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The Japanese doll’s house

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A Japanese woman walking Magdalena Roeseler under a Creative Commons Licence

Just like the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons, living in Japan is often like living in a 1950s vision of the future, where modern innovations sit alongside entrenched gender roles.

After living here for the past 8 years, my affection and admiration for my adopted home runs deep. Recently declared the most liveable city in the world, Tokyo offers safety, superb services and endless cultural and culinary stimulation.

But when I became pregnant late last year, my perspective on Japan developed a new dimension.

Although for many living outside the country, Japan’s association with hi-tech gadgetry evokes images of tomorrow’s world, the country languishes in the past in terms of gender equality. Indeed, in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranks 104 out of 142.

Wherever in the world you live, becoming pregnant can seem like becoming public property. Strangers – often well meaning – offer unsolicited opinions and advice.

In most places, although sometimes irritating, such interventions can usually be politely ignored. But in Japan, I found my personal choices limited in ways I never expected. At 5 months and visibly pregnant for the first time, I was asked to leave my gym for the duration of my pregnancy, despite medical evidence that regular exercise reduces complications during childbirth.

In fact, I was not even asked in person: while I ran merrily along on a treadmill, my husband was asked to tell me to leave, adding to our shared sense of indignation.

The birthing options offered to women in Japan are also limited compared to those available in other developed countries. Pain relief, such as epidurals, are only offered in a limited number of private hospitals. Furthermore, my pregnant Japanese friends describe being put on restrictive diets by their obstetricians in order to prevent them from gaining ‘too much weight’.

Although it must be noted that Japan has some of the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that it also has one of the lowest birth rates, which at 1.4 in 2014 is below replacement level.

Japanese business culture is a key contributor to the country’s low fertility rate. The practice of recruiting new graduates into ‘jobs for life’ makes it difficult for employees to take career breaks or to find new positions when returning to work after raising young families. Long hours, 6-day work weeks and a corporate drinking culture where junior employees cultivate the connections necessary for promotion, make it impossible for many women to balance family and working life.

Blatant discrimination also inhibits women’s advance up the career ladder. Equally qualified female graduates often find themselves railroaded into low-level administration in Japanese companies, while their male counterparts take the high road to upper management.

In Japan’s boardrooms, the ‘bamboo ceiling’ – so called for being tough and opaque – prevents women’s progress. Only 2% of Japan’s most senior executives are women, compared to 35% in Norway and 20% in France.

A lack of childcare options adds to the difficulties for Japan’s working parents. In 2014, approximately 21,000 Japanese families could not find a nursery place for their child.

Restrictions on immigration have limited the availability of home-based childcare providers. As a consequence, about 70% of Japanese women leave the workforce after giving birth. Many women never return to paid work; those that do find themselves restricted to jobs that waste their talents.

In 2012, women accounted for 77% of Japan’s part-time and temporary workers. As a result, women earned 26.5% less than men in Japan, versus a 2011 OECD average of 14.8%.

Legally, childcare leave is available to both men and women. But in 2013, only 2% of Japanese fathers took paternity leave, likely owing to cultural expectations that women should be the stay-at-home parent and to concerns that taking leave would negatively affection promotion prospects.

Women are also grossly under-represented in Japanese politics. Only 11% of Japan’s parliamentarians are women, placing Japan 129th in global league tables of female political empowerment, below Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In April 2013, Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe announced that he wanted women to ‘shine’ in the Japanese economy, making ‘womenomics’ an essential part of his Abenomics growth strategy (although ironically, the word shine actually means ‘die!’ in Japanese).

But Abe has done very little to practically promote gender equality, devoting more energy to downplaying Japan’s treatment of Korean sex slaves – euphemistically known as ‘comfort women’ – during World War Two than to empowering modern women.

Abe’s lack of commitment to gender equality is not surprising, as he has previously supported redrafting the Japanese constitution to privilege ‘traditional values’ over universal human rights.

In 2005, Abe warned that traditions such as the Festival of the Dolls, celebrating young girls and their hopes for future marriage, could be threatened if government policies were introduced to create greater equality.

During his first administration in 2007, Abe’s Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa referred to women as ‘birth-giving machines’, arguing that if more women stayed home they would produce more babies, and thus more future workers.

Chauvinistic attitudes remain pervasive in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In June 2014, female legislator Ayaka Shiomura endured sexist taunts from LDP colleagues about her single, childless status as she addressed the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly about maternity support and other gender issues.

Abe’s ‘pink’ reshuffle in September 2014, which saw a record-equalling 5 women promoted to his cabinet, backfired when 2 female ministers were quickly forced to resign owing to campaign finance irregularities – scandals leaked by male colleagues sore at being leapfrogged for promotion.

Raising Japan’s gender equality would not only improve opportunities for women, but could also bring significant economic benefits, adding 8 million women to the labour market.

If lawmakers can create the right policies for empowerment, Japanese women could make Japan a place in which I’d be very proud to raise my unborn son.

Tina Burrett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo.

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