Japan's New Women

Tanako Nakayama, a 61-year-old librarian, says that when she was young, woman rarely went to college. If they graduated, they became teachers or telephone operators. Single women in their 30s were called "loser dogs".

"I was one of the few special women who went on to university," Nakayama says. "After I graduated, I worked as a teacher in a private school owned by a big company. There was a lot of discrimination between men and women. Women could never become managers or section chiefs."

Most of them still can’t. In Japan, where tradition has lasted far longer than in much of the industrialized world, the glass ceiling is said to be bullet-proof. According to a 2009 survey by the Japanese government, women held only 8 percent of the managerial jobs in the country, compared with 43 percent in the United States.

In the 1980s women still mainly studied how to be good wives, Nakayama says. They learned cooking, the tea ceremony and flower arrangement.

"Nowadays it's a lot better,” she adds. “Instead of just learning to be good wives, young women go to sports clubs."

The choices for women are hardly evenly distributed or enjoyed, argues Toshiaki Tachibanaki, an economist and author of the book, The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequalities. The book was published in English by International House of Japan in 2010, after a Japanese-language release in 2008 by the publisher Tokyo Keizai.

In the book, Tachibanaki asserts that women now have more choices in their careers - they can work full-time, part-time or at home. But Japan's long economic downturn, along with new opportunities for girls and women, has brought growing disparities and widening inequalities among women in Japanese society.

"Before Japan became affluent, many families sent their sons to university even if it was a financial strain on the family, but they educated their daughters only through high school or, at most, junior college," Tachibanaki writes. "Families sacrificed their daughters' education for that of their sons. This was mostly true for women who are now in their 40s and 50s."

But as this changed, and as girls have moved into universities and the work force, numerous new gaps have formed among them. Chizuko Ueno, a professor of sociology at the University of Tokyo and a leading women's studies scholar, says economic insecurities have broken women into more distinct groups based on their own employment as well as that of their husbands,

Women working for pay don't necessarily do it by choice, Ueno said. She sees the gap between full-time homemakers and working women often explained by their husbands' incomes. "Many housewives don't work because they don't need to, but the latter work because they need a supplementary income."

Another big gap that separates Japanese women is working part-time or full-time. Part-time workers are normally employed for six months or a year. They are paid on an hourly basis and are sometimes paid less than their male counterparts. They do not get paid vacations or allowances to support pensions.

Women made up about 89 per cent of Japan's eight million part-time workers in 2009, according to the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry. The peak of unemployment in Japan was 5.4 per cent in the third quarter of 2009, according to the International Labor Office G20 Statistical Update. In 2007, the unemployment rate stood at 3.7 percent.

Mikiko Kamura, 33, quit her job in the personnel department of an electric appliance company after three years, citing a burdensome work culture for women. "At the office, in addition to a lot of paper work, usually women had to support men by making coffee, arranging tickets for business trips, answering phone calls, making photocopies, and so on," she says.

It was standard practice at the company for female employees to quit if they got married or had children. But not Kamura. She would prefer to take maternity leave and return to her current job as an event planner. But it's not that easy. "In Japan, hiring babysitters like Americans is not common. Plus we don't have enough facilities like nursery schools or day care centers," she says. Some of her friend's babies are on waiting lists.

Japan's birth rate has been decreasing, though the government is trying to change that trend. "The leading Democratic Party in Japan decided to distribute child monthly allowances to families with children, which encourage fathers and mothers to have more children," Kamura says.

Setting up good facilities with reliable day care systems and staff for children is what young parents really need, she adds.

Taisuke Yamamura, 28, a fitness trainer, says when he gets married he would like his wife to stay at home and take care of the household. But it will depend on whether he can make enough money to support a family. "If my wife wanted to work, I would respect what she thinks," he says. "I can't force her to stay at home."

(By arrangement with Women's eNews. Catherine Makino is based in Tokyo and has written for national and international publications.)