Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


Working Women in Japan

At long last, a Japanese leader has finally figured out a way to boost economic growth in that country and address Japan’s diminishing labor pool. To shore up the country’s numbers, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will not be artificially maintaining near-zero loan interest rates, nor will he be “importing” inexpensive labor from nearby Vietnam, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Instead, Mr. Abe has a plan to take advantage of an available resource which Japan has had access to all along, just ready for the taking, but summarily bypassed. He wants Japanese women to participate in the work force in greater numbers.


Japan is, by far, the most developed and modern country in Asia. It enjoys the same 99% literacy rate as the U.S., France and Denmark. It is also extremely ethnically homogenous. Japan is an island nation consisting largely of ethnic Japanese. By design, it is a country to which people very rarely immigrate. Of the approximately 128 million people currently living in Japan, only about two million are expatriates. It is also not a country from which many emigrate; it has one of the lowest emigration rates in the world. Despite high literacy and an excellent and inclusive educational system, however, it is still a very difficult place for women to embrace both a career and a family. This is partially due to age-old concepts of the household and long-standing Confucian ideals regarding family. But it is also due to simple economics — there is almost no affordable childcare in Japan, and corporations simply make it impossible for women to return to work after the birth of their first child.


If all goes according to Prime Minister Abe’s plan, this is about to change, though no doubt it will be a very slow process. Abe’s plan promotes maternity leave, and would increase government-sponsored childcare facilities. In addition, corporations would receive pecuniary incentives to hire more women. All lofty ideals in theory, and even grander in practice.


A further problem, however, is the income differential between Japanese men and women. In 2010, the OECD reported that Japanese women made the equivalent of 71 cents to every Japanese man’s dollar (compared to American women’s 81 cents to their American male counterparts).  Japanese men also participate in household activities to a substantially lower degree than their American brethren (which isn’t really all that much if we’re being honest here). Add to this an aging Japanese population in which the vast majority of the burden of elder care falls on Japanese women, and it’s not difficult to see that 24 hours in a day can almost never be enough for the juggling act in which Japanese women would have to engage to complete their tasks.


Although there are many well-educated women who want to return to work after having children to maintain their career paths, the obstacles are many. Thus, despite their desires and abilities, the number of women in high-level positions in government and business is far lower than that of women in other advanced economies.


Prime Minister Abe’s plan is a beginning, made possible by his recognition and acknowledgement of the problem. However, there will need to be other changes in Japan’s domestic law as well if his plan is to succeed. Those would include changes in the tax code, which now penalizes dual income earners, and other wholesale structural changes to promote far more equality than exists currently.


The bigger problem, however, may be a cultural one, for which it is, of course, nearly impossible to legislate any meaningful correction. Japan is, at its very core, a society that abhors conflict in literally all manner of discourse. That is the case in familial, social, and commercial settings. (How else can one explain that there are at least half-a-dozen ways in the Japanese language of saying no, none of which actually means “no,” but all of which are instead indirect variants of something much less than “yes”?) So even though certain corporate conduct in the employment arena is illegal, for example, violations against women employees which in effect prohibit their return to work are rarely reported, since that goes against these very notions of conflict avoidance. This cultural prohibition, coupled with the national allergy to any aspect of discovery or litigation, will render the financial incentives to corporations to hire and maintain women in the work force even more critical to the success of Prime Minister Abe’s plan.


Japan has long been blessed with a highly talented, dedicated, skilled, and hard-working labor pool. However, demographics have shifted so that Japan’s current and future employment needs will not be met as long as the old status quo remains.  I applaud Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to start a dialogue about and formulate a plan to tap into this enormous resource of women, which has been present and available all along. The success of his plan, however, will require a cultural shift, domestic law changes, and corporate compliance. With an aging population, diminishing labor pool, and significant gaps in certain market sectors, it will be very tough for Japan to maintain its place in the world economy in their absence. Indeed, a return to the labor force of a significant number of Japanese women would probably not only save its economy but substantially propel it. As any good captain knows, it’s very tough to sail a ship employing only half a mast even in fair weather, no matter how great or sturdy that half mast is. Under somewhat stormy skies, all hands should be on deck.

Date Posted:  Aug. 26 2013