Japanese Women: A Step Behind?

Current Trends

Generational differences

Q: What generational differences exist among female workers in Japan today?
Older women with less education, less continuous employment, and need for flexible conditions, work in smaller companies. For example, they seek firms closer to homes to raise their children or care for elderly parents. Younger well-educated women train to be specialists as those jobs are portable, more useful if they move. Specialized skills help them find jobs in another city or country. The younger they are, the more they want promotion based on merit, not on seniority or length of service. Women today realize companies, regardless of size, are affected by global economics.

Women in the current recession

The steep stock market decline and bursting of the speculative real estate bubble in 1989 threw Japan into its longest recession since the war. Japanese financial institutions suffered further losses during the Asian economic crises in 1997. This further weakened the Japanese economy. Japanese corporations, forced to restructure, are altering hiring practices and salary structures.

Q: What changes in the Japanese economy have affected working women recent years?
Women, regardless of age and background, have become more aware of needs to increase knowledge and skills to remain employable and competitive where traditional employment practices favor males. Firms should develop comprehensive programs and career opportunities that allow leaves of absence to raise small children and care for the sick and elderly. To stay competitive, Japanese firms restructured by replacing lifetime employment and seniority-based salaries with merit-based systems, shifting from workers with full benefits to more flexible workers at midcareer, part-timers, contracted workers, and temps. Employees were laid off and retired early. Few new recruits or none at all were hired. New male and female graduates could not find suitable jobs. Whereas women with high school or associate degrees used to find low level clerical jobs and then quit after a few years to marry and have children, recently fewer female clerks want to give up their annual salary increases. Firms are also not hiring as many clerks as intracompany computer information networks have replaced the jobs clerks formerly performed.

New opportunities for employment

Q: Where can women expect to find new opportunities for employment today?
Since the early 1970s, the service sector has been hiring more flexible workers: 1) mid-career recruits, 2) part-time workers, 3) contracted workers and 4) temps. Today over 12% of firms regularly hire freelancers. The larger the firm, the more freelancers are used. Among firms with over 300 employees, 17% outsource work to freelancers, often women, to reduce labor costs, use workers with specific tasks without further training, and expand staff for limited periods of time. Most temps are young female office clerks who choose particular jobs and time off. Thus, they can gain experience, enjoy life, raise children or devote time to families. Sometimes, after having proven their ability, temps are hired fulltime. Women also seek jobs in non-Japanese multinationals. They work for 5 to 10 years, quit, go to school, often in the U.S. After earning MBAs, they get better jobs in non-Japanese firms.

Q: Are women becoming successful as entrepreneurs?
Recent female businesses focus on apparel and textile design, industrial and architectural design, small retail shops, large supermarkets, advertising and public relations agencies, bakeries, cafes, restaurants, drinking establishments, fast food restaurants, food catering, management consultants, marketing services, accountants, personnel training, headhunting, beauty parlors, house cleaning and babysitting. They began businesses to challenge themselves, to provide goods or services not offered elsewhere, to establish new working conditions, to remain employable. Some of their ideas were services they needed as consumers but the market did not yet offer.

Q; What are some of the problems female entrepreneurs suffer from?
Businesswomen often have difficulty financing their businesses and raising capital. Usually they rely on personal friends or family to raise the initial capital. Few banks give loans based on business plans alone without more than adequate collateral. They have problems hiring highly qualified, well educated workers.

Women in Politics

Q: Do Japanese women participate in politics?
The Meiji Restoration marked the start of a modern Japanese nation. Confucian views on gender roles were widely accepted. As women were thought inferior, they were largely excluded from politics. In the late 19th century some progressives individuals advocated equality lity of the sexes. In 1920, the first women's political group was organized to gain political rights for women. Women in 1922 participated in political rallies but they were excluded women from voting,though all men over 25 years of age could vote. In 1945 after Japan's defeat in the war, the Allied Occupation announced that women could vote. In 1946, Japanese women finally voted in the 22nd House of Representatives election. Although a greater percentage of women than men vote, few are party members or politicians. In 1986 the Social Democratic Party chose Takako Doi as the first female party leader. She was followed by Toshiko Hamayotsu, the first female Komeito Party head. Currently, one woman, Seiko Noda, holds a cabinet post, that of Minister of Post and Telecommunication. There is no prefectural governor, but four appointed deputy governors are women.

Women in social service

Q: How do Japanese women participate in government and social service?
Women passing the highest level examinations to become career bureaucrats grew significantly in the last 20 years. Recently approximately 13% of those who passed were women, 4 times as many as in 1975. In prefectural and local governments, women have wanted to serve their community, balancing career and family life. Women participating in ministerial policy boards have increased steadily from a low of 2.4% in 1975 to over 15% today. Since the 1970s, local governments have encouraged citizens' participation in NGOs. In most communities women have been increasingly involved in volunteer work, especially services for the elderly, the preservation of cultural treasures and services for foreign residents. Movements against environmental pollution have gained attention.

Consumer trends

Q: Who leads the consumer trends?
Women have always played a leading role in setting consumer trends. With more women earning incomes, they have even greater financial freedom to spend on desired goods. Of the total female population, four distinct groups set the trends: (1) those born in the 1960s who grew up expecting abundance, variety, and comfort, are confident in their tastes, and cultivated leisure activities, (2) young second post-war baby boomers born in the early 1970s who are "fashion literate" and feel very confident about their own choices and ability to weed out hype and sales pitches of advertisements to find the relevant and useful, (3) the first baby boomers now in their early 50s who set casual alternatives in the past and are likely to set trends for mature couples approaching retirement age, and (4) girls born in the early 1980s with a relatively strong sense of self who like to attract othersŐ attention of others, strive to be in the media, and openly exhibit their faddish subcultures.

Q: How active are Japanese women as consumer advocates?
Women are playing increasingly active roles as consumer advocates, especially for safe food, environmentalism, reusable and recyclable products, and health hazards caused by environmental pollution, especially industrial wastes and improper incineration of regular wastes. Japanese have always been concerned about safe food, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, animal feeds, and harvest additives to preserve food stuffs. These women seek producers who grow safe agricultural products. By contracting directly with farmers, they establish alternative distribution networks.