April 2023

Japan lags behind on gender equality, but change is coming, FCCJ Book Break hears

Photo by the FCCJ Library

When political science masters graduate Mariko Ito joined an advertising company 20 years ago, she was assigned to the overwhelmingly male sales team, who were notorious for working long hours. Now a freelance writer and mother of two, Ito recalled that “surreal” day.

“I had hoped to learn and pursue a career there,” Ito, who was 27 at the time, told the Number 1 Shimbun. “But my dreams were shattered in a few days. Nobody actually asked me for my plans. I realized that women were not a concern for the company.” Ito left when her first child was born, seven years after she had joined the company.

Her experience is not uncommon. Currently, most women work in part-time, low-paid jobs. These jobs are an essential part of the economy, but they do little to advance careers or bridge Japan’s gender wage gap, which, at 24.5%, is third-worst among developed countries. Experts point out that the practice is deeply rooted in the labor market, based on the assumption in Japan that women tend to be less motivated than men to seek promotion or accept corporate responsibility.

Panelists at a Book Break event on diversity in business and higher education (Photo by the FCCJ library)

At an FCCJ Book Break to mark the publication of Diversity and Inclusion in Japan: Issues in Business and Higher Education, three authors – all management and gender experts – used their research to explain the challenges and opportunities Japan faces as it tries to expand and retain the talents of its female workforce. 

“Japan’s struggle to implement diversity and inclusion in the workplace is not exclusive,” said Professor Lailani Alcantara, the first female dean of the School of Management at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU).  “Most companies in the world face the same challenge. But interestingly, Japan showed unique institutional and cultural environments that represent powerful barriers that must be targeted for change.”

Alcantara pointed to cultural traits that impact diversity in Japanese offices, including the role of uchi – a reference to belonging to the same group – and soto, meaning outsiders. These characteristics form the foundation of Japanese relationships and may adversely affect the participation of people who are perceived as outsiders, according to the authors. Understanding this cultural backdrop is key to fostering diversity and inclusion, they added.

Their book – in e-format and available free of charge – also cited Japanese society’s high degree of masculinity, which social scientists define as an expectation that men and women will conform to traditional gender roles. The former are expected to be tough and assertive, the latter modest and tender. 

Against this backdrop, the authors pointed out Japan’s goal of achieving a more diverse workplace was focused heavily on raising female participation, while Western countries also focus on racism.

Another concern is Japan's shrinking and aging population. Against this harsh reality, the authors argued that public policy was taking the lead, including government incentives for companies who promote gender equality, paternity leave for men, shorter working hours to facilitate childcare and training and seminars on diversity and inclusion targeting men in senior management.

At the same time, the authors stressed that motivation was crucial to retaining and nurturing female staff, who expect their supervisors to recognize their talents, according to a survey of working women conducted by the authors. Their responses also indicated that women viewed promotion as a means of trying something new or fulfilling their goals.

“The capacity of the workplace to meet the needs of female employees by building cooperative relationships can foster their leadership and prove valuable to the company,” said Professor Yoshiki Shinohara, director for Center for Inclusive Leadership at APU. While Japanese companies stress building good relationships between employees, the challenge facing the business sector now is to integrate diversity and inclusion into corporate culture and business models, added Shinohara, a disability and employment expert. “Japan needs to redesign inclusivity to survive.”

The authors said female demands should encourage Japanese companies to view diversity as addressing the needs of individuals – a major change in a homogenous society that has traditionally valued conformity. Their book raises the importance of establishing a database for inclusive policy making and sharing the information with the public to raise awareness. Higher education – Japanese universities are no beacon for gender inclusivity – is another sector that needs to be more proactive on this issue.

The book is upbeat about several developments, including “womenomics” – policy based on the belief that women’s advancement will boost economic growth in a country where women occupy just 15% of management roles – below the global average and much lower than the government’s target of 30% by 2030. 

The book also cites examples of Japanese companies improving their policy on diversity as they attempt to enter new markets, and the rise in the number of women enrolling at top universities. As Shinohara said: “Diversity is multidimensional.”

Suvendrini Kakuchi is Tokyo correspondent for University World News in the U.K.