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25 June 2001

Get back to the maternity ward!

Japan's newspapers celebrate women's political advances, but they also demand more babies. Victoria

By Victoria James

You could be forgiven for thinking there is revolution in the air. “Women stride towards parity in Shimamoto assembly poll,” announces one headline. “Women in local politics at record high,” crows another. Japanese companies race each other to introduce concessions to female customers: women-only train carriages, aeroplane seating sections, hotel floors and shopping areas have all emerged this year. Female members of Japan’s Diet can now exercise the right to maternity leave and enjoy a newly opened women’s lounge.

Add a few details, however, and the picture looks rather different. Shimamoto is an obscure municipality of 30,000, which in May voted eight women on to a town council of 18. And that “record high” of women elected to local government is a pitiful 6 per cent of all representatives; nearly half of local assemblies have no female member at all. Barely 8 per cent of Japan’s 400 MPs are female.

Women’s issues are enjoying a curious vogue in the Japanese media. Much coverage springs from the newest threat to Japanese prospects for gender equality: demography. Japan’s ageing population and dwindling birth rate have provoked calls for women to return to the roles of mothers and carers for the elderly.

The latest forecasts estimate that Japan will have a shortfall of around 6.5 million workers by 2025. Children under 15 account for just 14.4 per cent of Japan’s total population, the lowest in the world (in the UK it is around 19 per cent, about average for the developed world). Births have hit a new low of 1.34 per woman. Where will these missing workers of the future come from? Conservatives argue that it is the patriotic duty of Japanese women to bear more children. Liberals argue, rather more rationally, that companies could simply employ the women.

However, that is easier said than done. Practical and social obstacles impede every step of those women supposedly “striding towards parity”. There is a chronic shortage of childcare, and corporate provision of such facilities is practically unheard of. Even where oversubscribed private-sector places are available, fees can be prohibitive – not because private rates are so very expensive, but because women’s wages are so low. If the mother in question is a young office worker, the chances are that she will be earning barely enough for the rent of a one-room apartment, let alone enough to pay for private nursery care of about £320 a month.

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Japanese women are certainly to be found in the workplace in ever-increasing numbers, with a higher participation rate than in France, Germany and the Netherlands. And Japan’s 3:1 ratio of female-to-male part-time workers compares favourably to Europe’s worst countries – Britain and the Netherlands at 5:1 and Spain at 6:1. However, Japanese women working full-time are being remunerated at part-time rates. There are tax breaks for married women with low annual incomes, which encourages the voluntary “capping” of women’s earnings. The liveable wage is still seen as a male prerogative.

I have two friends who would be women’s lib success stories in any culture, one an overseas-educated young consultant, the other a mother of three sons (all university graduates) who works for a prestigious company’s cultural organisation. Their views make for sober reading. From one, I heard how the Japanese corporate practice of relocating workers every few years in effect bars wives from pursuing their own career track. “I can’t give my opinions, really,” was the diplomatic conclusion, “because, regretfully, I’d line up only negative ones.” My friend Atsuko was prepared to be more openly critical. “Socially, there are still ‘women’s roles’ to play,” she protested. “While in the Japanese office, women are not yet accepted as legitimate and equally competent members of the workforce.”

Educated in America and now working for a foreign consultancy firm, Atsuko exemplifies an growing phenomenon: the invisible brain-drain. She is one of a growing number of elite female professionals who wouldn’t consider working for a Japanese company. “Nothing could be worse than going to the US, getting an MBA, and coming back to be a salaried employee,” the (female) president of a women’s trend research company recently warned the financial journal Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun.

One result is that motivated women are becoming entrepreneurs in increasing numbers, especially in the fields of technology and the internet. Even here, however, there is a flip side to the success stories. Women working outside the Japanese corporate structure, whether for a foreign firm or their own business, are not able to push for change in the existing system.

And change is badly needed. Women, who make up more than half of the workforce, provide just 2.4 per cent of the executive tier and 0.1 per cent of board members. Nearly 30 per cent of female graduate job-seekers report that companies refuse to send recruitment literature to women. Of those who get an interview, a third are asked if they will give up work after marrying.

The higher a woman rises, the more glee the media show in pulling her down. When the drug problems of the popular television star Yoshiko Mita’s 20-year-old son became public, one magazine’s headline ordered her to “quit being a mother or quit being an actress”.

The commentator Ryuichi Hosokawa sagely interpreted a Chinese proverb for the benefit of his readers: “When a hen announces the dawn, the whole nation will start declining.” And what was Hosokawa’s former day job? Managing editor of the Mainichi Shimbun, a twice-daily paper with a combined circulation approaching six million; 99 per cent of those in such editorial positions in the mass media are male.

With the Japanese media still a man’s world, readers should be wary of those cheering headlines. Talked-up “progress”, or political soundbites, distract from the gaping inequalities all around, while attacks on women “having it all” pass themselves off as showbiz gossip or political commentary.

The devil is in those under-reported details.

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