Japanese Society: Womens Issues – Work and Home Life

Japanese Society: Womens Issues – Work and Home Life

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  1.             Known for many things, Japan was never historically known as a gender-equal society.  Women were meant to be quiet, obedient, and content.  The end of World War II and the latter half of the 20th century saw many changes for women in Japan, though often slow.

                In 1946, women of Japan were awarded the right to vote.  Women’s Suffrage in the West made it’s way into the island nation through policy and government changes following Japan’s surrender.  Over time, women began staying in school longer, seeking higher education alongside their male classmates.  In Japan, high school is not compulsory, and therefore students who wish to end their formal education at 15 years old rather than study and take entrance exams to go to high school are permitted to.  Since 1969, girls have held higher advancement in school compared to boys of the same age and the number of women seeking undergraduate and advanced degrees has also increased over time, although the advancement rate in university levels demonstrates a gap between men and women, with men advancing at a rate of about 15% higher.

                In 1996, the Japanese government began preparations for gender-equality which led to the passing of the Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society in 1999.  This law covered five basic principles:

    • respect for the human rights of women and men
    • consideration to social systems or practices
    • joint participation in planning and deciding polices
    • compatibility of activities in family life and other activities
    • international cooperation

                This led to the Basic Plan for Gender Equality which was approved in December of 2000 and included eleven objectives:

    • expand women’s participation in policy decision-making processes
    • review social systems and practices and reform awareness from a gender-equal perspective
    • secure equal opportunities and treatment in the field of employment
    • establish gender equality in rural areas
    • support efforts of women and men to harmonize work with their family and community life
    • develop conditions that allow the elderly to live with peace of mind
    • eliminate all forms of violence against women
    • support life-long health for women
    • respect women’s human rights in the media
    • enrich education and learning which promote gender equality and facilitate diversity of choice
    • contribute to the ‘equality, development, and peace’ of the global community

                The Council for Gender Equality and the Gender Equality Bureau were placed inside a new Cabinet Office comprising one of four major policy councils in the Japanese government.

                The Equal Employment Opportunity Law for Men and Women (1986) was revised in 1997 in an effort to speed up gender equality in work environments where women were still receiving a large deal of discrimination.  The revisions went into effect in 1999 and dealt with issues such as gender-based discrimination in recruitment, employment, allocation of specific posts, and advancement.  The revisions included placing the responsibility for sexual harassment training upon the shoulders of he employers.  In fact, much of the policy changes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Law for Men and Women pointed to making employers more responsible, overall, for dealing with gender-based discrimination.

                Despite legal changes to reduce and eliminate the "protection" of women from various labor conditions, even now women are still primarily responsible for the housework and child rearing which has produced concern that gender-equality has focused on the work environment and less on the social environment, increasing the burden that women in Japan may bear.  In other words, a Japanese woman may be able to find a gender-equal career, but may still find herself with the full-time housework and child raising in her home at the same time.

                Japan has seen increases in the age of couples when they decide to marry, as well as increases in the number of individuals choosing to remain single, both of which may be contributing to Japan’s declining birthrate.  The society, as a whole, is getting older with fewer babies being born to level the population off.  Women’s issues may be playing a large role here as well.  A study conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare found that more than 70% of mothers questioned were working within the year before giving birth, but more than 70% of mothers were not working 6 months after the birth of their child.  Men still commonly do very little housework, which leaves the mothers with less time to work, and a lack of desirable jobs for mothers complicates things further.  

                The Japanese government began trying to take action to counter the declining birthrate by implementing the Child Care Law in 1991 which declared that employers could not refuse requests from mothers or fathers for time off from their regular work hours and schedules in order to care for children under the age of one year.  This law has been revised several times and now adds criteria taking that age to 18 months.  There have also been requirements of the law permitting parents of children not yet in elementary school to take up to five work days off each year to care for sick or injured children.

                As mentioned earlier, a large number of women are choosing to go on to college, or junior college, after high school, and these women possess desires to work at equal levels with male counterparts upon graduation.  The continuing of education and entering of the workforce has been suspected as a possible factor in the increase in age of couples getting married as well as the increase in individuals remaining single.  A survey conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Japan found that many unmarried men and women held beliefs that marriage would restrict their lifestyles, relationships with friends, individual choices/actions, and would add psychological burdens such as having to support a family or be stuck with all the housework and childcare.  These may also be playing a role in the increase in divorce rates in Japan over the last three decades.  In 1980, 55.1% of men and 24% of women aged 25-29 were unmarried, compared to 72.6% of men and 59.9% of women in 2005, and the divorce rate has risen per 1,000 from 1.22 in 1980 to 1.99 in 2008.


    Japanese Gender Equality Bureau, Cabinet Office

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