Economic Powerhouse Japan: What About Women's Rights?
FRIDAY FILE: How do women fare in this rich nation with a relatively poor women’s rights record?
By Kathambi Kinoti
Japan is an industrial and economic powerhouse whose citizens form almost two percent of the world’s population. It is a member of the G8, a grouping of the most industrially and economically advanced states in the world. But the nation’s women’s rights record lags far behind its other achievements. Is its economic success to blame for this? Is there an assumption that as long as a nation’s citizens have their basic needs assured, and it is modern and industrialised, a good rights record is also assured? Does the fact that Japan’s primary language is not among the more prominent global languages - English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic - account for the dearth of knowledge of and global activism around women’s rights in Japan?
Japan has an admirable record of putting girls into school and retaining them there. Once they are out of school though, Japanese women may get jobs, but they rarely ascend to higher positions within their professions. A Christian Science Monitor article provides a snapshot of the reality that many Japanese women encounter:
“Chie, a former saleswoman at a Japanese firm,remembers paying her dues at the office. She put up with men who slapped women’s backsides. She donned a uniform and showed up the required 15 minutes early to brew coffee. Finally, after five years, she told her boss she wanted to take over from two departing salesmen.
“At the next meeting, he said he was hiring two guys for the jobs,” recalls Chie, who did not want to use her full name. “I quit.And then my boss asked me, ‘Oh, were you serious?’”
As professor and women’s rights activist Kozue Akibayashi says; “Japan ranks high in HDI and GDI, but GEM drops significantly.” In 2009, the World Economic Forum placed Japan in position 101 out of 134 in its Gender Gap Report. Does the country’s wealth obscure the shortcomings in its women’s rights record?
Japan’s constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of creed, race, sex or social status. As is the case in so many other parts of the world, legally,women do have rights, but latter day interpretations of Japan’s ancient culture often impinge on those rights. In fact, says Akibayashi, many of the “values”that keep women a step behind were developed alongside the modern state but were not actually part of Japanese culture historically.
Women in Japan are entitled by law to equality and protection against discrimination, but in reality, sexual harassment and unequal pay according to gender are common. Akibayashi says that the wage gap between men and women is very high and many skilled women occupy part-time positions particularly after they get married or have children. The number of women occupying full-time positions is actually falling. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
“Between 1985 and 2008, the proportion of female full-time employees fell from 68.1 percent to 46.5 percent. Put another way,53.5 percent of women in the workforce are part-time or contract workers, while the figure for men is 19.1 percent.”
As an example of inequality, Akibayashi cites that fact that upon marriage, ninety percent of couples choose the husband’s name as the family name and there is strong resistance in the Japanese parliament the Diet to allow for dual family names.It is a common claim that that if this was allowed, it would “destroy the family.”
Sexual violence is widely under-reported. According to Akibayashi, “Punishment for sexual crimes is light and victims are still burdened to prove the crime. Unless they report to the police there will be no investigation.” A Freedom House report says: “Violence against women often goes unreported because of concerns about family reputation and other social mores.”
Japan does not have a very strong culture of women’s rights organising. Akibayashi says that although there are many women’s groups all over Japan, they are concentrated in its capital Tokyo and in other urban areas. As in many other parts of the world, rural women in Japan are the poorest and most underrepresented of all women.
In the recent past there has been global attention on the plight of “comfort women;”young women abducted from Japanese-occupied territories and held in sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. These women came primarily from China, Korea, the Philippines and Japan itself, and some of them have sued Japan’s government for recognition of and compensation for their ordeals. As the Freedom House report indicates, in 2007 the United StatesCongress called on the government of Japan to accept responsibility for thesexual slavery of the “comfort women” and provide compensation to them. However,Japanese courts contend that the issue was settled in post-war treaties.
Trafficking in girls and women continues to be problem in Japan today and Freedom House reports that “Japan is primarily a destination country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation.”
Japan’s society – like all others- is not equal. According to the Freedom House report:
“Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status, certain groups continue to face unofficial discrimination. Japan’s three million burakumin,who are descendants of feudal-era outcasts, and the indigenous Ainu minority suffer from entrenched societal discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to housing and employment opportunities. Foreigners generally, and Koreans in particular, suffer similar disadvantages.”
Japan’s women are entitled to the human rights described in the country’s constitution and the numerous treaties to which the state is a party. However, cultural misinterpretations of the position of women in society are an obstacle to the enjoyment of their rights. As a prominent member of the world community, the influential G8 grouping of rich nations, and a major donor to poor countries, Japan ought set a better example by upholding its women’s rights and dismantling gender stereotypes.
The women’s movement in Japan, relatively small as it may be, would benefit from greater interaction with global women’s movements who have influenced change for the better in so many countries around the world.