Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2000

The Status of Women in Japan: Opportunities for Japan's Female Entrepreneurs?

by William Hall

Japan Studies "YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY" said the advertising slogan that captured the spirit of the advances in society made by women in the US a generation ago. Is a similar slogan being shouted from the rooftops in Japan?

In June 1999, the Japanese government enacted a new law to encourage the creation of a society where males and females have the opportunity to jointly participate in establishing the direction of society.

But, although governments pass laws to bring about changes in society, the mere enactment of a law is not always sufficient to effect change in long-held social beliefs and customs. So what is the current perception of the status of women in Japan, and has there been improvement in this perception in recent years?

In May 2000, the Secretariat of the Prime Minister's Office announced the result of a survey entitled, "Opinion Poll in Regard to a Jointly Participatory Society for Males and Females." The study had an attack sample of 5,000 personal interviews nationwide with randomly selected Japanese nationals aged 20 years and above. A 68 percent completion rate was achieved, yielding 3,378 completed interviews (1,868 females and 1,510 males). Fieldwork for the study was conducted in January and February 2000. Studies on the same topic were conducted in 1997 and 1995, and studies on similar topics have been conducted in earlier years, thereby allowing assessment of changes in attitudes over time.

In the current study, respondents were asked whether, overall, they felt that males and females had equal status in Japanese society. Among the total sample, only 18 percent felt that males and females had equal status, essentially unchanged from the 20 percent figure in 1995. As might be expected, females (14 percent) have a less sanguine view than males (23 percent) on this topic. Almost 80 percent of respondents consider that, overall, males have a favored position in Japanese society, while a tiny group of 3 percent consider that females have a more favored position than males.

Respondents were then probed on whether, in each of six discrete fields, they felt that the status of males and females was becoming equal. In giving their response, participants were asked to choose from one of five responses -- males are in an extremely favored position, males are somewhat favored, male/female status is equal, females are somewhat favored, females are extremely favored.

As can be seen in Table 1, only in the field of "School Education" did the majority of respondents (65 percent) consider that males and females have equal status. For "Family Life" and in "Law/Legal Process," the percentage considering males and females to have equal status was around 40 percent. "At Work" (25 percent), "In Politics" (19 percent), and "In Social Conventions/Traditions/ Practices" (16 percent) all scored very low.

Total 2000
1992 1995 2000 Males Females
Family Life 35 39 40 46 35
At Work 22 25 25 30 20
61 65 64 65 63
Politics 13 22 19 25 14
Legal Process
39 40 39 48 31
Social Conventions/
Traditions /Practices
15 16 16 19 14

Note that with the exception of School Education, females gave close to a 10 percent lower score on equality than males. The data also shows that there has been no improvement in the perception of the status of women in any of the six categories over the past decade.

Respondents were then asked their perception about women holding a job. A card setting out a number of alternative ways of thinking was shown, and respondents were asked which one they agreed with. As we can see in Table 2, only an old-fashioned, hard-core group of 4 percent think that women should not work at all. Further, the trend data from 1992 show increasing acceptance of women continuing to work after childbirth, with the 2000 figure of 33 percent approaching that of those who think that women should stop work after childbirth and return after the child is bigger (38 percent). Interestingly, the percentage responses given by males and females for each category were relatively similar, indicating increased male support in this regard.

1992 1995 2000
Stop at Childbirth, Return When Child Bigger 43 39 38
Continue Working Even After Childbirth 23 30 33
Work Only Till Childbirth 13 12 10
Work Only Till Marriage 13 9 8
Women Should Not Work 4 4 4

In a rapidly aging society with no immigration (See Japan Studies, February 2000), having to care for the aged is a major factor affecting the ability of women to play a more active role in the workforce and society. This topic was addressed via a question on the extent to which respondents felt that government should be involved in providing support for care of the aged. (This was the first time this question was asked, so no comparative data is available from earlier years.)

Only 2 percent of respondents consider that care for the aged is basically a matter for the family and that support from society is not necessary. Forty-four percent consider that care for the aged is basically a matter for the family, but some social support is necessary. Thirty-nine percent consider that the burden of caring for the aged is too great for the family alone and that positive support from society is a must. An additional 12 percent consider that a family should do what it can within the limits of their capability, but basically care for the aged is a burden that must be borne by society.

Looking at the data by age, there is a higher proportion of the under-50 group supporting more active involvement by the government in care for the aged. Among the over-50 group, opinion is divided. One group professes the traditional values of the family caring for the aged. But there is also a strong increase in the over-50 group who state that the family should do what it can within the limits of their capability, but that care for the aged is basically a burden that must be borne by society. Perhaps this latter group is currently facing the problem of caring for a bed-ridden older family member.

Respondents were asked what requests they had of administrative authorities in order to help create "a jointly participatory society for males and females." Key requests can be divided into a number of categories. The No.1 request with 48 percent was the establishment of an adequate number of facilities and services for childcare and care of the sick and the aged. A second category of request would require proactive government action. For example, modify those aspects of the law/legal system that negatively affect joint participation (34 percent), make known to all without exception that females and males are to be treated equally in the workplace (33 percent), and appoint women to positions of influence in political decision making (31 percent).

A third category of request involved the establishment of training and education-related facilities. For example, increase the opportunities for women to work and, in order to promote the entry of women into fields where they have traditionally not worked, establish adequate facilities for workplace education and training (33 percent). Also, establish centers that provide education, counseling, and a place for exchange of opinion and information on women's needs (20 percent).

Finally, respondents were shown a card containing a number of words and phrases that are relevant to women's rights and asked their level of awareness of these. Forty-two percent of respondents were not aware of any of the words or phrases. Thirty-seven percent were aware of the Treaty for the Abolition of Discrimination Against Women, and 25 percent were aware of the recently enacted Basic Law for Creating a Joint Participatory Society for Males and Females. Fourteen percent were aware of the word "Positive Action," 11 percent of "Gender," seven percent of "Unpaid Work," and three percent of Reproductive Health/Rights. These latter four words were all written in katakana, presumably because they represent new concepts in Japan, and this may have accounted for some of the low scores for these words. (See Japan Studies, May 2000.)

So what does it all mean? Overall, many obstacles must still be overcome before women have a chance of being treated as equal players with men in Japanese society, and women themselves do not appear to be familiar with the efforts that the Japanese government has been making on their behalf. Nevertheless, this situation can also be viewed as providing business opportunities for those with the foresight to enter new arenas.

For example, caring for the aged has a major influence on the ability of Japanese women to play a greater role in the workforce and society. Given Japan's rapidly aging population, significant business opportunities abound in this field of care for the aged. However, at this point, making a profit on caring for the aged is something that has eluded all but a few of the initial entrants in the field, and many companies are still tinkering to find the appropriate business model.

In terms of women working, there has been improvement in the acceptance of the idea of women working even after childbirth. In addition, almost 40 percent of women wish to re-enter the workforce after taking time off to raise children. For this group, there is a need for education and training to help ease them back into the workforce. Internet sites, combined with off-line facilities targeted at women who are nearing the end of the child-raising period, would appear to offer good business prospects. As well as business courses on subjects such as computers, accountancy, and so on, there would also appear to be a need for confidence-building courses, presentation skills, and so on. And, of course, English.

William Hall (williamh@isisresearch.com) is president of the ISIS/RBC/CORAL Group, which provides market research and consulting services in Tokyo.

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