It’s no secret that Japan continually lands at the bottom in global gender gap reports. In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101 in regard to women’s participation in the economy and politics. In 2013, Japan placed 105 (out of 135 countries), putting it behind Burkina Faso in gender equality.
Based on these findings, you may think it doesn’t seem like Japan is a very good country for women, but you’d be wrong. While there are huge shortcomings in gender gaps in the workplace, economy and politics, in other sectors of Japanese society some would would argue that Japanese women have “too much” power.
Let’s take a look at five areas where women are most powerful in Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new initiative, dubbed “womenomics,” aims to break down traditional male-oriented corporate culture and make it easier for women to keep jobs and advance their careers while raising children. Currently, 50 to 60 percent of Japanese women quit work after giving birth. The womenomics initiative will put one million women into the workforce, says Abe, and he hopes to propel at least a portion of the 54.5 percent of females in part-time work into full time jobs.
While this is an admirable goal and one perhaps necessary to offset an aging and shrinking workforce, the plan may well backfire. The reason is that women in Japan are already pretty powerful and they may not be willing to trade their efficacy in some areas for that in others.
1. In Japan, motherhood is a highly respected career
And I do mean career. A Japanese mother is 100 percent dedicated to raising her children, overseeing their education, and managing the household. And this she is extremely proud of. Indeed, many Japanese people can’t understand why being a housewife isn’t as highly regarded in many Western countries. Much emphasis is placed on bonding with children (ie: being there all the time), educating them (kindergarten starts at three years old) as well as the usual child-minding, cooking nutritious meals, and taking care of kids’ health. The mother is expected to completely devote herself to taking care of her children in every way. If you have any doubts, check out the current kyaraben trend, where women put hours of work into making the perfect cute lunch for their child to take to preschool. Once children enter kindergarten, mothers are expected to painstakingly follow school instructions on everything from attaching permanent name tags to every personal item to making sure children give proper greetings to each other, their teachers and elders.
2. Japanese women enjoy high global standards of education
While many women go on to four-year colleges and universities, a large percentage attend two-year junior colleges where they may learn secretarial skills such as book-keeping, they can also major in subjects such as nutrition, childhood education, nursing, music and literature. Notice a pattern here? All these latter subjects are aimed at producing good mothers who can raise well-rounded, educated children. After all, if she’s going to raise a family, she may as well spend two years learning how to do it properly, just like you would for any other career.
3. In Japan, the woman holds the purse strings
With such a woman at the helm of the household, it should be no surprise that when she gets married, she is also in charge of the finances. The husband turns over his salary to his wife who takes care of all the outgoings and gives him an allowance to spend, which is reportedly around US$500 per month. Yep, women rule the roost here. She also has her own “secret” bank account which she adds to each month in order to cover her own needs, an occasional splurge or even to start a retirement nest egg.
4. Japanese women enjoy greater maternity care support
When it comes to having babies, no one does it better than the Japanese. Along with maternal and infant mortality rates being among the lowest in the world, there is no going home immediately after the woman has given birth. Instead, the mother is given 5 to 10 days in the maternity ward to rest and recover. During this time, new mothers will be instructed, by professionals, on how to care for their newborn. Women can choose either a public or private institution in which to give birth and Japan’s National Health Insurance pays out a standard 420,000 yen (US$3,927) to the mother, an amount based on the cost of an average delivery.
In addition, her own mother will often come to stay at her house for the first month after the baby is born to help with cooking and cleaning as well as to look after any other small children already at home and to be there to offer support, encouragement and child-rearing advice.
5. Women almost always get custody of the children in a divorce
According to the Civil Code in Japan regarding divorce, parental rights are given to either the mother or the father, not both. Joint custody is illegal and history has shown that courts will favor the mother 80 to 90 percent of the time. The parent who does not receive custody often never sees their child again. While visitation can be arranged informally among the parents, many women choose to not allow it.
Hajime Tanoue, a visa immigration lawyer with Frontier International Legal Office, explains: “Prior to World War II fathers were granted sole custody of their children. After the war Gen. Douglas MacArthur reversed the law, giving the rights to mothers in divorce cases.”
“Mothers win 90 percent of court decisions concerning custody. Some ex-wives are insistent that their ex-husbands never see their children again. Even when a court decides that [the] husband can see the children once a month the ex-wife can refuse to comply and not suffer consequences for it,” says Tanoue-san.
So in Japan, it’s not always a man’s world. As a matter of fact, when it comes to family life, the man spends most of his time devoted to the workplace and doing overtime so that he can bring home the bacon.
With motherhood elevated to such an art, it’s hard to see why women would want to toss away a career in child-rearing in favor of Japanese corporate culture that dictates long working hours, job over family, and low wages–the real culprits in Japan’s lack of full-time women in the workplace.
Once you start seeing motherhood as a career, it makes you wonder if it is fair to ask or even expect women to switch to a different career just because it is more lucrative or because it fills employment needs. If women choose motherhood as a career and feel fulfilled, isn’t that good enough? If a man has decided to go to trade school to fulfill his dream of becoming a mechanic, would you ask him to change his career? And, if more women leave the home to work, who is going to fill the void at home?
In the U.S., it would be unfair to say that a man isn’t as capable of raising a a child as a woman. But that’s because we have a different work-life balance between our jobs and families. Japan’s work-life balance is more distinct: the men work, the women balance.
Top image: World Economic Forum