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Japanese women: Seen (preferably in heels and not glasses) but not heard

Japanese women: seen (preferably in heels and no glasses) but not heard.

If I was a Japanese woman, I would be feeling rightfully very angry. Not only has it taken until 2021 for them to finally have been totally released from the archaic notion of buying chocolate for their male colleagues in the workplace on Valentine’s day (a Japanese cultural twist on the Western import that commodified the obliging behaviour that is expected of Japanese women), but they have been told very recently by a former PM and Chief of Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee Yoshiro Mori that they make meetings drag on as they talk too much. Anyone who has interacted with the upper echelons of power in Japan (Government, business conferences etc) will know that it is only ever men who generally get a platform to speak unless it is a conference about female leadership and that the percentage of women on company boards in Japan is so low that global investors have had to start threatening not to invest in those Japanese companies that fail to meet gender diversity targets on the board. The backlash to Mori’s comments and his subsequent resignation reflect a growing awareness of how this attitude reflects badly upon Japan on the global stage but previous sexist statements by leading Japanese politicians have been mostly excused as typical for that generation, who have since offered an equally sexist ‘solution’ to offset the Olympics sexism debate: invite more women to meetings but not allow them to talk during the meeting.

Sexism is completely embedded in the main institutions of power in Japan supported by a deep socialisation of certain cultural stereotypes of women that are totally incompatible with any form of gender equality or empowerment (unless you count a wife managing the household finances as equality.) Throughout Japanese history, the feminine archetype most acceptable to institutions in Japan has been that of mother/dutiful wife who left work upon marriage/pregnancy and more recently an amenable addition to the office who does not openly upset the harmony or criticise male superiors and who is supposed to keep their appearance feminine and appealing. One Japanese woman recently led a Kutoo campaign against the widely held expectation that women should wear high heels at work and some companies recently told women not to wear glasses as they affected their attractiveness in the workplace. If women try to move out of these boundaries, there can be a backlash. Maternity harassment is an real issue within many workplaces (the traditional view is that they should be leaving the workplace once pregnant) and the Tokyo Medical University scandal was a prime example of how women are held back from progressing further into the workplace through discrimination and core beliefs perpetuated by the male breadwinner model.

However much these cultural norms may have served Japan well in the past, they have just held women back-Japan has one of the lowest ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report with especially low numbers of women in leadership and political positions. The options to most women who want to reach leadership roles within Japan Inc have been either to push harder than men (potentially sacrificing a family) and put up with ridiculously long hours, high levels of discrimination, sexism and fight for agency or to opt out and maintain the status quo. One of the most influential Japanese female leaders I met, Haruno Yoshida, told an amazing and insightful story. She had defied all expectations of how a Japanese woman would behave in the 80s and refused her family’s attempt to marry her off and get her to leave work at a young age and went on to become a powerful businesswoman and the first female head of BT Japan. However, she had to work her way up to this outside of Japan as that was an impossible task for a young mother to achieve in Japan at that time. Sadly, she died of a heart attack not long after becoming the first female executive of the male dominated Japanese business lobby, the Keidanren.

So what does the future hold for gender equality in Japan? People often say to me, “it will take time in Japan” for the next generation to come through but that is time Japan has not got. They are facing down a massive labour force shortage alongside low birth rates and Japanese companies need to globalise and embrace diversity. Gender Equality also needs to stop being conditional- it is advocated by those in power if it only applies to women that comply with the expected feminine behaviour. The underlying assumptions and attitudes behind this behaviour need to be examined, openly criticised and most importantly changed from the bottom up through educational programmes and proper interventions, that will lead to a fundamental shift in gendered behaviour. This will be a tough call in a society that values harmony and female deference to men and where the current institutions of power are so keen to shut that female voice down.

Sarah is currently writing a book chapter 'Re-imagining the gender roles within Japan to achieve sustainability of the Japanese Population and Economy for the The Routledge anthology on Gender and Sustainability. She is also developing an innovative new online course called Gender in International Business. Please contact Sarah for more information.

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