Some 30 years after their western counterparts, Japanese women are finally getting equality in the workplace. Or are they, asks Ian Priestley

YOU MAY have seen the adverts on the walls of Tokyo subway stations recently: a young businessman, reading a financial newspaper, casts a nervous eye over a young professional-looking woman. “Women are changing,” reads a thought bubble above his head; “and what about men?” asks the one above hers.

As Japan stumbles into the 21st century, talk of restructuring is extending to gender roles. But is there really any truth in this image of female power in the workplace? Certainly, statistics show that there is greater female participation at work: women now make up around 40 percent of the workforce. The groundwork for equality seems to have been laid by the re-vamped 1999 Equal Opportunity Law prohibiting gender discrimination from recruitment to retirement. In addition, having fewer or no children makes work an option for married women, who are also marrying later, allowing them to develop careers before starting a family.

However, closer scrutiny reveals that the roles women play are still significantly different to that of men. A 2001 study by the Ministry of Health and Labor showed that almost 48 percent of working females were employed on a temporary or part-time basis, whereas most men, 87 percent, were full-time workers. In many quarters, this is seen as a simple matter of choice: women are offered a good deal, yet prefer a less committed work role so they can concentrate on raising their children when the time arises.

The law also now offers a generous maximum of one-year maternity leave for working mothers. But in a country where employees rarely take their full entitlement of paid holiday and the pressure of not being a burden on your co-workers is strong, the fact remains — although you are allowed to take maternity leave most women don’t and they are not expected to.

Those mothers who do return to full time work have further trials ahead: working days from 7am-10pm, few holidays and being available for transfer should the company request it. Childcare issues aside, a mother’s contact with her children would be very limited.

Temping may seem like a solution, but the reality is less attractive. In 2000, the average hourly pay rate for a temp/part-time worker was ¥889, while the average hourly salary for a full-time worker was ¥2005. Many non full-time workers also work the same hours as their full time counterparts so, in effect; a man could be doing the same work for more than double the wage. Women therefore find themselves victims of what Sakai Kazuko of the Equal Treatment Action Group has termed “Indirect Discrimination.”

If the present is not really as bright as it is being portrayed, there does seem to be hope for the future. With a worldwide trend towards shorter hours, companies may one day be forced to offer a better deal to their workforce. This could mean a real choice for women: if the length of the working day allows free time in the evening, then the twin duties of full time worker and parent are possible.

And who knows, maybe this liberation in the workplace for women could also lead to the liberation of men at home: a shorter working day would mean they can fulfill the duties of being a father and a new found respect for fatherhood! And of course, a double income family would mean more money, shared responsibility, less division of roles and… already I can hear myself being accused of trying to impose Western cultural values on a fundamentally different society!

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