Japan and Gender (In)Equality

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I love a lot of things about Japan – I wouldn’t have chosen to live here or write about it if I didn’t – but gender equality (or rather, the lack thereof) isn’t one of them.

I say this without any particular sense of oppression. There are after all many countries that have far more disturbing gender equality statistics including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Liberia, and the Congo, just to name a few. I know full well that in comparison, Japan doesn’t even make a blip on the radar. Moreover, no matter how long I stay here or how well I integrate myself into Japanese society, I will never be held to the same standards as a Japanese woman would be.

That said, a good friend of mine quite rightly pointed out the other day that the more subtle forms of discrimination can often be more problematic than the explicitly overt kind. Any decent human being will point out that rape, genital mutilation, and infanticide is wrong, for example, and the world is quick to call attention to the injustice of it. But when sexism is less obvious than that, it can’t be identified so easily. It becomes something insidious that allows for people in any given society to honestly believe that there is no discrimination, yet still go about their everyday lives while unconsciously perpetuating the problem.

Hence this post. The aim of it isn’t to have a whinge, or to lash out at the country I’m usually very happy to be a part of for now. I suppose if I have any single goal in writing this, it’s to make people aware that, while being nowhere near on the scale of some other places in the world, there is still a problem in Japan. It shouldn’t be ignored simply because it’s less conspicuous.

So, what are these problems exactly? So glad you asked – let me count the ways. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Japanese adult women working full time earn on average around 30% less than Japanese men. That’s twice the OECD average, in case you were wondering. When it comes to mothers who work full time the statistics dramatically worsen, with women on average earning over 60% less than adult males working full time. Professions which pay more – company board positions, supervisory work, management jobs – are all depressingly skewed in favour of men. The roles of gender in government is no better, with less than 10% of the parliamentary seats in Japan taken by women. In March this year, the results of a survey focusing on female socio-economic standings in the Asia-Pacific world regions was released, with Japan coming in at second-lowest on the index. (They managed to beat India. Yay.)

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It’s no real wonder that both the marriage and birth rate in Japan is worryingly low. The Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the five Japanese national newspapers, reported that the number of Japanese who thought wives should stay at home jumped from 41.3% to 51.6% between 2009 and 2012. It’s also expected that a woman should retire, regardless of her age, after having a child because only one in five male employees work less than 40 hours, and mothers are therefore automatically responsible for most of the childcare and housework duties. For those Japanese women who don’t want to be housewives, the answer seems simply to be don’t get married, don’t have children.

11. picture3As a first world country, and one without the convenient excuse of religion to pin attitudes towards gender on, Japan has no business being as bad as it is. (I bring up religion here not to bash it, but rather because there appears to be a direct parallel between those countries ranked worst in terms of gender equality and those which place an extreme importance on religion as a part of daily life – unfortunately I’m looking mostly at those same countries I mentioned earlier in this article: Liberia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, the Congo.)

On a more personal note, I look around my own work environment and see that the majority of people who work in my Board of Education are male; that of the six schools I currently teach at, the principals, vice principals and head teachers of the junior high schools are men while the principals of the much smaller elementary schools are women; and that only the ladies are ever expected to pour the tea. Cue gasps of shock and/or dismay whenever co-workers ask about my culinary skills and I explain that I’m terrible – at home in New Zealand, my past boyfriend did pretty much all the cooking. And as a huge anime fan, I can’t help but be aware that while there are a number of female artists out there, the production industry is largely dominated by male editors and directors.

Dear Japan – you’re better than this, Or rather, you should be. Don’t let me down by not giving these problems the amount of attention they deserve.

Question of the post: What are your own thoughts on gender equality in Japan? Do you have any personal experiences that contribute to that opinion?

38 thoughts on “Japan and Gender (In)Equality

  1. I shouldn’t be surprised that all the anime is drawn by men. I mean…look at it. Boingy, boingy. Actually, it’d be better to say it’s drawn by 14-year-old boys. Plot? What plot? BOOM BOOM BOING BOING! Hey, I like anime, but you know it’s true.


    1. No, I think it’s unfair to say that all anime/manga is drawn by men. There are actually quite a large number of female artists – it’s just that this number goes way down when it comes to directing, producing, and the business end of things.


      1. Anime and manga are indeed also drawn by women. I’ve seen a part of a program where a female manga artist drew sexual explicit manga. Women have those fantasies too, it would be easy to shove all the sexual or suggestive content onto men.

        On topic. I think Europe is one of the most equalized systems(I have no experience with the USA though, I can’t judge about that). Some countries in Europe have more women than men, so they have to create a system that encourages women to work. Not all jobs can be occupied by men when there aren’t enough of them anyway.

        Japan faces a big problem with the low fertility rate. Men work many hours, having no time to spend at home. And the masculine culture pushes women out of the labor force. On the flipside maybe the low fertility rate is a good development to wake up companies and government to restructure the labor system. Also it might open the eyes of the men in Japan to see women as an equal within the labor force. Laws to put a limit on working hours and a quotum to force companies to hire women could be possible measures to force the labor market to move on, entering a new era. You won’t force anybody to move with good will campagnes, some things have to be pushed in the right direction or else it will never happen.
        Good post, interesting to discuss about.


        1. I haven’t ever lived or even visited any country in Europe yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a lot more equalized than in many other parts of the world.
          Meanwhile, Japan’s low marriage and low fertility rate have been getting quite a bit of news coverage over the last couple of years, but I’ve yet to see any changes being made in response. In many ways I think Japan is extremely slow to embrace change of almost any kind. I agree that laws to limit working hours and/or force companies to hire a certain quota of women could be a way to improve matters, but I also have trouble imagining that these kinds of measures will be taken (and properly enforced) any time soon.


  2. I was told yesterday about a contest to design a gender equality poster illustration for the local city efforts to improve this. I thought pretty hard about it, but besides a basic role reversal approach (dad making a bentou as mom goes off to work), it was pretty hard to come up with something that would to a Japanese audience that likes cute things, but not be dumbed down. It’s a very hard issue to capture–much less promote change–in an image. -_-;


    1. Wow, that definitely sounds like a difficult thing to do – it would be hard enough to pull off even in several images, let alone just one. The basic role reversal would be okay I think, but coming up with something more creative is probably something you’re aiming for. Good luck! 🙂 If any ideas happen to strike me over the next couple of days, I’ll be sure to let you know.


  3. No kidding Japan is slow to embrace change. I mean looking back at the Edo period, they actually managed to isolate themselves from the rest of the world for so long and avoid change.

    Recently I was reading an article about how some people in the Japanese government were considering increasing the pregnancy leave to a couple of YEARS- in order to encourage more women to stay at home and have children (I can’t find the article so I can’t link it). I’m not really sure how that’s supposed to work out, and anyway who would hire a lady and let her off a couple of years without working? How bad would that be for the economy? I was baffled. Anyway, nothing came out of that idea (and hopefully nothing will), but I’m pretty sure the falling birthrates in Japan haven’t had a significant positive effect on the government if they’re not looking for better solutions. (oh and the population in Japan fell by 212 000 in 2012)

    By the way Artemis, do you think you could do an article about where the sexism in Japan stems from? (no pressure >-< <— I am really bad at emoticons. I shouldn't even try)(oh and sorry about my really long comments, but shortening what I want to say isn't really my specialty)

    Oh, and as for personal experiences contributing to my opinion on gender equality in Japan- for me, it's actually the other way around. I only became more aware of sexism upon countering it frequently in the anime I watch. At some point I realized that the sexism was actually grating on my nerves, and along the way I became interested in gender equality and now I'm a feminist.


    1. I think I read that same article about the government’s idea to increase maternity leave. I agree, I really don’t see how that’s going to help the situation in the long run. I’m also not at all surprised by the dramatic fall in birth rate, which has been covered by several major newspapers here now. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see any active response to the problem.

      I have no problem with writing an article about sexism in Japan. I don’t know that it will be soon – I already have several things lined up for future posts and don’t have a lot of free time up my sleeve to write anything new and extensive right now – but at some point, I’d be happy to do it.

      As for sexism in anime, I think that greatly depends on what anime you watch. Sexuality is portrayed differently depending on demographic and genre, and even then can vary a lot from title to title. I’m hesitant to make any sweeping generalisations about sexism being portrayed any one particular way in anime because there’s just too much material out there to make blanket statements like that with any real accuracy.


  4. I think this kind of awareness is what separates weeaboos from us other Japan lovers. While I love the culture, and my dream is to eventually visit, the sexism and racism do worry me. It’s not that any of this is overt, but like you said, the fact that it exists beneath the surface is what allows it to thrive the way it does. It may take some rather aggressive activism from the inside for them to shake this problem.


    1. Perhaps you’re right. Some people will only see what they want to see. I really do love Japan – I’m glad I get to live here, and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon. The sexism can get frustrating at times though – doubly so because change does indeed need to come from the inside, and it wouldn’t matter if I stay here for 2 years or 20, I know I will always be treated as an outsider. This normally doesn’t bother me at all, but just some days… well, I suppose this post is a vent as well as hopefully a short informative piece.


  5. Unfortunately, there are absolutely major problems with sexism in Japan. As a society, they’re very slow to adopt change, which means traditional gender roles are still somewhat prevalent. Thankfully, things are starting to change as more Japanese women enter the workforce, but it’ll take a while.

    I admire and enjoy a lot of aspects of Japanese culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect as a society. They’ve still got sexism and declining birth rates to deal with. (Oh, and driving on the wrong side of the road :P)

    Re sexualization in anime: there’s definitely plenty of misogynist bullcrap and pointless fanservice, but it doesn’t represent the entire medium. IMO, fanservice has become more prevalent in recent years because, as the old mantra goes, “sex sells”, and anime has seen declining sales. So it’s an A+B=C scenario.

    Anime does plenty of manly goodness for the ladies as well, though. See: Ouran High School Host Club. 😛


    1. No society is perfect, and on the whole I really love living in Japan – there are many fantastic things about the country, and I’ve made plenty of friends both male and female. You’re right though, the sexism is a problem, and while Japan as a nation is gradually changing, that change can be frustratingly slow at times. (On the plus side, I’m confident that Japan does in fact drive on the correct side of the road. Long live the lefties!)

      Some anime has a lot of sexism. Some has none. It really depends on what you watch – and I doubt anyone can claim to have watched every single anime out there. There’s simply too much of it. Personally I don’t mind the fanservice overly much, which I don’t think is necessarily the same thing as sexism. And even if I did object to the occasional panty shot or what have you, it would make me deeply hypocritical. There’s plenty of anime fanservice for the ladies too – Ouran High School Host Club is a good example, but there are plenty more where that came from! 😉


  6. Yeah, what you’re saying here is definitely a point against Japan unfortunately. But I’m assuming gender inequality is better there than it was decades ago…is it? If it is, I’m hoping Japan will continue to improve, even if it’s slowly. From my brief experiences visiting the country and interacting with all the young people of the next generation, I feel like there’s hope.


    1. I haven’t made much of a study of Japanese history, but yes, I’d say that Japan has certainly made progress over the last couple of decades. I love Japan and think there’s definitely hope for more change. However, I also think it’s a fair assumption that that change will be slow. Of course, slow change is still better than none.


  7. I agree with your article, and particularly the point about subtle gender inequality being more difficult to remedy than extreme cases. Being from Belgium, I do think we are a bit better off on the gender equality front than Japan. But there is still a lot of inequality here too. For example when a couple has kids, usually the women cuts back on her career and starts working part time to take care of the kids, while the man continues to work full time. In case of a divorce, women in Belgium are a lot more likely to end up with financial problems than men.

    While living in Japan, I noticed that many Japanese women hold quite unrealistic ideas about Western men. For example, they think that all the housework is split 50-50. They were always very surprised when me and the other expat women told them that, altough a 50-50 split is how it theoretically should work, in reality women still take on the majority of the housework and the care for the children, while working at the same time.

    Another problem we have here is that many women feel like they should be able to do it all: have a succesful career, be a good mother, have an active social life, exercise and look good… Society pressures women to do all those things and it drives many modern women to the brink of exhaustion.

    There is also still a salary gap between men and women in Belgium. The annual campaign Equal Pay Day featured a very funny video in 2010 – to end all of my ranting on a lighter note 🙂


    1. Yeah, I doubt any single country has it perfect, although I can certainly see some countries trying harder than others in the gender equality department.

      That’s a good point about many Japanese women having unrealistic expectations about Western men. I’ve noticed this to, to some extent – although from what I’ve seen, it’s the younger women who tend to have these really romantic, idealistic notions while older women seem to be a bit more pragmatic.

      Haha, a good video to start off my final work day of the week, thanks! XD


  8. Very nicely written post. I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of enjoying some anime that can be rather sexist, despite being a feminist. I reason it out in a similar way to people who enjoyed Beauty and the Beast despite it being essentially a tale of an abusive relationship, in which at least I can consume media critically rather than accepting everything at face value.

    Popular culture though undeniably feeds back into society, and while I do enjoy watching seiyuu saying nosebleed-worthy things, it has to be said that there is something wrong when that appears to be the predominant form the anime and entertainment industry takes.


    1. I can definitely see where you’re coming from when you say you enjoy anime while at the same time understanding its sometimes inherent sexism. I’m exactly the same way, and I suspect there are many others. While I don’t think that all anime is sexist, or that sexism when it does occur in anime means that it negates any other artistic merit or entertainment value, it can certainly be an odd experience.


  9. “As a first world country, and one without the convenient excuse of religion to pin attitudes towards gender on, Japan has no business being as bad as it is.” I agree. I never thought about this before (well, I guess for most of my life I never thought much about anything Japan-related, period) but I suppose that if I had thought about it, I would have just assumed that Japan, as a first world country, would be pretty similar to my own country when it comes to these things… because like you say, there’s nothing that’s obviously disturbing (like how in some countries women aren’t allowed to study or drive a car, etc,etc…) so I guess you really have to live there to understand it. The more I watch live action drama though, the more I begin to see that there’s definitely gender inequality in Japan. Even if it’s just some small comments, the things they say sometimes and how they say it, it’s just… wow. Strange. From my very non-Japanese point of view.


    1. I admit then before living in Japan, I didn’t really think about gender inequality here either. I mean, I had read books and if asked, I would have said it definitely existed, but until you’re actually experiencing something then it’s hard to realise just how annoying, bad, or strange it is. I now wonder if it’s something that the Japanese women around me think about at all, or if it’s just so normal to them that they either don’t notice or don’t care.


  10. Whilst Japan (and various proportions of pretty much any country in the world) is deeply sexist, I’d just like to focus on a single issue: Pay equality.

    It’s easy to look at the overall figures for pay and go, “Oh, women are still paid X% less on average, it must be sexism!”, but that doesn’t really give the whole story.

    For example, whilst there are plenty of women with modern views who think men and women should be equal, there’s definitely a significant proportion of more traditional women (and men) who think the husband should be the breadwinner, a husband who earns less isn’t a worthy man, who want a boyfriend/husband to be taller than them, etc.

    These traditional women (and traditional men who share those views) have expectations which push men to seek raises, seek career advancement, bargain more aggressively (desperately?) etc. Eg. a traditional man who earns less than his wife would be far more desperate to advance his career / increase his pay than a traditional wife who earns less than her husband.

    So even in hypothetical society where there isn’t any gender differences in pay from the employer’s side, if salaries are awarded via individual negotiation then you’ll still have a situation where men are paid more than women, because of that proportion of population that believe in traditional gender roles.

    Of course, I’m not saying that sexist managers and companies aren’t contributing to pay inequality – I’m just saying that there are possibly other factors as well.

    I guess another debate might be, “Is it acceptable to attack traditional-minded women for their views?” Since it certainly seems perfectly fine to attack traditional-minded men. But given that “tradition” usually gives men the dominant position, it’s not necessarily a double standard.


    1. Oh yes, I’m quite certain there are indeed plenty of factors that contribute to pay inequality. I’d say sexism is certainly one of them, but I probably lack the necessary knowledge to be able to discuss any of the others at length.

      As far as your question about attacking traditional-minded women goes, it’s definitely an interesting one. Personally, I see nothing wrong with someone being a housewife and leaving it up to the male to be the breadwinner of the family if that’s what she wants. However, if attitudes towards sexism in Japan are going to change for the better, then it will take a collective effort from people regardless of their gender to do so. Placing all the blame on one gender or viewpoint seems neither fair nor productive. Incidentally, the point of this post is not to ‘attack’ traditional-minded views of any kind, but rather simply to point out some of the problems that Japan has when it comes to gender. I think some people probably tend to view the country through rose-tinted glasses, and while there are many things to admire about Japan, it’s issues with gender equality isn’t one of them.


  11. A teeny bit late on this one… 😀
    I was reading this shoujo manga where a guy says something along the lines of “you’re a girl, you can’t do this”, pushing a female character into some pre-conceived idea of a how a girl should act (not trying to say it’s limited to shoujo manga, I’ve seen plenty of similar cases in shounen manga and also anime, and also to guys as well, though to a lesser extent). I realise manga and anime doesn’t translate into real life, but I’m wondering if this reflects Japanese society to some extent, or on the other hand maybe influences people to act according to these fictional roles. Anyway, I don’t think it’s giving much of a positive message. The portrayals seem like gender inequality or something, but I’m not really too knowledgable on the topic so maybe not haha.
    So that’s something that stands out to me now and then, although maybe it’s not limited to Japanese fiction. I don’t consume much Western media except fantasy books, for which the authors tend to be fairly open-minded (well, the ones I read).


    1. Late replies are just as welcome as any other. 🙂

      You’re quite right, it does seem common (particularly in shoujo manga, although as you point out, it’s not limited to any one demographic or genre) for this sort of thing to happen. I put this down largely to traditional Japanese ideas of what women should be and how they should behave – delicate, mild-mannered, etc. etc. Of course, Japan is hardly the only country in the world to have espoused these kinds of ideals, but it does seem to have clung onto them more tightly than some other countries have. Japan has always struck me as a country that’s been very slow to change, so that’s perhaps not surprising.


  12. Interesting that I just stumbled onto this. I recently had a lecture by Kaori Sasaki which included gender inequality in the workplace. One interesting point she made on the pay/position inequality was that it was less that women are directly discriminated against (I’m sure that happens too) but the evaluation methods in Japan can be quite strange. Basically, employees are partially evaluated based on hours worked. So when, for example, working mothers go home “early” to take care of the children, naturally, they work less hours, get lower evaluation scores, and never move up the corporate ladder. Even worse, productivity is strangely not of interest. This is a really big problem with Japan’s work culture as a whole beyond just gender inequality because Japan has one of the worst productivity per hour worked values in the world. That is, they work more yet accomplish less, because they are effectively getting paid to be at work rather than to work. Consequently, it doesn’t matter how efficiently women work or how much they accomplish; if they don’t put in the hours, they won’t be viewed as “good employees.”

    Of course, this merely compounds any other existing problems surrounding gender inequality in Japan, of which I hardly claim to be knowledgeable.


    1. That’s a really good point to consider as well. I wish I was able to comment on that further, but unfortunately I lack the general knowledge to do. It’s definitely an important factor though, so thank you for mentioning it. 🙂


  13. I doesnt live in Japan and I think its correct men do things typical of men, and women do things typical of women. At the end I d look many kinds of gender inequality as positive.


  14. Very late to the party.

    Pay-inequality is not a one-sided affair. Young women in Japan asked about marriage tell another story about what they expect their future partner to earn. Basicly over 70% of women expect their partner to earn over 4 million annually while only 25% of men actually earn that amount of money. (source: http://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a01002/ )
    And that is including the old already married high earning men. In fact, the average annual income for young men is behind that of you women (source: http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/10/15/us-japan-income-idUSTRE69E15R20101015 )

    And many men simply drop out of that game alltogether since they see no way of being successful with this reality and the expectations (source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex )


    1. Oh definitely – I’m in no way claiming that pay inequality is one-sided, or that gender-related issues are only a problem for women. Although the main focus of this article is primarily about women, these types of issues are something that concerns everyone regardless of their gender. However, Japan unfortunately seems to be quite far behind many other countries in dealing with them.


      1. I don’t think pay inequality will be a concern in the future. What is left of it originates from several decades ago and is hard to change. If you are under 30, odds are you earn more as a woman.

        I don’t want to turn this into a oppression olympics. But talking about pay inequality isn’t possible without taking a look at women and men or including the progression. I’m not in any way or form defending or denying the inequality in the decades before 2010, it is unfair but in most cases sadly not reversable.

        Thank you for your response.


        1. “If you are under 30, odds are you earn more as a woman.”

          No. Sorry, but no – that’s just not true. In Japan now, if you are a Japanese woman, the chances are that you will still earn less than a Japanese man doing exactly the same job. I’m not saying that pay inequality is as bad as it was, say, a decade ago, because there has indeed been progress, but pay inequality here is still very much a concern, and I daresay it will be for a long time to come.



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