Inequality Deep in the First World: the Story of Japan

Inequality in the First World

By: Martin Sigalow

The World Economic Forum’s annual review of gender equality downgraded Japan in its 2012 report to 101st in the world in terms of gender equality. [1] This ordinal ranking, which places Japan right below Malaysia, is shocking to the degree that it is since most residents of the developed world tend to assume that those countries with great economic might and geopolitical power are also those countries with excellent human rights records. There are many factors that contribute to and explain this gap that are as surprising as they are disturbing. I will here catalogue of few of these.

Gender inequality persists in Japan due to mostly economic factors. Data from the World Bank indicates that the average woman in Japan makes about half of what a man makes.[2] Working mothers specifically are at 61% disparity when compared to their male counterparts.[3] This is in part due to child rearing practices in Japan. Companies in Japan have a huge preference against hiring women who leave the workforce for extended periods of time, causing many mothers to never again become employed. Since mothers are a huge percentage of the Japanese workforce, this ends up disenfranchising huge numbers of women compared to their male counterparts. [4]

Childcare arrangements serve as a major factor in preventing women from re-joining the work force. In most cases in the US, working mothers pursuing a career in something like business could simply hire some form of childcare service to take care of a child for work hours. However, this is less of an option for Japanese women. Women with alternate arrangements for child care are looked down upon, making it difficult to care for a child without leaving the workforce.[5]

Even the women that do make up the workforce do not tend to occupy the highest positions in business, politics, and society. [6] Only 11 of Japan’s 100 parliamentarians are women, an abysmal percentage for a developed country (this factor was explicitly cited as a factor in Japan’s downgrade to position 101 over the last year). [7] Women looking for a career in business fare even worse; women comprise a miniscule 2% of Japanese business directors.[8] Many of the women who do work in Japan do so only temporarily; Japanese women are more likely to be employed on a temporary, part time, or contractual basis. [9]

There are very few laws in Japan that prevent subtle gender discrimination. [10] What laws currently exist to prohibit gender discrimination are empirically difficult to enforce. [11] Even if these laws were enforced to their fullest extent, they still contain many unacceptable gaps, such as for domestic servants, who are systematically denied legal recourse and representation. [12] Although Japan has gender discrimination prevention provisions in the workplace, this does nothing to affect Japan’s social service organization, which, through social security, pensions programs, and tax codes, systematically discriminates against women by privileging the model of a stay at home mother and working father. [13] Indeed, the Japanese tax code encourages inequality by providing tax incentives for dependent spouses to remain at home despite possible earning potential. [14] Often, it is not worth it in the short term for women to enter the workforce again after a gap multiple years long, especially given the already considerable barriers to entry in the workforce noted above.

A telling example of a non-economic form of social discrimination that plays out is disaster relief. Only about 20% of Japanese disaster relief “take gender into account,” according to a midterm review by the Hyogo Framework for Action, a UN plan designed to mitigate disaster relief.[15] When Japanese society was in the process of taking gender “into account,” it seems that it was capable of doing so mostly in counterproductive ways. While there were efforts to protect violence against women in post-disaster periods, the type of work assigned to citizens in helping society to recover was sexist. In the majority of cases, men were instructed mostly to clear rubble while women were told to cook and serve food, a traditional division of labor that reinforces traditional gender roles.[16]  Additionally, men usually received monetary compensation of some kind for their work clearing rubble, whereas women usually did not.[17]

National and international communities have the duty to attempt to promote the enforced rights of women at every turn. Insofar as a society commits itself to protecting the rights of its citizens, which is something any government must do to maintain a shred of legitimacy in itself and to others, then that society is also committing itself to ensuring the enforcement of already existing rights. In this way, Japan has the duty to ensure the existence of more meaningful women’s rights within its borders. A nation can hardly claim to assure rights meaningfully among its citizens if it creates a significant divide between roughly half of its population. In addition, some business strategists have suggested that mechanisms for the effectively implementation of gender equality in Japan could create upwards of eight million jobs.[18] Thus, continued gender inequality is not something Japan can afford, even if it is something Japan is capable of stomaching.

That Japan is a nation consistently lauded by the international community should not serve to immunize Japan of responsibility. Rather, it serves as an indication that harsh inequality can persist notwithstanding an otherwise stellar international reputation. Japan should serve as a reminder to the international community that unacceptable tinges of darkness may be found even in the brightest places.

[1] Hausmann, Ricardo, Tyson, Laura, Zahidi, Saadia,  “The Global Gender Gap Report 2012,” The World Economic Forum, October 2012, February 24, 2013,

[2] World Bank “Toward Gender Equality in East Asia and the Pacific: A Companion to the World Development Report” World Bank East Asia And Pacific, Regional Report, 2012, accessed February 24, 2013,

[3] Torres, Ida,  “Japan’s Working Mothers Suffer From Largest Pay Gap In The World,” The Japan Daily Press, December 19, 2012, February 24, 2013,

[4] Ibid 2

[5] Ibid

[6] Hausmann, Ricardo, Tyson, Laura, Zahidi, Saadia,  “The Global Gender Gap Report 2012,” The World Economic Forum, October 2012, February 24, 2013,

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid 2

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Bauwens, Daan, “Japan Values Women Less – As It Needs Them More,” Inter Press Service News Agency, January 31, 2013, Accessed February 24, 2013,

[14] Ibid 3

[15] Matsuoka, Yuki, “Japanese experts call for gender equality,” The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, October 16, 2012, accessed February 24, 2013,

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid 3

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