Women in Japan

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Women in Japan
Kimono lady at Gion, Kyoto.jpg
Woman in kimono, in Kyoto, Japan
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.131 (2012)
Rank 21st
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 5 (2010)
Women in parliament 13.4% (2012)
Females over 25 with secondary education 80.0% (2010)
Women in labour force 63.6% employment rate, data from OECD, 2014 [1]
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value 0.6498 (2013)
Rank 105th out of 136

The lives of women in Japan have changed throughout history. While they were granted more equality after World War II, due to the 1947 Constitution, and granted the right to vote, they still lacked equality in education and the workplace. However, in the 21st century, they have been joining the workforce in increased numbers and are gaining more educational experiences and opportunities. Yet, Japanese women still face the issue of a business culture largely dominated by men.

Cultural history[edit]

Gender had been regarded to have been an important principle of stratification throughout Japanese history, but in light of recent discoveries this is being questioned.[3] The cultural elaboration of gender differences has varied over time and among different social classes. In the 8th century Japan had female emperors, and in the 12th century (Heian period), for example, women in Japan could inherit property in their own names and manage it by themselves: "Women could own property, be educated, and were allowed, if discrete, to take lovers" (sic)[1]. There is also evidence of women holding high positions in society during the Kamakura period, and records left by the Portuguese missionary Luís Fróis from the 16th century describe how Japanese women at the time could choose to marry and divorce freely, carry out abortions, and had open sexual relations.[4] It is now believed that due to influence of Shintoist animism, women and sexual intercourse were seen as divine in ancient Japan.

It was from the late Edo period that the status of women started to lessen. During the Meiji period, industrialization and urbanization lessened the authority of fathers and husbands, but at the same time the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 (specifically the introduction of the "ie" system) denied women legal rights and subjugated them to the will of household heads,[5] though some evidence has come to light in recent times indicating that the patriarchal system at the time was largely for show (described as a "tatemae") and that the genders were still largely equal.[6]

After World War II, the legal position of women was redefined by the occupation authorities, who included an equal rights clause in the 1947 Constitution and the revised Civil Code of 1948. Individual rights were given precedence over obligation to family. Women as well as men were guaranteed the right to choose spouses and occupations, to inherit and own property in their own names, and to retain custody of their children. The Japanese government provided Japanese women as prostitutes to the Allied occupation troops in the form of the Recreation and Amusement Association.

Japanese colonizers sent to Manchukuo and Inner Mongolia during the Second Sino-Japanese War were partially evacuated at the end of the war, with mostly Japanese men returning to Japan. The majority of Japanese left behind in China were women, and these Japanese women mostly married Chinese men and became known as "stranded war wives" (zanryu fujin).[7] Because they had children fathered by Chinese men, the Japanese women were not allowed to bring their Chinese families back with them to Japan so most of them stayed. Japanese law only allowed children fathered by Japanese fathers to become Japanese citizens.

Women were given the right to vote in 1946. This allowed them greater freedom, equality to men, and a higher status within Japanese society. Other postwar reforms opened education institutions to women and required that women receive equal pay for equal work. In 1986 the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect. Legally, few barriers to women's equal participation in the life of society remain. However, socially they still lack opportunities in the workforce due to the long work hours and dominance in the workplace by men.

Education and the workforce[edit]

Girl students in Japan

Women's educational opportunities have increased in the 20th century. Among new workers in 1989, 37% of women had received education beyond upper-secondary school, compared with 43% of men, but most women have received their postsecondary education in junior colleges and technical schools rather than in universities and graduate schools (see Education in Japan).

A new generation of educated women is emerging, that is seeking a career as a working woman with no husband or children. Japanese women are joining the labor force in unprecedented numbers. In 1987 there were 24.3 million working women (40% of the labor force), and they accounted for 59% of the increase in employment from 1975 to 1987. The participation rate for women in the labor force (the ratio of those working to all women aged fifteen and older) rose from 45.7% in 1975 to 50.6% in 1991 and was expected to reach 50% by 2000.

In 1990 approximately 50% of all women over fifteen years of age participated in the paid labor force. At that time, two major changes in the female work force were under way. The first was a move away from household-based employment. Peasant women and those from merchant and artisan families had always worked. With self-employment becoming less common, though, the more usual pattern was separation of home and workplace, creating new problems of child care, care of the elderly, and housekeeping responsibilities. The second major change was the increased participation of married women in the labor force.

In the 1950s, most women employees were young and single; 62% of the female labor force in 1960 had never been married. In 1987 about 66% of the female labor force was married, and only 23% was made up women who had never married. Some women continued working after marriage, most often in professional and government jobs, but their numbers were small. Others started their own businesses or took over family businesses.

Changes in Japanese society and work place[edit]

Women at Kobe Matsuri

More commonly, women left paid labor after marriage, then returned after their youngest children were in school. These middle-age recruits generally took low-paying, part-time service or factory jobs. They continued to have total responsibility for home and children and often justified their employment as an extension of their responsibilities for the care of their families. Despite legal support for equality and some improvement in their status, married women understood that their husbands' jobs demanded long hours and extreme commitment. Because women earned an average of 60% as much as men, most did not find it advantageous to take full-time, responsible jobs after marriage, if doing so left no one to manage the household and care for children.

Women's status in the labor force was changing in the late 1980s, most likely as a result of changes brought about by the aging of the population (see Elderly people in Japan). Longer life expectancies, smaller families and bunched births, and lowered expectations of being cared for in old age by their children have all led women to participate more fully in the labor force. At the same time, service job opportunities in the postindustrial economy expanded, and there were fewer new male graduates to fill them.

Some of the same demographic factors—low birth rates and high life expectancies—also change workplace demands on husbands. For example, men recognize their need for a different kind of relationship with their wives in anticipation of long postretirement periods.

Japanese women's status is being updated. Today, women's socio-economic positions are changing, as well as the discursive politics surrounding mothers in contemporary Japan. Feminist Scholars in Japan have focused on the content of cultural texts in their critiques of gender in their country instead of negotiation and interpretation by media consumers.[8]

Women and the workplace in 21st Century Japan[edit]

During the 21st century, Japanese women have gained significant advantages and strides in the workplace. They are now working in unprecedented numbers, higher than America’s working female population.[9] However, the problem is that they are not receiving equal pay in comparison to men in Japan. Typical hours also tend to favor men in that most jobs require long workdays. As author Soble from The New York Times points out, at present, “Japanese women earn 40 percent less than men on average and occupy only one in 10 management-level positions.”[9]

Mothers end up dropping out of work or picking up part-time, low-paying jobs because they need to take care of their children and cannot devote the long work hours most jobs require. Taking care of the family and household is still seen as a predominately female role. Even with the shift of more women to the public sphere and workplace, the private home life remains dominated by women. The obento box tradition (see bento box), where mothers prepare elaborate lunches for their children to take to school, helps perpetuate the female role as being one that's inside the house and caring for her children.[10] Females still tend to be the ones taking care of their children and home and therefore with that duty put towards them, working is seen as secondary. When the lens begins to shift so that women and men can both share duties of taking care of the home life and work place then we will see a more gender equal society, where gender roles are not so prescribed and limiting.

Moreover, some economists argue that if more women were working, Japan would have a larger workforce and their economic would improve. As the article argues, “Japan is using only half of its population, so how can it compete internationally?”.[9] A better support system or a shorter daily work schedule needs to be put in place so that the workplace does not favor men or childless women but mothers as well. Then more women would be able to contribute to the economy, hopefully increasing their economic growth.

Additionally, women have trouble getting ahead or devoting time to after office hour socialization, an important part of work in certain fields.[9] This would cause them to not accept a job that would not allow them to both take care of their children and work. Also, men or fathers who are working are subject to the after office hours as well and therefore would not be able to care for their children as much, leaving women in the place to have to care for their children and work less (see salaryman).[11] While Japan has made strides in gender quality in the workplace, there are still measures that need to be made so that families with children have the realistic opportunity of having both parents working full time while still raising children. Less work hours, more flexible schedules, less after office hours duties, and equal pay for women and men must be put in place to ensure that these workplace changes occur – to better the Japanese economy as a whole.


Often when envisioning a Japanese woman, many people think of the Geisha—the traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers.[12]

Not to get confused with prostitutes, Geisha's acts & practices are completely legal. Geisha differ from prostitutes in many ways as well, one being the way they tie their Obi. Geishas tie their Obis in the back, meaning they need help to tie it. As for prostitutes, they tie their Obis in the front, making it easy for them to take off and on by themselves.[12]

These women are trained very seriously as skilled entertainers. They must go through a training program starting from a young age and they typically work up into their eighties and nineties. The skills they learn range from cultural dances to serving tea, and this process can take anywhere from six months to three years.[12]

There are different stages to becoming a Geisha. A young girl under the age of 20 is called a maiko. Maiko (literally "dance girl") are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them to all their engagements. Then around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha [13] in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar).

The customary geisha makeup is so recognizable and dramatic that the application must be very exact. However, a geisha’s appearance is ever changing throughout her career. As a maiko, the young girl is heavily made up with short eyebrows but as she gets older and more established as a geiko, the makeup softens and the eyebrows grow longer.[13]


However, the Geisha woman is only one facet of Japanese womanly beauty. In Japanese culture femininity is looked highly upon in women.[14] In achieving said femininity a few beauty standards are expected. For the face of a Japanese woman every feature has to be small, except the eyes. Big eyes are admired, especially when they have “double eyelids.” [15]

The general figure of Japanese woman is also preferred to be small, to again achieve the fragile, petite, feminine woman ideal.[15] Paler skin is often considered to be more attractive. This is due to tanned skin being historically associated with the working-class. Many women in Japan will take precaution to not be in the sun, and lotions are even sold to make the skin whiter.[citation needed]

Lastly, clothing is an element in beauty standards for women in Japan. Again, femininity is a large factor; therefore, pinks, reds, bows, and frills are all found in their apparel. Kimonos, full length robes, are worn by not only geisha, but also ordinary women on special occasions.[15]

Sex industry[edit]

Women in Japan have played a significant role in the rise of the sex industry in modern times. While the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 states that "No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it," loopholes, liberal interpretations of the law, and loose enforcement have allowed the sex industry to prosper and earn an estimated 2.3 trillion yen ($24 billion) a year.

In Japan, the "sex industry" is not synonymous with prostitution. Since Japanese law defines prostitution as "intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment," most sex clubs offer only non-coital services to remain legal.[16] This has led Joan Sinclair, the author of Pink Box, to observe that the sex industry in Japan ironically "offer[s] absolutely everything imaginable but sex."[17]

See also[edit]

Cultural history:


  1. ^ http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=LFS_SEXAGE_I_R#
  2. ^ "The Global Gender Gap Report 2013" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 12–13. 
  3. ^ Amino 2005, p. 143.
  4. ^ Amino 2005, p. 145.
  5. ^ The Meiji Reforms and Obstacles for Women Japan, 1878-1927
  6. ^ Amino 2005, p. 164.
  7. ^ Left Behind: Japan's Wartime Defeat and the Stranded Women of Manchukuo
  8. ^ Darling-Wolf, F. (2004) "Sites of Attractiveness: Japanese Women and Westernized Representations of Feminine Beauty." Critical Studies in Media Communication. 21. 4. pp 325-345.
  9. ^ a b c d Soble, Jonathan. "To Rescue Economy, Japan Turns to Supermom." The New York Times. The New York Times, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/business/international/in-economic-revival-effort-japan-turns-to-its-women.html>.
  10. ^ Anne Allison. 2000. Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus. Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, pp. 81-104. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. http://fds.duke.edu/db/attachment/1111
  11. ^ http://www.youtube.com/movie/shall-we-dance-1996?feature=mv_sr ($1.99), Confessions of an Osaka Love Thief: The Great Happiness Space, and The Great Japanese Retirement (segments 6-8) [Films on Demand]
  12. ^ a b c [Dalby, Liza. "Kimona and Geisha." The Threepenny Review 51 (1992): 30-31. Print.]
  13. ^ a b [Warta, T. (n.d.). Geisha Makeup Designs and Origin.]
  14. ^ Pundarik-Dossin, Nina. "The Femininity and Elegance of the Japanese Woman". The Proper Lady. Retrieved 14 July 2015. 
  15. ^ a b c [Keene, Donald. "The Japanese Idea of Beauty." The Wilson Quarterly 13.1 (1989): 128-35. Print.]
  16. ^ "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'", Japan Times, May 27, 2008.
  17. ^ Pink Box Japan

External links[edit]