Gender and Japan’s Stagnation, Or, Why Gender Studies Really Matter

4 01 2014

Cover of the Japanese Edition of Sheryl Sandberg’s _Lean In_

There is a tendency among certain centre-right academics to criticize the gender studies/feminist scholarship one finds in Western universities as excessively politicized, ideological, and emotional. Within each academic discipline and community (e.g., history or IR or organizational studies), there has been a backlash against the rise of feminist scholarship. A common complaint about feminist approaches to scholarly research is that they are a big waste of time and that social scientists should be studying the things that really matter, the factors that determine the fate of nations, rather than the details of sexual harassment legislation or whether child care is cheap enough.

To these critics of gender studies, I will paraphrase John F. Kennedy and say, “Let them come to Japan.”

There is a lot of evidence for the thesis that the major causes of Japan’s post-1990 stagnation is sexism (i.e., the squandering of the talents of roughly half of Japan’s population). In the 1980s, many experts were predicting that Japan was going to dominate the world economy in the 21st century. Japan was seen as a very rich country and was predicted to overtake the US in GDP per capita. Then the Japanese economy stagnated for two decades and leadership in many industries passed to other countries. Japan still has some dynamic industries and big companies, but it appears to have passed into the second tier of industrial powers, where it sits alongside the likes of France.

Social scientists are still debating the causes of the reversal in Japan’s fortunes. The reasons are complex but appear to include gender. Of course,  no society is yet completely free of sexism. That’s true even in the world’s most sophisticated economic regions, which are found in places such as California and North-Western Europe.  However, by most statistical measures of gender equality and female economic empowerment, Japan is very much a laggard. It was ranked 101 out of 130 nations in a recent WEF report on gender equality.  The survey was based on four areas; employment opportunities/salary, educational background, health/longevity, and political participation.

In the combined rankings, the Scandinavian nations, where women’s social progress is well-established, occupied the top positions, with Finland ranking 2nd, Norway 3rd, Sweden 4th. Germany was 13th, the UK was 18th, Canada 21st, and the USA 22nd. Interestingly enough, Japan does very well on the female life expectancy metric, which means that its performance on the other three metrics is especially bad.

At least one Japanese woman I know has compared the treatment of women in the TV show Mad Men, which is set in a US workplace in the 1960s, to conditions in Japan today. At the risk of sounding like a functionalist sociologist, you might say that Japan’s gender culture is suited to an industrial economy rather than a post-industrial one. Such a reading of the situation is consistent with the timing of Japan’s relative decline and the nature of Japan’s competitive advantage: Japan is very strong is somewhat old-fashioned metal-bashing industries such as automobile manufacturing but is weak in the fields that have driven growth in the West since 1990 (e.g., software or financial services). For a great overview of this topic, see Marie Anchordoguy’s Reprogramming Japan: The High Tech Crisis Under Communitarian Capitalism Cornell University Press, 2005.

One of the encouraging recent developments in Japan is that the country’s current Prime Minister appears to recognize this: as part of his efforts to revive the Japanese economy, Shinzo Abe is talking about measures to encourage more housewives to enter the workforce, increase the representation of women on corporate boards, and encourage entrepreneurship by women.    In his public statements, Abe discusses the economic importance of women on an almost daily basis. He has also proposed measures to increase Japan’s dangerously low birthrate by making workplaces more friendly to working mothers and expanding access to childcare.

The bottom line is that gender equality appears to be an important element of Abe’s so-called “three arrows” policy for bringing Japan back. The three arrows are monetary policy, fiscal policy, and structural reforms. Promoting the utilization of female labour would fall into the category of structural reform. The other structural reforms proposed by Abe include a range of essentially neo-liberal measures, including deregulation.

In this piece, BBC’s chief business correspondent Linda Yueh discusses Abe’s attempts to revive Japan by changing attitudes towards working women.

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