Japan aims a new era of ‘equal’ society

Gender inequality to date has resulted in various societal problems, including declining birth rate and fertility in the country

By AZREEN HANI / Pic By TMR File

THE Japanese society’s track record on gender equality issues has been far from appealing.

Across all board, about 74% of Japanese women stated in the government’s poll that men are being given preferential treatment in the society.

International Parliamentary Union ranked Japan at 162nd position for the proportion of women’s representative in the Parliament with about 10% out of 465 law- makers were women, according to its data released last December.

The inequality to date has resulted in various societal problems, including declining birth rate and fertility in the country.

It has become more common for Japanese women to put their career first instead of marriage and child-rearing to avoid being confined to the typical gender roles they are expected to take.

Only 40% of women remain working after giving birth to their first child, according to the country’s National Fertility Survey for the period between 2005 and 2009.

The female employment rate in the country as of 2017 stood at 67.4%, or ranked 16th from 35 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. However, things may start to look up for the Japanese as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made gender equality and female empowerment one of his top priorities to ensure that no segment of the society will be left behind.

The Japanese government, in essence, could not afford losing out on economic benefits from empowering its female citizens, too.

Based on a report by Goldman Sachs Group Inc in April 2014, Japanese GDP could be boosted by as much as 13% if the gap between men and women narrowed.

According to the minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, Hashimoto Seiko, the Japanese government needs to strive towards a creation of gender inclusive society in order to be progressive and meeting the current global demand.

Seiko says the Japanese govt needs to strive towards a creation of gender inclusive society in order to be progressive and meeting the current global demand

“That is why we have been gathering various segments to have exchanges of opinions and feedback to see what is the best way to move forward,” Seiko said in a closing remark at the Asia-Pacific Female Journalists Exchange Programme held in Tokyo recently.

Seiko, one of the two female ministers in the Cabinet line-up, said ever since her involvement in politics, she has always been involved with the gender equality agenda. This year, she is giving the focus on gender inclusivity in journalism.

“Why do we choose media, especially female journalists in Asia this time around? Firstly, we believe that the media is important and useful for us to send the message that there is a new era (for gender equality) and secondly, I believe that the international network can be used as a bridge of trust between (each other),” she added.

The exchange programme themed “Hasshin! — A New Era That The Media Creates” gathered 33 female journalists from Japan to New Zealand, where they were involved in symposium, site visits and group work to cultivate better understanding of key issues surrounding women in Japan and Asia Pacific in general.

Since 2012, Abe’s government has introduced a slew of initiatives such as the formulation of an action plan for economic revitalisation through promoting women in the workforce.

To further cement its commitment, the Japanese government has also passed new legislation on work-style reforms, including the introduction of legal cap on overtime working hours, with penalties for infringements.

Despite various incentives introduced by the government, reforming mindset in a male-dominated society will still require a lot more political will and involvement from the Japanese.

“In Japan, the percentage of female working as managers in journalism is still too small,” Jibu Renge, a freelance journalist and one of the panellists for the Hasshin! symposium said.

She reiterated that among working professionals, men still outnumber women in most sectors.

“We are still lagging behind other countries. Therefore, before looking at increasing incentives and benefits for female journalists, we should start looking at hiring more women, make the job more attractive in general,” she said.

For a staff writer of the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, Takeda Kota, choosing to take a full six-month paternity leave might be the most rewarding decision for him, but there was a nagging feeling that it was an unnatural course to take for a working man like him.

“I was praised for choosing to raise my child instead of continue working,” said Kota who took the six-month paternity leave after having his first child in 2017.

“After returning to work, I realised I was embarrassed to start working long hours before I was transferred to work in Osaka alone for one year,” he added.

Kota might be one of the male Japanese minorities who opted to utilise the paternity leave, where he earned a progressive label among his peers by simply doing so.

The whole experience, in his words, also gave him a glimpse of insight of the dilemma his female colleagues face right after marriage and childbirth.

“I was in a privileged position where I have worked long enough to start a family and consider a work-life balance. But I was also aware that there is a female colleague of mine who would come earlier in the morning to do all the work before the others, simply because she was embarrassed, like me too,” he said.

Since then, the 44-year-old writer made it his mission to highlight family and parental issues in his writings, which include a serial article titled “Cobwebs of Fathers” in the newspaper he works at.

Life circumstances and the work pressure are among the reasons why female journalists in Japan postpone marriage or quit their jobs altogether.

A generally male-dominated industry, female journalists who choose to continue will usually be retained as contract workers, similar to other industries.

“I start to wonder about other people’s perception of our working culture,” said NHK journalist for international news division, Kumei Ayako.

“Of course the general feedback is that we work too much. I hope it is time for us to change the culture where we will not be judged based on working hours, but our productivity,” she said.

The Japanese government aims for a 30% target by next year to have more women in politics and decision-making processes. Additionally, it has also announced revisions in the code of corporate governance in “ensuring diversity, including gender and nationality”.

Are having more female leaders in the organisation help improve the working conditions? The panellists at the Hasshin! symposium believe so.

“There are possible scenarios of what could happen, but having a number of female leaders for a start will lead to a creation of better workplace and society,” Ayako said.

“It will be more influential to have more representation of women’s voice in the decision- making level. We need to understand that gender equality is not only affecting women, but men as well. It is a society issue,” she said.

Although there will be more work for the Japanese government and society in its gender equality objectives, they are all on the right track towards achieving it.

“Twenty five years ago, to think that the government would initiate a discussion like this would be unthinkable. Today is a testament that this is a head start, and I hope we get to the era of an equal society one day,” said Dr Hayashi Kori, an expert of media and journalism studies from the University of Tokyo.