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Number 1 Shimbun

Japan: Stop procrastinating

Why the country should address minority rights to solve its demographic challenges

By Marina Yoshimura


06

Voices on the street
About 500 people listened to women publicly share their experiences
of sexual harassment and abuse and calling for change in a demonstration 
in Tokyo that followed the acquital of a man after years of raping his daughter.

 

Japan has to change its treatment toward minorities. It has yet to address women’s rights in and out of the workforce, and it must integrate – not just accept – more immigrants and refugees. These issues are not mutually exclusive; both challenge Japan’s traditional view of minorities as second-class citizens. While the country has made progress in minority rights, gender roles are shifting with little momentum, and society still treats immigrants as tools for the labor force. Traditional systems need to be overhauled and society must add foreigners to its social fabric. With globalization rapidly growing and the population shrinking, Japan can no longer procrastinate on such issues
.

Admit more women in the workforce – 
and support them. 

Gender roles around the world are shifting. Women, more than ever, are speaking up and demanding justice. The #MeToo movement, which gained traction in 2017 (although the Me Too organization was founded in 2006), sparked conversations on social media about sexual harassment and assault. This movement also challenged the misogynistic power dynamics that dictate society. It prompted changes in corporate culture and systems concerned with sexual abuse. The discourse about issues surrounding gender roles remains active today. 

In Japan, however, gender roles are not shifting nearly as effectively or efficiently as they are in the West. Japanese society seems reluctant to support increased involvement of women in the workplace. “Womenomics,” a plan the Abe administration initiated in 2014 to encourage women to enter the workforce, has largely fallen flat. The efforts, if top-down, barely reach the bottom, and if bottom-up, rarely reach the ivory towers in which politicians make decisions. 

The notion that women will quit after getting married or having children persists; so companies often relegate these women to serving tea to their male colleagues. Despite the fact that more women graduate from college than men, women are at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues because of this perception. Today, for example, only about 10 percent of parliamentarians in Japan are women, according to the World Bank Group, and women make up just 13 percent of corporate managerial positions. 

Womenomics has, however, encouraged discussion of the importance of women in the workforce, at a time when their labor participation was rising from 42.4 percent in 2012 to just a little less than 50 percent in 2017. The problem, however, is not only whether women are in the workforce, but also how they are treated. To prevent sexual harassment and to foster equality in the workplace, traditional attitudes must change. Kentaro Matsuoka, 20, a Yale College student who has roots in both the United States and Japan, said every time he flies back to Japan, he is struck by the sight of restaurants offering “Ladies’ Lunch,” and advertisements soliciting female workers only. In fact, some government officials undermine the issue. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso once caused a stir by stating, “Sexual harassment is not a crime.” Politicians who discriminate against women both in and out of the parliament should step down, for they do not represent ideas that Japanese society needs to survive.

The culture – as well as the leaders – must change. Besides being a barrier to a larger, more integrated work force, the social discrimination against and subconscious bias toward women can harm women’s well-being. Japan has the second highest female suicide rate in the world, according to the OECD, and mental health can affect the workforce. So providing mental health services as women navigate office politics, especially amid strict gender roles, is key. The Japanese government, together with the private sector, should promote gender equality, not by putting women on a pedestal, but by hiring them on the basis of their qualifications.

Accept – and integrate – foreigners. 

The shrinking and aging population inevitably raises the question of immigration. The Japanese Diet has brought this issue to the political agenda. The problem with the government’s proposal to admit immigrants is that it sees them only as workers who are conducive to Japan’s economy. But such immigrants are not just workers; they are human beings, too. The government, and by extension, society, would first need to consider how to treat foreigners to fully appreciate the benefits of admitting refugees and immigrants to the country.

The number of foreigner residents in Japan is increasing by the year, reaching 2.3 million in 2016. But despite the increase, many struggle to fit in, and feel there is a social wall that divides them and the Japanese. “I feel accepted but not integrated,” expatriate Ann-Katrin van Schie said, although she admitted that she may not have worked “hard enough” to be integrated. She is the founder of At Ease, a support network for expatriates in Japan. 

Many sectors of society still hesitate to integrate foreigners into their country as challenges in exchanges between foreigners and Japanese persist. In fact, only 23 percent of respondents in a PEW Research Center survey responded that the country needs more immigrants. Services such as At Ease become all the more important. Expats are not the only foreigners in Japan to experience a sense of isolation, and this could be a problem for Japan. 

Japan is not an ideal haven for refugees, either. Most of those who apply are denied refugee status because the government is wary of the validity of their cases and perceives them as threats to the country’s traditions and homogeneity. In fact, the government rejected 99 percent of applicants in 2017, admitting just 20 out of 19,628, according to Japan’s Justice Ministry. The rejection pressures them to reapply, return to their countries or risk deportation. Those who resist are detained along with foreign criminals. Although the international community has voiced its concerns over the Japanese government’s reluctance to admit refugees, the criticism has not yet convinced the country to open its borders. And those who are admitted aren’t welcomed with open arms. “If I could give one [piece of] advice to incoming refugees in Japan, I would tell them to not settle here,” said former intern for the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), Phuong Phamthihoai, who, as a refugee in Japan herself, faced discrimination.

Ultimately, Japanese society should recognize that – however difficult the process may be – accepting immigrants, including refugees, would benefit the country. The government should look to other countries for guidance. For example, the Canadian government has adopted a Private Sponsorship Program to bridge public and private sectors to sponsor refugees. It’s not enough to just admit them. The media should frequently cover immigration and refugee topics as an avenue for dialogue between citizens and the government. Policy revisions, difficult discussions and accurate media portrayals of immigration and refugee admission are necessary. By integrating refugees, immigrants, and foreigners in general, Japan can develop a stronger social fabric that not only leads to a stronger economy but also a more diverse society. As globalization expands, these changes are exactly what Japan will need. 

There is no time for Japan to procrastinate on these issues. Women still lack an equal platform as men in the workforce, which stems from the country’s traditional views toward women. Foreigners in Japan, especially immigrants and refugees, face legal and social discrimination in the country. Addressing minority rights issues will determine whether Japan will remain a prosperous country in years to come. It must solve them now or lose its position on the global stage. ❶

Marina Yoshimura is an undergraduate student at Waseda University and Yale College.

Published in: June 2019

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