The Setback of Japan: How Japan Succeeded in Everything but Gender Equality

By Sahana Natarajan

When most people think of Japan, they think of a country highly advanced in technology, rich in culture, and notorious for various characters and plotlines in anime. Ranked third as “best country” by U.S News, Japan continues to dominate over the rest of the world in quality of life, technological expertise, and entrepreneurship. However, the failure to empower women in government, workplace, and society, has inevitably exposed Japan to be a beautiful yet unprogressive country. 

The United States and Japan have both ranked high in several categories. For example, they were only one place away from Japan in both qualities of life and entrepreneurship (US News). Yet, while the US has progressively improved in closing the gender inequality gap and has ranked 51st overall in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Index, Japan fails to resolve any of these issues and has ranked 121st (U.S. News)

So why has Japan fallen short in fixing the gender inequality issue? 

Gender inequality in Japan has been a persistent issue ever since social constructs were placed. The prototype family was defined as a two-person household, where women took on the housewife and caregiver role, while men took on the leadership role. Concepts of gender equality were never implemented into Japan’s constitution until post-World War II when Article 24, “The Gender Equality Clause” was introduced (North). Article 24 states, “With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.” This clause aimed at introducing reforms that would provide women with more autonomy regarding property ownership and marriage. 

 However, the gender and family norms that were deeply rooted in Japanese communities led to extreme resistance against Article 24 and the culture remained this way until the 2010s. (North). It was only after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election into office that allowed for some change. Abe’s push for gender equality throughout his time in office indicates the need for serious change, however, his efforts have always been faced with pushback. In 2014, the Abe administration included five women into political roles, only three kept their positions in office because of scandals relating to workplace sexism (Assman). 

While the Abe administration efforts to enforce gender equality in the workplace failed, many of the citizens are also critically at fault for Japan falling short. According to a 2018 study by Women Political Leaders, only 24% of the Japanese population felt comfortable working under a female CEO compared to 63% in the US (Eda, Zahidi). Ironically, however, while many Japanese people don’t feel comfortable working under female authority, around 70% agree that gender inequality still exists within Japanese society and also agree that progressive change must take place. 

The wage gap between men and women has also shown significant issues in Japan’s labor force. For part-time workers, women only earn 59.4% of the wage that men earn. For full-time workers, women earn 73.4% of the wage that men earn (Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office). The drastic difference between the salaries of men and women in Japan has made it difficult for this systemic issue to change. Unfortunately, this reality is not just seen within the workforce– in 2018, several university medical schools such as Tokyo Medical University, Juntendo University, and Kitasato University favored male applicants by setting different passing marks for women and men (McCurry). When the success of students in higher education is partially determined by gender in Japanese culture, it only makes sense that a similar mindset would carry over into the workplace. 

For the last thirty years, Japan has been greatly behind resolving gender disparity issues. Other countries have been able to build frameworks and enforce changes to respect diversity and provide women with equal opportunities (Asahi). With the recent news of Shinzo Abe resigning his position as Prime Minister, Japan’s current system remains uncertain and unstable in solving issues regarding gender inequality. The hope for creating new policies to provide more opportunities for women certainly exists in Japan and must be closely observed in the coming years. 

Assmann, Stephanie. “25 Years After the Enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL): Online Access to Gender Equality in Japan.” Asian Politics & Policy, vol. 4, no. 2, 2012, pp. 280–285., doi:10.1111/j.1943-0787.2012.01347.x.

“The Best Countries in the World.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2020,. 

THE CONSTITUTION OF JAPAN, Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 1947, japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html.

“Japan Ranks 121st in Gender Equality among 153 Countries:The Asahi Shimbun.” The Asahi Shimbun, Asahi Shinbun, 18 Dec. 2019,. 

McCurry, Justin. “Two More Japanese Medical Schools Admit Discriminating against Women.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Dec. 2018, 

North, S. “Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan.” Social Science Japan Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, 2009, pp. 23–44., doi:10.1093/ssjj/jyp009.

“Women and Men in Japan 2019: Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office.” Women and Men in Japan 2019 | Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, 2019,. 

Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director. “How to Narrow Japan’s Widening Gender Gap.” World Economic Forum, 8 Mar. 2020,. 

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