Japan ranks 114th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index. Fewer than half of working age women have jobs, and many of those are part time positions without benefits. Women working in full time jobs can expect 73% of the hourly wage of their male counterparts, putting Japan next to last among rich democracies on gender wage equality. Japanese women occupy fewer than 10 percent of the House of Representatives and 16 percent of the House of Councillors, giving Japan a rank of 163 of 193 countries in the International Parliamentary Union’s tally of female political representation. In December 2015 the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that a Japanese woman must take her husband’s surname upon marriage, citing “deeply rooted social practice.” And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, for all its talk about gender equality, resists overturning a 1947 law that forbids the Imperial line from transferring to a female.
Now consider this: In 2014 Rieko Kage (University of Tokyo), Seiki Tanaka (University of Amsterdam), and I launched an online survey experiment designed to measure gender bias. The ‘trick’ of the experiment, designed to detect implicit bias against females, was to assign randomly a female or male name to an identical essay to see if respondents would reflexively assume a female author was less qualified to make judgments about German reunification. They did not, suggesting that the principal hurdles to female success in Japanese labor markets do not lie in rank prejudice (Kage, Rosenbluth, and Tanaka 2017). In another experiment, survey respondents showed, if anything, a slight preference for female candidates running for office (Kage, Rosenbluth, and Tanaka 2017). And according to a May 2017 poll conducted by Kyodo News, 86 percent of Japanese think women should be able to become emperor of Japan.
Is this the same country? Why do practices in economic, political, and social life skew so obviously against equality in this society?
The problem for women in Japan — which is the same, to a lesser degree, everywhere else — is that women are expected to bear disproportionate responsibility for childcare. What makes this worse for Japanese women is the rigidity of the Japanese labor market. Childcare leave provisions are better than in the U.S. (Japanese parents get 66% of their salary for 8 weeks, compared to none at all in the U.S.) but Japanese firms avoid hiring and promoting women who are likely to take childcare leave. Full time employees of Japan’s strongest firms get “lifetime employment” contracts at the time of hire. Employers turn women away because they are statistically more likely to quit or take time off upon childbirth. Because firms prefer to invest in workers who will stay for many years, workers who leave the firm to raise children are a bad investment.
Long-term labor contracts associated with Japan’s most desirable jobs hold women back from workplace equality because women on average are more likely to quit after childbirth even if any individual woman might chose not to. Such ‘statistical discrimination,’ as it is known, does not necessarily entail societal views of female incompetence, as we have seen; it rests on undisturbed societal expectations that women disproportionately shoulder the burdens of family work. Japanese women are trapped in a catch-22: until outside income gives them more bargaining power within the family, their husbands will not bear equal responsibility for family work; and as long as this is the norm, they will be effectively barred from jobs that would give them bargaining power. Japanese women are stuck.
Japan is not an alien planet. In Japan, we recognize a more intense set of the same obstacles that confront women everywhere else on planet earth. Until women have equal access to an independent livelihood — or as Virginia Woolf said, a room of one’s own and 5,000 pounds — social norms will not change. Families will prepare their daughters for the marriage market unless and until the labor market opens up.