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Where does Japan stand in terms of 'gender' compared to the rest of the world?

Yuki Honda is seen in a file photo taken in Tokyo's Nerima Ward on Aug. 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- Compared to other countries around the world, what is the situation surrounding "gender" in Japan? The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to Yuki Honda, a graduate school professor at the University of Tokyo and the author of "'Nippon'tte donna kuni?" ("What kind of a country is 'Japan?'"), which analyzed Japan using international comparative data.

    The World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index ranking that is released every year is famous as comparative data gauging the gap between men and women worldwide. Japan has continuously ranked low, and in 2021, its overall ranking was 120th out of 156 countries. It ranks highly in literacy and elementary school education, but remains in a strikingly low position in the proportion of women in the national legislature and the proportion of women in managerial positions, at 140th and 139th, respectively. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan comes in last -- 38th -- with its proportion of women serving as members of the national legislature.

    "Why are Japanese women being excluded from 'public' positions? The low level of engagement by men in the 'personal' sphere, especially in the household is inextricably linked to this," Honda said of the OECD data. Activity in the personal sphere is an international comparison of "unpaid labor" per day, such as household chores, child-rearing, nursing care and other kinds of labor that do not lead to income.

    In any country, the amount of time women spend on unpaid labor is longer than that of men. But the gap is particularly noticeable in Japan, where men carry out 41 minutes of unpaid labor per day. Of the 30 countries for which there is such data, this puts Japan in last place, and the amount of unpaid labor carried out by men in Japan is only about one-fourth of that of countries that come out at top, such as Denmark and Australia.

    There also is data showing that the number of hours that men in Japan do paid work is extremely long among advanced countries. That means that in Japan, the tradition of separating roles by gender -- with men (fathers) working, and women (mothers) doing housework and child-rearing -- is still deeply rooted.

    "Unpaid labor does not include just housework and child-rearing, but also caring for older adults and people with disabilities," Honda said. "These things should be taken care of by public systems in a welfare state," she added, "but the Japanese-style welfare state has burdened the family, especially women, with such responsibilities, and praised it as a great tradition."

    The data that Honda pointed to regarding "the family" comes from the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) survey on families. Of 30 countries and regions that were surveyed on happiness in family life, Japan came in 27th place for men and 29th for women. Even when restricted to young people, the results are the same.

    In a 2018 survey that Japan's Cabinet Office carried out on 13- to 29-year-olds in seven countries, only 22% in Japan said they were "satisfied" with their home lives, while the figure was 56% in the U.S., and 44% in Britain and France. The satisfaction level toward family in Japan is accordingly low.

    Honda said, "The level at which men in Japan (fathers) take the initiative to carry out various tasks in home life is low. Nowadays, many women work outside the home, too, but such women (mothers) then have no choice but to busily balance both outside work and work inside the home. The lives of adults, who have no time for rest, may be casting a shadow on relationships between family members and relationships between parents and children."

    Women are not the only people who are being forced to pick up the slack. Men feel the pressure to do well in the public sphere, explains Honda.

    Men live under the expectation that they be "manly," and in particular, men who are low in public standing, perhaps with low wages, are placed in a difficult spot. Women tend to seek manliness from men.

    "It is not rare for such suffering among men to turn to attacks on women, rather than efforts to seek freedom from stereotypes," Honda said.

    In a 2015 survey that the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training conducted of working women, those who had experienced sexual harassment stood at about 30%, and 70% of the perpetrators were men. Based on data organized by Honda from the 2015 ISSP survey, over the past five years, the proportion of women who had experienced sexual harassment reached 30.7%, which put Japan in third place out of 37 countries and regions. The difference in having such an experience between men and women was also the widest, at 10.2 points.

    What becomes clear from such data is that compared to other countries around the world, the figures that indicate women's advancement in society are particularly low in Japan.

    After World War II, Japan made great economic strides amid a unique social structure, and that method was imprinted into people's memories as a successful model called "Japan as No. 1." That method was supported by gender-based roles, that men worked outside the home while women protected the household.

    However, due to the changing population structure -- marked by a low birthrate and aging population -- families and the way people work have also changed. Methods that worked in the past no longer work, but Japan has been "unable to let go of its successful experience of the past," Honda said.

    Japan's period of rapid economic growth has long been over, and it has been a while since it sank into economic stagnation after the bubble economy collapsed in the early 1990s. Why hasn't the country been able to shift its ideas and structures on gender roles?

    "Following the bursting of the bubble, there was an employment ice age," Honda pointed out. "Young people were increasingly hired as temporary employees, and employment itself became destabilized. The then administrations did not take any measures to address the trouble young people had finding work, and instead made it the responsibility of the young people themselves. That is why the societal structure did not undergo reorganization."

    But why did Japan's indices become such outliers compared to other countries?

    This is Honda's analysis: "Because a low birthrate was something that progressed from an early stage in Europe, as it was happening, gender equality and individualism spread, leading to a departure from old gender role structures. In China and other Asian countries, low birthrates spread rapidly from around the 1960s, but people in these countries were accustomed to rapid change, so they were able to adapt. Japan was in the middle of those two patterns, with its low birthrate happening in half the time of European countries, at a unique time in history, so it was unable to give birth to mature gender equality."

    Does that mean there are no figures that Japan can feel hopeful about?

    In addressing this question, Honda introduced to the Mainichi Shimbun a survey about the awareness of young people in various countries and Japan. Nearly half of the young people in Japan surveyed said that they "want to do something to "help their country." Japan ranks fourth out of seven countries in this poll. According to a 2021 attitude survey released by Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation), people who responded that they "want to participate in a social movement" was just over 50%. Among young people between 10 and 19, the number was largest, at 70%.

    "In fact, young people are active in trying to change unreasonable school rules, and social issues such as climate change and labor issues. It makes us hopeful," Honda said.

    What can be done about Japanese society, in which people feel suffocated by gender roles?

    "There are lines that separate us horizontally and vertically, not just by gender, but by academic background, occupation, race, age, among other things. Forcing stereotypes on others only strengthens the lines that separate us. A category shows only one side of a person," Honda said. "What does each person want to do? Respect the other person when confronting them face on. Each individual must think about how society should be, and when they feel something is wrong, act on it."

    (Japanese original by Asako Kamihigashi, Digital News Center)

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