Why you should care

Because the entire developed world could learn something from Japan’s struggles. 

Japan is one of the U.S.’s most interesting economic cousins. It counts itself among the small club of developed nations and, years after its heyday in the 1980s, remains one of the largest economies in the world. Which means it faces #firstworldproblems, just like the U.S. Among those: questions about the modern workplace and labor force, and what women’s place should be in both. Maternity leave? Japanese women get about 26 weeks. Discrimination in the office? One in six women was harassed during pregnancy in Japan, according to a 2015 survey. Representation in the workforce? About 63 percent of Japanese women work, according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, compared to 67 percent of American women. But after having kids, far more Japanese women stay home.

The country’s leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his plan to restart the country on his program of “Abenomics,” has made much hay of the need for women to join the workforce (cleverly titling this “Womenomics”). He’s argued it can help the country with its impending hairy demographic problem; as the nation ages and the workforce dries up, well, it might be time to tap the neglected gender, right? Which might make for an ideal Sandbergesque moment.

Not quite, says Mari Miura, professor of law and political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. Miura is one of the earliest members of the so-called “Angry Women’s Club,” a leaderless collective reminiscent of American 1970s consciousness-raising groups. A mother herself, Berkeley-educated Miura talked with OZY about how the new push for women to work collides with the Japanese anthem of childbearing as a national duty — and about whether there’s a future for feminism on these erstwhile imperial shores.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OZY: What are you focusing on these days?

Mari Miura: I’ve been working on gender politics for a while, especially gender quotas. Japan ranks 157th out of 191 countries as far as representation — only 9.5 percent of women in the lower house. One of the instruments for introducing women representatives is a quota.

A multipartisan caucus on introducing gender quotas was set up, and I’ve been an academic adviser to this team. They made a proposal last August, but they were not able to reach a consensus. What we have doesn’t contain any strong enforcement mechanism; it just promotes the ideal that all parties must field candidates based on the idea of 50-50 representation. Ruling parties didn’t like the idea of parity, which is a strong word, so they proposed “balance” instead. The Japanese parliament session is very short, and now it’s over and we’ve got an upper house election ahead. So, we have to wait till the next session starts — sometime in the fall.

OZY: It’s your view that a quota is a strong vehicle for societal change?

MM: Yes. First, people have to realize that they need women in politics, and we haven’t reached that consensus yet.

OZY: There’s a quip you hear here that politicians don’t matter in Japan — that they’re uncharismatic, and real work gets done by bureaucrats. Why does representation matter if that’s the case? What policies do you want changed?

MM: Here is one huge problem: a shortage of daycare centers. Only about one out of two mothers gets into them, and 15 to 18 babies die every year because of that low-quality, poor management. There is no supervision of the government toward unqualified or unauthorized daycare centers, but many women have to use those because authorized ones are very limited.

Dohoshi

Mari Miura holding an Ikareru Joshikai button.

Source Sanjena Sathian/OZY

Also, we need more comprehensive laws toward violence against women. There is a law to ban domestic violence, but that is only one category of violence against women. There’s also the issue of separate family names: Japan is a rare country where married couples have to have only one married name. The supreme court ruled that is constitutional — now the assembly has to decide what sort of legal structure they’re going to bring. Authorities strongly oppose separate names because they think it’s bad for family bonding.

OZY: Conversations about workplace and gender issues are going on globally, from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia. What parallels do you see between Japan and these other countries, and what is uniquely Japanese?

MM: Patriarchy is pretty much everywhere! But the uniqueness in Japan is that we still see few feminist movements in Japan. There are feminists, but they’re not well-networked. Japanese civil society, not only in feminist movements but all movements, is not good at making organizations. People start to fight over many small issues, and then they split. We have many small bosses, but we are not able to get united.

And here, feminist sounds so “radical” or “hysterical” or “crazy.” Young generations don’t want to use that. People use gender or gender equality without using feminism or feminist.

OZY: Tell me about Ikareru Joshikai, the group you’re a member of. It translates to “Angry Women’s Club,” right?

MM: Joshikai means a sort of spontaneous gathering or meeting — drinking together or just getting together and talking. You would only use it for women’s gatherings. Joshi means women and kai means meeting — women’s gathering. It’s commonly used in the last 5 or 10 years by women, or in women’s magazines, especially women in their 30s and 40s. It’s a kind of girlish term, but then we say “angry,” so it has some power for people who are already angry about politics.

We needed a space, because in Asia it’s hard to talk politics with close friends. If your close friends cannot share political views, that becomes awkward — it’s better to go to anonymous situations so you can actually say your opinion, and if you don’t get along it doesn’t matter, because they are not your friends. You might actually make friends later.

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