‘Women are annoying!’: How Japanese society fights for gender equality and loses to traditions

The fight for women’s rights in Japan goes on for years — without much success.

“The first time I visited, they were about to go hiking in the mountains. Yulia carried a smaller backpack and her husband Yuichi a bigger one. A year later, I saw them carrying backpacks of the same size. Two years after that, Yuichi had the camera, while Yulia carried two massive backpacks and held an umbrella over her husband so the camera wouldn’t get wet.”

These are the observations of a Russian mother whose daughter left Moscow for Japan to marry a Japanese man. It took Yulia several years to get used to holding doors open for men, letting them in the elevator first and holding an umbrella over their heads in rainy weather. Most importantly, she had to get used to one simple fact: In Japan, you can do all those things and, at the same time, have long discussions about the growing role of women in Japanese society.

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In the shadow of a woman’s radiance

In 2013, speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his vision of a society in which “women will shine”. An ambitious leader at the height of his popularity, Abe announced a new policy called “womenomics”, which was anchored in Japan’s increasing support for UN efforts to improve the role of women in society, protect them from sexual violence during armed conflicts, develop a women-focused disaster resilience program, and create a comprehensive national plan for the advancement of women.

“These are the three pillars propping up the program,” Abe said, as he pledged to spend $3 billion over the following three years to achieve the goal of women’s empowerment. Eight years have passed, and the money has long since been spent. Now let’s look at how bright Japanese women are “shining” these days.

In 2015, shortly after the prime minister’s speech, a TV drama titled ‘Age Harassment’ premiered on Japanese television. The series is set in a large trading company. Whether by coincidence or by design, the president of the company echoes Abe’s words as he establishes a Women’s Workplace Promotion Department at his firm: “A society where women shine! A society where our workforce will consist of 30% women by 2020! This is something that will move the country forward!” It turns out, however, that even within one single company, let alone the entire nation of Japan, declaring an ambitious policy does not mean actually going through with it.

Each episode starts with the same narration, which is short and easy to remember: “Society nowadays is filled with harassment. There is “sekuhara” (sexual harassment), “pawahara” (power harassment), “morahara” (moral harassment), and many other types of harassment. Even though people in Japan have been made aware of it, nothing has changed, and harassment still occurs.” Nothing has changed. The female employees of the fictional company are excited at first, but quickly become disillusioned with the empty words and the hollow promises. In fact, the new policy makes things even worse: Before, women wouldn’t be promoted because they were women, but now they are forcibly appointed to positions of responsibility for the very same reason. At the slightest sign of failure, they’re shamed and removed from the new post, with a male manager immediately appointed in their place, as if to say ‘only a man can fix a woman’s mess.’

By the end of the series, the company experiences a “woman’s revolt”. The female employees, whom the Japanese society calls “oru” (that is, OL, or “office ladies”), regardless of one’s position, start to realize that the very act of being singled out into a special category, same as ‘people with disabilities’, is in itself humiliating. A protest erupts: “Women are not here to shine! Men and women are equal! Why is the word ‘shine’ reserved only for women?” “It’s our will, our choice: to shine or not to shine! So, would you kindly stay out of it?” At the end of the series, the women take their place as ordinary employees, never discriminated against – for good or for ill – because of their gender.

However, to what extent can this fictional situation be applied to the entirety of Japan? As of today, the country is clearly nowhere near the outcome depicted in the series, but the rumble of indignation is growing ever louder.

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Lady time

Believe it or not, one of the highest-profile persons to have fallen victim to the controversies sparked by the “let women shine” policy was none other than Yoshiro Mori, Japan’s former prime minister. Known for his gaffes and insensitive statements, a gifted athlete in the past and once the president of the Japan Rugby Football Union, Mori served as the head of the organizing committee for the 2020 Summer Olympics until February 2021, when he had to resign following a scandal.

As the committee decided to follow through on the womenomics agenda and proposed to increase the percentage of women on its board from five to 24, or 40%, the 83-year-old Mori responded with criticism that wasn’t well worded. He expressed concern that board of directors meetings that involved many women would take a lot of time, because, in his opinion, “women are competitive” and “when one person raises a hand, others think they need to speak up as well,” adding that their speaking time should be “restricted to a certain extent, as they have difficulty finishing a thought, which is so annoying.”

The first to protest was Seiko Hashimoto, the then minister of state for the Olympics and Paralympics, and a seven-time Olympian. She demanded that Mori apologize, but the political mammoth did not respond fast enough. The story was picked up by the media, and by the time Mori had issued an official apology, it was too late: More than 150,000 people had signed an online petition calling on him to step down within a week. Seiko Hashimoto went on to replace him as president of the organizing committee, and presided over the opening ceremonies in summer 2021 together with another woman, Tokyo’s first female governor and Japan’s first female minister of defense, Yuriko Koike.

Another interesting fact: Yuriko Koike took over the post of governor in 2016, following the resignation of Yōichi Masuzoe, infamous not only for abusing his office, but also for speaking out against women in politics in an ugly fashion. Prior to being elected governor, Masuzoe publicly claimed, “Women are not normal when they are having a period. You can’t possibly let them make critical decisions about the country [during their period] such as whether or not to go to war.” When he ran for office in 2014, more than 3,000 women in Japan joined a movement called The Association of Women Who Will Not Have Sex With Men Who Vote For Masuzoe as a way to protest his candidacy. Despite the fact that Abe had already voiced his womenomics ideas by then, Masuzoe won. It was only two years later, when Yuriko Koike succeeded him, that a Tokyo governor finally made a public statement calling for female empowerment in the workplace. Koike vowed to implement policies that help women, saying, “I believe that women-empowering policies will be of benefit to Tokyo and will make our capital city a happier place.” It may be hard to believe, but only seven years separate Masuzoe’s victory as governor and Mori’s scandalous resignation. These seven years have been transformational for Japan in how it defines equality and the nation’s future.

Japan’s shame

It was during these seven years that another gender-related scandal erupted – one that was more disturbing to the public than the comments made by some male politicians. One man’s opinion is just his opinion, even if that man is a high-ranking official, but what happened at Tokyo Medical University revealed that the entire system was failing.

In the summer of 2018, it came to light that, for at least 10 years, the results of female applicants’ entry examinations had been intentionally lowered. The practice was aimed at maintaining male dominance among future medical workers. The perpetrators had the ‘best intentions’ in mind: Female doctors leave the profession immediately after giving birth, so there is no point in training them in the first place.

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It’s telling that even the male Japanese doctors were as shocked by the scandal as the women and the foreigners, who had always taken gender issues in Japan very seriously. A male professor at a private medical university in Tokyo said in an interview to Fuji TV, “We see more women enrolling in medical schools, more women who want to become surgeons. If the issue is that they quit too soon, we need to improve our support system, so they can keep on working.” But what kind of system would that be?

Japanese mothers say the biggest problem for them is the shortage of day-care facilities – an issue that has been relevant for decades. Getting a child into a municipal facility is tough in itself, and time on the waiting list often exceeds the time it takes for the child to grow up. Only a small minority can afford private day-care. Abe’s plan would have seen 400,000 new state preschool facilities built, but that wasn’t nearly enough, because, as of 2013, 800,000 such facilities were needed. That said, even meeting the demand is only the first step towards solving the problem.

The other challenge is that big corporations usually provide as little as 12 months’ maternity leave (and in small- and medium-size enterprises, it could be even less than that). On the other hand, giving women the 36 months of maternity leave they advocated for would have devastating consequences for the economy, as all these mothers would drop out of the workforce for a longer period of time. Japanese companies are still suffering from a workaholic culture that discourages employees from taking even short-term leave. If mothers were to take a lengthy break from their positions (even as OLs, whose only responsibilities are holding doors for men and serving tea to their male superiors), they would lose out on all prospects for promotion. The same is definitely true for young female surgeons, who need constant practice to maintain their qualification. Perhaps the solution is to have more women in corporate and public leadership positions – after all, they should know the problem first-hand, shouldn’t they?

Sitting in a chair on a tatami mat

The Gender Inequality Index, released by the United Nations Development Programme, gives Japan a very good score, ranking it 19th out of 195 countries. But there are caveats: The rating is influenced by factors that are not entirely gender-related, such as the standard of living (which is indeed high in Japan), life expectancy (Japanese women live longer than any other social group in the world), extremely low maternal mortality, and access to secondary and higher education for girls (unless, of course, they plan to become surgeons). With each indicator taken separately, the picture starts to change rapidly. This is why, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 released by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks 120th out of 156, and according to the World Bank, ranked 81st out of 190 at the end of 2020.

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Japanese companies are struggling to meet Abe’s target to increase women’s workforce participation from 68% to 73%, and there have been many bumps along the way. Still, 5% is not such a huge leap. Another one of Abe’s promises was to raise the percentage of women in corporate management positions to 30% by 2020. That does not seem unrealistic, but what would have been the cost? Is it reasonable to expect all women in today’s workforce to be ready and willing to lead companies, chair committees, and become mayors, like the fictional characters of a TV drama? Yours truly once had a word with an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government – a man in his fifties – who looked at me, put down an unfinished glass of beer, and complained bitterly: “I am not against women in general, and I’m not against having a female governor… but sometimes, I think that it’d be better for everyone if she weren’t as involved in her official duties as mayor. Let her be the ‘face of Tokyo’, and let us manage all the work stuff.”

The numbers are telling: today, only 8% of Japanese companies are led by women. Also, keep in mind: if in your mind the phrase ‘Japanese company’ conjures up an image of a high-tech assembly line that makes top-quality cars, that’s not entirely correct. After all, Japanese companies also include tiny mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, tatami-mat makers, and other small businesses.

A similar situation can be observed in politics: there are women – empowered women – in positions of authority, yet the situation remains fundamentally unchanged. The percentage of women members in the Japanese Diet (the group from whom ministers are elected, including the prime minister) is not very high and varies, depending on the results of the relatively frequent elections, from 10% to 12%. For comparison, the global average is 22%. In the fall 2021 election, for the first time in Japan’s history, there were two women (in addition to all the men) competing for the position of prime minister: Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda.

Both are in their sixties, both have experience of living, studying, or working in the US, and both have served as internal affairs ministers in previous Japanese governments. However, their views on gender issues at home are, at times, radically different, which reflects the inner dissonance troubling the minds of Japanese women. While Noda is known as a supporter of liberal attitudes toward women – she was one of the proponents of the bill that would allow girls to keep their last name on getting married instead of taking their husband’s – Takaichi, sometimes called a ‘man in a skirt,’ emphatically opposes such permissiveness, including the notion of officially recognizing the plight of the LGBT community. All these controversies stem from the attempt to reconcile the inherently Confucian nature of Japanese society with the Western model of a tolerant civilization.

Ladies first

In Japan, your take on the problem of women keeping their maiden name after getting married has become the litmus test for identifying you as “conservative” or “liberal” with respect to the gender issue. From 2003 onwards, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has on two occasions submitted to Japan’s government a draft law on recognizing the right of spouses to have separate surnames. This is currently prohibited in Japan by a law passed in 1889, with 96% of married women taking their husband’s surname.

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At first, it seemed as if everything was going fairly well. Opinion polls have shown that 43% of the Japanese support the idea of couples being able to choose their surnames after marriage. But unfortunately, it all ended there. On December 16, 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court delivered a verdict on the matter, considering it a potential violation of human rights. The court did not find any violations, but ruled that the current requirement for married couples to have the same last name was in line with Japan’s constitution.

It would seem that the conservatives won. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if the ruling was accepted without a fight. In fact, it triggered further debate on the issue. Six years later, in March 2021, the Okayama Prefectural Assembly in central Japan allowed its citizens to choose whichever surname they preferred. The decision was particularly welcomed by the LGBT community, because, once adopted at the national level, it would help eliminate much of the bureaucratic paperwork they were having to deal with.

However, the Japanese establishment has a very different attitude. Even Tamayo Marukawa, the 50-year-old head of the Women’s Affairs Office of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said she was against the idea of women keeping their maiden names after marriage. By the way, it is only in the Diet that she is known as Marukawa – her maiden name, which she uses as a pseudonym. Her official last name, Otsuka, is her husband’s name, which she adopted as required by Japanese law. In June 2021, Japan’s Supreme Court addressed the issue again, ruling once more that the right of each spouse to a separate surname was unconstitutional.

Japanese people’s approach to resolving family issues has formed over centuries of Confucianism. One of its central ideas is that the woman exists to perform two basic functions: to be a good wife and a wise mother. Even sexual intercourse with a husband was allowed only for the purpose of conceiving a child – after that, this function was performed by trained professionals.

A woman, in the Confucian worldview, is a person destined to function inside the house, not outside, and it’s very difficult to dispel this belief, which seems to be innate to a lot of Japanese people. Even the bourgeois revolution of 1868 failed to bring any change to women’s issues in Japan. It wasn’t until 1947, when a new constitution was adopted, that the country saw some radical improvement. The two new articles of the 1947 constitution, No. 14 and No. 24, introduced equal rights for men and women and codified women’s civil rights.

Beate Sirota Gordon, the daughter of a Russian immigrant raised in Japan who worked for Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur’s occupation army and was the author of the two new articles, later recounted with bitterness: “Historically, Japanese women were treated as movable property. They were property which could be sold and bought on a whim.”

A lot has changed in the 75 years since the adoption of Japan’s constitution. And the change did not always come in a smooth or straightforward manner. The situation we are witnessing in Japan today – the difficult economic situation, the aging population (Japan having one of the world’s oldest), labor migration problems triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, growing dissatisfaction with gender inequality within Japanese society, and the rising number of women who don’t want to “shine” just because they are women – could bring about another breakthrough in the realm of female empowerment. It is unlikely that this leap towards gender equality would set an Olympic record, but there is no doubt that the leap is coming.

A few years ago, a Japanese lecturer asked her students at a business etiquette seminar held at Moscow State University’s Japanese Center whether it should be a man or a woman who is first to enter the elevator. “A woman, of course!” – the audience was unanimous. The sensei was genuinely surprised. “I have never seen so much respect for ladies. In Europe and the US, I usually get the answer that it doesn’t really matter. But why the woman and not the man?” There was a slight hesitation, then a young Russian man said, “In case the cable snaps and the elevator falls down.” The lecturer paused for a second and replied: “Go to Japan. They’d be happy to have you.”

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