinions afterwards.

Japan’s issues with gender equality stretch much further back than 2021. Prior to the era of modernisation, the experience of cisgender women in relation to men was much more nuanced.

The Female Experience In Japan

In the Edo period (from 1600-1868) though the wives of the samurai endured complete subordination to their husbands, parts of Japan saw literacy rates that were among the highest in the early modern world, with some women being able to access elite forms of education.  During this time, in village households, there was generally more sharing of labour. As people gravitated towards cities in the modern period, however, husbands would more often go out to work and leave their middle-class wives at home, where it was expected they would see to domestic affairs. 

The push for women’s rights in Japan came following World War One after American and British women gained the right to vote. However, this would not occur in Japan until after World War Two, principally as a result of the campaigning of feminist Ichikawa Fusae and her fellow activists, though this was later overshadowed by the Occupation. 

The Battle For Equality

Over the past few decades, small steps have been made to invoke change, though progress is slow. In 1985, the Diet ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) and adopted an equal employment opportunity law. However, many companies have managed to circumvent this by creating a two-track system with, ‘career employees,’ (sogoshoku) who could qualify for a promotion, and, ‘non-career employees,’ (ippanshoku) who would have little chance of qualifying. This means that women often have to choose between having a career or having children, especially since choosing to be a career employee means accepting long work hours and frequent relocation to provincial offices.

Local councillor for Setagaya City in Tokyo, Risa Kamio, has experienced the lack of consideration for working mothers first-hand. “One of the meetings was scheduled to start at noon, and we were told to clear our schedules until midnight,” she said. “The system is very inconsiderate of working mothers.” A working system designed by men to exclusively benefit men is not sustainable for the gender-inclusive society the Japanese government say they want to build.

Largely unlike the West, there is an unspoken etiquette in Japan which has likely slowed progress – that people don’t get into disagreements, particularly with their elders. This is also known as ‘reading the air,’ or kuuki wo yomu, Engaging in such conflicts could be seen as, “selfish,” according to Mojo. Although kuuki wo yomu has been proven useful in business and workplace environments, the kind of culture it accompanies has enabled people like Mori to get away with such comments.

It is clear that the gender issues in Japan are tightly entwined within their societal structures. As with other countries, there is no quick fix that will eliminate hundreds of years’ worth of casual sexism and workplace misogyny. Yet small groups of all ages have joined the fight for change. After Mori’s remarks were brought to light, Momoko Mojo, the head of youth group No Youth No Japan, began a petition against him. He got over 100,000 signatures in two days. Later, when newspapers and broadcasters reported that Mori had personally chosen another man in his 80’s as his replacement, young women called for a more transparent selection process. This resulted in the appointment of Seiko Hashimoto, a younger, female, former Olympics minister.

It is clear that the gender issues in Japan are systemic, and that those who fight for change face opposition stemming from centuries of patriarchal rule. There is no quick fix that will alter completely attitudes that have been moulded and hardened over generations. But if Japan wants to catch up to other big economies across the world regarding gender parity, the nationwide changes its politicians keep promising will need to come faster.

Words by Faye Price

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