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Gender Inequality in Japan

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I teach English as my day job, and occasionally I teach hypothetical conditionals.  In other words, ‘what if you were …’ type sentences.  So, in the class, we ask questions like ‘What if you were a billionaire, what would you do?’ and students come up with answers like ‘If I were a billionaire, I would travel around the world.’

Anyway, inevitably the question always comes up of ‘what would do if you were a man?’ (asked to a female student).  This question always seems to elicit some interesting responses.  I’ve heard ones range from ‘walk around the house naked all day’, which makes me wonder what their father does on weekends, to ‘I would start a business’ or simply ‘I would get a better job.’

Students seem to often like to ask me this question as well, changing to ‘What if you were a woman, what would you do?’, and I honestly don’t how to answer it.  I’m probably a bit naive, but I think that, at least in the States, women have mostly the same opportunities.  Don’t get me wrong, there is still some work to do, as John Oliver has pointed out concerning the gender pay gap, and the Daily Show recently covered the the women’s soccer team.

But, in Japan, there seems to be clearly separate roles that society expects people to fall into.  If you are woman, you get on this track.  If you are a man, you get on this track.  The funny thing is, as I’ll explain later, it is a bit difficult to determine which is the better track.

Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, has pledged to make changes to the system in order for more women to ‘shine’ in the workplace.  So far, there has been a lot of talk and some symbolic measures made, but not a lot of real changes.  This is a bit of a shame, because if you look at it from a purely economic sense he is leaving a major source of educated labor untapped.  Something the ailing economy desperately needs at the moment.

Motherless Workplace

Women, for the most part, are still expected to leave the workplace once their first child is born.  There are some companies where the bosses out and out believe this.  But even if a boss full-heartedly embraces it, it is tough to raise children and still keep a full time job.

The reason is, during crunch time, which may include months or even years of time, people are expected to work overtime every day.  A mother (or even a father) has a hard time fulfilling this request.  And this overtime work is usually caused by easily fixed inefficiency like say hiring people when someone quits, instead of waiting for ‘hiring season’ (March and April) to fill someone’s vacant spot.

I have a friend that was working 7 to 11 every day Monday through Friday.  He was bullied by his boss to keep working in order to get more clients (he was a day trader).  He quit once he had earned enough experience, and a high enough TOEIC score to become a public servant.

He happened to leave in January.  As soon as he announced he was leaving, they stripped him of all his duties and he just sat around for two weeks twiddling his thumbs. His replacement?  They weren’t going to hire one until April.  So for 3 months the rest of the agents at his office had to handle his workload on top of their already massive client list.

I know there are cultural norms for each country, but that is simply ridiculous.  How such a terribly managed company could still stay in business is a testament to the durability of the Japanese work ethic.  Imagine if that were put to good use.  So many more things could be achieved.

So, a lot of women walk away from all that mess and understandably so.  Who would want to deal with that while raising a child?

I know a lot of intelligent, talented women, that walked away from it all once they got married.  Or at least, when they had their first child.  The same thing happened to my wife.  In her case, she was always planning to quit her current job and look for another one, but still.  The burden is too much.

There is of course maternity leave and child care leave.  Women can take about 14 weeks around the birth of their child off for 2/3rds of their salary.  They then can take about a year more for child care leave.  Father’s can take up to 3 months off.  But, there are problems with this.  If you do any kind of freelance work or are on a contract basis with your company you might not be entitled to any of this, which is the category I fell into.  I was able to take a few days off around the birth of my child however.

A lot of the workforce, and a lot of the female workforce is employed in temporary or part-time positions, which have lower pay and less benefits.  This is also true for most foreigners teaching English in Japan.  We are usually only hired on a contract or part-time basis.  The few full-time gigs are getting rarer and rarer.

And schooling is set up for women to be at home.  My daughter recently started kindergarten.  Luckily, I’m able to take her to school most mornings.  However, there are sometimes PTA meetings that I can’t go to, that are held during the day.  My wife has to go to those.  And there are a myriad of ‘volunteer’ activities that parents are ‘asked’ to do.  Most of them involve doing something during the daytime.

And some women simply want to just be housewives.  I know of more than a few women that have told me their dream job was to be a housewife.  And I mean there is nothing wrong with that, if it is their choice.  But with men’s wages dwindling recently, it is not really a viable option anymore.  And that is why a lot of these women end up not getting married.  Or married to a slave.

The Working Mom Penalty

If women earn over 1.03 million yen a year, men can not claim them as a dependent and have to pay more taxes.  If women make over 1.3 million yen a year, they have to pay pension, which ends up being about 25,000 yen a month minimum.  In other words, a woman basically needs to work full-time or just at the 1.03 million mark for the extra income they earn to be worth it.

Because, for example, if a woman earns 1.6 million yen a year, they will pay about 0.40 million in pension and taxes (that the head of household pays).  In other words, earning 0.6 million more only gives them about 0.20 million extra. And considering women’s salaries top out at about 2.9 million, compared to 6.5 million for men, it is easy to see why women don’t want to go the extra mile.  Indeed, it’s not worth it to go the extra mile.

2.9 million yen after taxes is about 2.4 million yen.  So, the choice is slog away at a job with overtime and earn an extra 1.4 million or go for a more leisurely salary of 1.03 without all the extra fuss.  Is it worth 1.4 million to be away from your kids working crazy hours?  Most women say no.

In order to have two kids, it is recommended that a family has an income of 6.25 million yen.  So, if the average guy can pull in 6.5 million (in their prime), a lot of women just opt for being a homemaker instead of dealing with the extra stress of working outside the home.

Another issue is day care.  Day care seems to be a limited resource in Japan.  You can get day care if you have a fulltime job and can prove that you are unable to care for your child during the day.  But, you can’t get a job without day care.  So, it is the old chicken and the egg problem.

Solutions Anyone?

There are multiple factors coming together to make this a tough problem to crack.  Abe has his hands tied a little bit because he gets his power from his conservative base, which tend to support more conservative values.  If he pushes reforms through to give women more power too quickly he might lose his base.

But on the other hand, he is one of the more powerful prime ministers Japan has had in awhile, managing to stay in office for 4 years now, quite a feat.  So he might be the only one that could push through such big changes.

And the solutions can be rather simple – balance out the tax law, extend school hours, promote and spotlight role models.  Changes will have to be gradual though.  The system is very entrenched, and even some young people don’t want to make a change.

There is hope though.  There are leaders like Dr. Lena Okajima, who founded a company trying to create shooting stars on demand. It’s these kinds of new industries that I think women can get a solid foothold in, if they want to, but only time will tell.

Photo by Pieterjan Vandaele

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