Although recent legislative steps, including the introduction of and revisions to the Law for Equal Employment Opportunities between Men and Women and the Childcare and Nursing Care Leave Law are helping to broaden opportunities for women in Japan, their employment status generally remains low, with relatively few women working on equal terms with men. Against this backdrop, the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry held a Policy Symposium entitled "Identifying Conditions for Women's Active Participation in Society" on November 9, 2004 at TEPIA Hall in Tokyo. While acknowledging well-known problems such as the rigidity of the Japanese labor market and the lack of external support systems for families with children, the symposium also shed light on issues that have been rarely taken up in policy forums: the role of education, family relationships, the possibility of new styles of working that are tailored to the needs of women, and others. Before the symposium, RIETI Report spoke with Faculty Fellow and Research Counselor Toshiaki Tachibanaki, who led the symposium, to find out why the potential of women remains untapped in Japan.
An expert on public and labor economics, Dr. Tachibanaki holds a B.A. from Otaru University of Commerce, an M.A. from Osaka University, and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. He has served in numerous academic and public-sector research posts, both in Japan and internationally, including the London School of Economics, Stanford University, the Bank of Japan, the former Ministry of Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), OECD, and the IMF.
Tachibanaki is currently faculty fellow and research counselor at RIETI and professor of Economics at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Economics. He has written and edited a number of books, including Internal Labour Markets, Incentives and Employment (Palgrave Macmillan); Wage Determination and Distribution in Japan (Oxford University Press); and Public Policies and the Japanese Economy (Macmillan Press).
RIETI Report: Why do you think Japanese society is unable to fully take advantage of the potential of women?
Tachibanaki: Until about 30 years ago, becoming a full-time housewife was the goal of most women in Japan because it was a privileged status afforded only to those brought up in well-off families or married to wealthy men. Most women had no choice but to work for a living, whether through a trade or by farming. As their access to education has improved along with that of men, however, more and more women have become frustrated over the lack of career opportunities in which to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.
When we look at the situation today, we can see the traditional division of labor between men and women is still at work. Many men are confused about how to accept women as equals in the workplace. Many women who are capable and willing to commit to their work, on the other hand, find the gateway to advancement is extremely narrow, if not completely closed. So, I would say that not much has changed so far.
RIETI Report: Does this mean that Japanese women do not yet have adequate career opportunities despite the enactment of the equal employment opportunity law?
Tachibanaki: Pregnancy, childbirth and child-care are daunting issues for working women, and those who pursue both marriage and career bear an enormous burden. But if they leave the workplace to raise children, it is very difficult to get a position as attractive as the one they left because the skills and knowledge they acquired before quitting are considered out-of-date. It is extremely important to figure out how all of Japanese society, including husbands, can help working women. This will be one of major issues raised at the upcoming symposium.
RIETI Report: The media have reported that many women are losing hope about finding a job in the face of the economic slowdown. What do you think about the current situation?
Tachibanaki: Please allow me to be candid: I find that women are somewhat choosier than men about the types of jobs they will accept. Because men feel they have to earn their living no matter what it takes, men feel more compelled to work - even in jobs they find unsatisfying.
RIETI Report: So do you think that women must give up this self-indulgent attitude if they want truly fair and equal employment opportunities?
Tachibanaki: Neither "society" nor women are without fault. I hope that more women will realize that working is tough. Otherwise, those who are truly keen to pursue a career will not have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Also, the working conditions to which Japanese salaried workers are subjected are extremely distorted at present. Male employees in their 30s and early-40s at major companies in Japan often instantly fall asleep after working until 11 p.m. or midnight nearly every night. This has to change. The mentality of corporate managers has to change. And the attitude of employees has to change - people need to find other things of value in life besides work.
RIETI Report: What would you say is an ideal society in terms of work?
Tachibanaki: That is a difficult question to answer. Basically, I believe that, whatever the society, if someone is happy and fulfilled in his or her life, it is good for that person. Having said that, however, let me point out something that I have not touched upon in my thesis for the symposium. It is an undeniable fact that many women who get divorced and lack career experience tend to face severe hardships in spite of their earlier devotion to the home. In that respect, I think that a society in which both men and women work a reasonable number of hours per day would be best.
RIETI Report: What kind of policy measures can be taken to make Japan into that kind of society?
Tachibanaki: There are no quick remedies because there are a number of hurdles to overcome first. Probably the approach taken in Scandinavia is the most feasible In Scandinavia, under the "Papa Quarter" child-care leave system, fathers are allowed time off from work to care for a newborn, just like mothers. It is probably too soon to introduce such a system to Japan; our society is just not ready for that yet. Japanese corporate managers would not promote those who took extended paternity leave. Men thus have no choice but to work to advance their careers, even at the cost of family life. We must first change the mentality of corporate mangers.
Given the continuous decline in the birth rate, a labor shortage is inevitable and it will become essential to rely more on female workers. When this happens, corporate managers will have to change. By making steady efforts, we will be eventually able to change our society.
(Interviewed on October 27, 2004)
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