After a great deal of research and holding personal interviews with Japanese women, it appears that the current situation in Japan for women is very complex. Three key aspects seem to be important to come to terms with in order to understand the condition of Japanese woman: work, contraception and domestic violence.
First of all, the situation of women has improved since the end of World War II, mainly due to equality within the education system. Consequently, more and more highly educated women have worked and become more financially independent than was the case before the war. It appears as well that there is a correlation between working and women getting married later and having fewer children.
In 1985, Japan adopted the Equal Employment Opportunity Law that prohibits gender discrimination in respect to recruitment, hiring, promotion, training, and job assignment. However despite that law, the professional reality for women has continued to be such that it is very hard for them to have both a work life and a private life (husband and children). “Japanese work customs make it almost impossible for women to have both a family and a career,” said a Japanese women employee in an article issued in the New York Times in 2007 (Career Women in Japan Find a Blocked Path). Moreover they do not have access to high and managerial positions. By 2005, only 10.1% of women have a management job in Japanese companies and governement according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency. In contrast, 42.5% of managerial jobs in the United States are held by women.
Another study made in 2009 by Catalyst shows that in 2007, Women in Japan earned only 65.3% of men’s earnings at the same positions. (ILO source). The labour ethic in Japan is known around the world to be very intense and hard-working. Therefore if a company expects its employees to work 15 hours a day, it is impossible for women to lead both a work life and a family life. As a result, Japan ranks as the most unequal of the world’s rich countries according to the United Nations Development Program’s “gender empowerment measure,” with a 38th place, just above Bangladesh and far below European countries or the United States (Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap). Another women, a trained engineer points out that “I still have to prove all the time that a woman can be president”. Thus it appears that the situation is very hard for these women who want to work and reach high positions to think about marriage or to have and raise children.
Whereas the oral contraceptive pill has been allowed and commercialised for decades in Western countries, Japan legalized it in June 1999, only twelve years ago. It may seem surprising from such a modern and industrialized country. Though, despite this new method of contraception in Japan, only 1.3 percent of the 28 million Japanese females between 15 and 49 years old take advantage of the availability of this technology, compared with 15.6 percent in the United States, according to the United Nations (Japanese women shun birth control pill). Conservatism and fear for their health (weight gain, infertility) look to be some of the explanations for the recalcitrance of Japanese women to take the pill. On the other hand, condoms are the leading method of birth control, as 80% of women say they give prevalence to condoms. And some doctors explain that if more women go on the pill, the percentage of HIV-positive patients might increase, as they will stop using condoms.
Domestic violence is a serious issue in Japan. In 1998, a survey conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office showed that one third of Japanese women had experienced domestic violence in their lives. Therefore in 2001, a law came into effect to punish abusive husbands. However in spite of that law, domestic violence in Japan increased 11.7 % in 2009 to 28,158 reported cases in that year (Domestic violence in Japan hits record high in 2009). Unfortunately, most women beaten by their husbands feel too weak to leave their home, either because they do not have economic power, or because they still live in a very conservative house.
An Al Jazeera’s documentary from Tokyo on the women who are speaking out about the problem:
Japanese women still live within an oppressive society. As it was shown in this article, women still suffer from domestic violence, and keep trying to reach managerial positions at work and raise a family at the same time. They try to be a good wife and a good mother. However regarding the domestic violence, more and more women have started denouncing their husbands or partners and make domestic violence a public issue and not the shameful issue it used to be. Besides, women have begun to live their lives as they wish in a independent and free way by affirming their own rights. Japan still needs to raise public awareness of the concept of equality of men and women in order to move towards better conditions for women.