Essay: The Enigma of Gender Gap in Japan

In March this year, I posted on my blog an essay titled “Japan: The worst developed country for women?”  I mentioned in it that Japan came in 101st in the “global gender gap index” in 2012 out of 135 countries examined in the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  The index tries to “capture the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities”.  It is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries, rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.”  It is calculated in such a way to make it “independent from the countries’ levels of development”.  It “evaluates countries based on outcomes, rather than inputs” and the evaluation is carried out in the areas of (1) economic participation and opportunities, (2) educational attainment, (3) health and survival, and (4) political empowerment.

The WEF published recently the 2013 edition of the Report with the latest global gender gap index.  As it had been the previous year, Iceland came in top, followed, also as last year, by Finland, Norway and Sweden.  This year, however, the Philippines came in fifth.  The highest ranking Asian country, it improved its position from eighth last year.  Seven European countries are in the top ten, but none from the G7 or G20 is in the top ten.  To my great disappointment, Japan’s ranking worsened from 101st last year to 105th among 136 countries this year.  But I was curious why the Japanese women have not been able to narrow the gender gap for decades despite the country making great economic progress after the total destruction in WWII.

Japanese women’s ranking in health and survival is among the top in the world.  Their average life expectancy, which was 86.4 years in 2012, has remained the longest since the mid. 1980s, except in 2011 when it was slightly surpassed by that of Hong Kong women due to tsunami.  In the area of educational attainment, too, Japanese women have done as well as their fellow women in Norway and Sweden in attaining secondary education.  The gender parity index (GPI=the ratio of female-to-male values of a given indicator) was 1.00 in these countries.  It was 1.02 in Iceland and 1.01 in Finland (Global Education Digest 2012, UNESCO).

With regard to tertiary education, however, I understand why Scandinavian women are at the top in the global gender gap index.  The GPIs regarding first-degree graduation for Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden were 2.28, 1.83, 1.79 and 2.05 respectively, as opposed to 0.82 for Japan.  Among major Western countries, Germany, ranked 14th, had a GPI of 1.32.  For Britain, no. 18, it was 1.38.  For the USA, no. 23, it was 1.42.  And for France, no. 45, it was 1.27.  No figures were given for the Philippines.

Japanese women being ranked so low in the global gender gap index is mainly due to their low economic and political participation.  For example, it is reported that even today more than half of Japanese people still cling to the traditional values that expect men to go out and work and women to stay home and look after the family.  That is why only 9% of managerial positions in Japan are occupied by women as opposed to 33% in Iceland.  As for politicians, women hold only 8% of the seats in the lower house of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, as opposed to 40% in the unicameral system of the Icelandic national assembly (“Danjo-byoudou” Nippon wa 105i, Nande? Kako saiteini”, digital Asashi., Oct 27, 2013).  I had expected the Republic of Korea to have placed higher in the global gender gap index this year, as the country now has its first woman president.  However, for some reason, its ranking also worsened to 111th this year from 108th last year.

I worked and lived abroad for three decades until I returned to my home country last year, so I sometimes forget how far women in Japan still have to go to attain gender equality.  Recently, when I attended a friend and former colleague’s wedding here in Tokyo, I glimpsed the hard reality of the gender gap here.  The Japanese bride and the non-Japanese groom, who are both based in Geneva, decided to have a traditional Japanese wedding in the Shinto style.  In the reception following the solemn ceremony, all the guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner where one beautifully presented dish after another was served.  The dinner-reception itself was far from traditional, however, where the bride and the groom danced to the tunes of Latin music while still wearing the traditional Japanese wedding costumes!

During this dinner, some of the prominent invitees were asked to say a few words.  Among them was the bride’s former boss, who is now retired and flew all the way from Malaysia to celebrate the occasion.  Since she and the groom did not speak Japanese, English interpretation was provided for them throughout.  At the end of her short speech, she was about to propose a toast to the couple, but was abruptly stopped doing so by the master of ceremony.

Suddenly, there was a moment of confusion.  I had no idea why she had not been allowed to present her toast.  She also looked bewildered and embarrassed.  So I asked a friend of mine sitting next to me at the table if she understood the situation.  That Japanese woman, who has also worked and lived abroad for many years, had no idea, either.  Some prominent men sitting at our table, having heard my question, said:  “Women are not supposed to propose a toast.”  They did not elaborate on this, but it seemed that at occasions such as that, only the last person to speak –always a man– would formally propose a toast for the occasion.

This called to mind an incident Margaret Thatcher experienced during her official visit to Japan after becoming the first woman prime minister of the UK, which I remember reading about in the paper long ago.  At that time, the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world connecting the two main islands in Japan, was being built.  Meanwhile, France and the UK were considering building the Channel Tunnel connecting their two countries.  Thatcher would have liked to visit the worksite in the tunnel to see the new technology being employed for the construction.  However, the men working there adamantly refused to receive her simply because she was a woman.  Apparently, they believed that having a woman in the tunnel worksite would bring bad luck.  I wondered if they knew that many women, mostly wives of minors, had indeed toiled in Japanese coal mines, often deep under the sea, in the past.

The incident at the wedding reception and the experience of Margaret Thatcher may not be the ideal analogy, but I feel that even today too many men still accept old traditions that restrict women’s roles in society without questioning those traditions’ validity in modern age.  They simply say that “it has always been done so.”  At the same time, too many women also seem to accept old ways without challenging them or questioning why it has to be so.  Unless this situation changes, the gender gap in Japan, I’m afraid, will not narrow too much in the future.

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This entry was posted in Economic development, Japan, Labour issues, Men and Development, Multicultural, occupation, Women & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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