Japan: Steps in gender equality come too slowly for women

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Tokyo, 4 Jul 2001 (IPS) - “Nothing surprising about the findings,” Mitsuko Yamaguchi, head of the women’s group Fusae Ichikawa Memorial Foundation, says about a recent white paper issued by the Japanese government on gender equality.

Indeed, the biggest point made clear by the paper is that too few things have changed for women in Japan, who continue to fall behind their counterparts in most other countries in economic and decision-making roles.

“There is still a long way to go before Japanese women gain equal status in their country,” Yamaguchi, whose foundation is one of Japan’s oldest feminist organisations, says about the report, called the Annual Report on the State of Forming a Gender-equal Society for 2000.

The white paper, approved by the Cabinet in late June to mark a week devoted to promoting gender equality in the country, noted that Japan ranks 41st out of 70 countries surveyed last year using a method developed by the United Nations, called the Gender Empowerment Measure.

The latest figure marked a decline from 1999, when Japan ranked 38th on the GEM index, an internationally recognised yardstick assessing women’s participation in society.

The index uses four criteria - the ratio of seats women hold in parliament, the ratio of female administrators and managers, the ratio of female professionals and technical workers and the income women earn.

Mariko Bando, director-general of the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau, says the figures point to a weakness of Japanese society when it comes to gender - other countries have been improving conditions for women faster than Japan has.

“While Japan is making numerous efforts to improve the status of women, countries such [as] France and South Korea have already quickly established legislation promoting women’s employment,” she explains.

She cited the quota system in those two countries, which specifies the ratio of female candidates that must run in elections, as a way to promote participation by Japanese women in politics.

In France, half the candidates in elections must be women and a system exists to penalise political parties that break the rules. In Japan’s neighbouring country, South Korea, 30% of candidates must be women.

But Bando says the system is difficult to introduce in Japan because of a lack of national consensus on the issue.

As it is, the figures of women in positions of public leadership have much room for improvement. According to the white paper, female candidates in the House of Representatives account for 14.4% of all candidates and 7.3% of those elected in the June 2000 general elections.

Still, this is a significant increase over the 10.2% of candidates and 4.6% of those elected in the October 1996 election.

Yamaguchi points out, however, that the roots of gender inequality and the figures and trends noted in the white paper, which are the biggest barrier to equal status, is Japan’s male-dominated business climate.

“It’s still a man’s world when it comes to economics and business. Japanese women are second-class in companies,” she says.

In support of this view, the white paper reveals that women department managers comprised a dismal 3% and salaries for Japanese women were on average less than half of that of their male co-workers.

The gender discrepancy was most prominent among wage earners in the 7 million yen ($58,333) per year bracket, which is considered the benchmark for guaranteeing an independent lifestyle.

The government document said that only 3% of women, compared to 24.4% of men, earned this recommended salary.

When it came to part-time work, women, who constitute 75.2% of that labour force, earned an hourly wage that was 66.9% of that paid to men.

The government paper also pointed out that a major barrier to attaining equality in the workplace is the lack of childcare.

Despite close to 70% of women wanting to be able to work and have a family, the white paper indicated that female employment continues to follow the traditional pattern of women giving up their jobs between their late twenties to mid-thirties in order to raise children.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reports that there are 33,000 children on the waiting list for licensed daycare. But the actual number could be more than 100,000, according to the Japanese media.

Poor child support for working women, notes the new white paper, has made many postpone or give up having children, a phenomenon that has contributed to a falling birthrate.

In 1999, Japan’s birthrate fell by 25,000 people from 1.203 million in 1998 to a record low of 1.178 million.

Moreover, the total fertility rate, which hovered around the 2.1 mark from 1965 to 1975, fell below two in 1975. In 1999, it fell to a record low of 1.34 below the previous year’s value of 1.38.

The situation has forced the government to outline special policies to support working women with children, since falling birth rates add to the social impact of Japan’s rapidly ageing society.

The white paper promised to establish enough daycare centers for all children on waiting lists by 2004, of which half will be placed under private management.

The government report also said for the first time it would set up counselling centres and safe shelters to deal with protecting women from domestic violence. - SUNS4930

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SUNS 4930, 6 Jul 2001