Is there really no discrimination or racism in Japan?
This is a question that the creators of Japan’s beloved feminist podcast, SuperSmashHoes Podcast, and writer Yukari Peerless decided it was high time to ask. In a time when racism and police brutality in the United States have drawn global interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems of intolerance all over the world, it’s certainly a question worth asking. Join Reflection on Racism, Diversity & Inclusion in Japan to find out more. Much of the discussion will be in Japanese but hopefully accessible.
Super Smash Hoes Podcast, hosted by Erika X and Fahreen Budhwani, and Yukari Peerless working with other NGOs have invited a group of experts and Japan hands to discuss issues of discrimination and racism in the shadows of the rising sun. Panelists include award-winning documentary film maker Miki Dezaki, Japan’s first black idol and sex worker rights advocate Amina du Jean, and Aerica Shimizu Banks,an engaging public speaker on the topic of diversity and an advocate for women of color who has accomplished much in her career. The speakers will talk about their own personal experiences with racism, ignorance, and prejudice and how to combat it.
If you wish to join the livestream, you are requested to contribute ¥1,000 yen which will be donated to two anti-racism charities. One is the Anti-Racism Information Center. The Center is an NGO that combats hate speech and raises awareness of the problems with xenophobia and misconceptions about race in a civil society.The other group is Save Immigrants Osaka which supports foreign immigrants detained in Osaka immigration center. https://www.facebook.com/saveimmigrantsOsaka/
Date: Wednesday, June 24 Time: 10am – 12pm Japan time (6pm – 8pm PST Tuesday June 23)
The Format: Round table discussion. It will be a “Webinar” on Zoom. The audience can watch but will be muted during the webinar. After the panel discussion, they will open up the floor and the audience can ask questions.
Admission: 1000 yen to a Paypal account. 100% to be donated to a charity.
They say it takes more than a death to change the world but perhaps that’s not true in the case of 22-year old Hana Kimura (木村花). She was a professional wrestler and one of the cast members of Terrace House, the now defunct reality TV franchise that first launched in 2012 and went on for eight seasons. For the uninitiated, Terrace House follows the relationship dynamics of three boys and three girls as they live as housemates in a posh seaside house with a terrace. Hana-chan as she was called, starred as herself – an up and coming wrestling star with pink hair who was eager to get ahead in the entertainment industry. In an episode aired on March 31st, Hana-chan unleashed her anger over a laundry mishap committed by a fellow (male) housemate. The two made up, but the whole thing exploded right in Hana-chan’s face.
Hordes of Terrace House fans posted Hana-chan hating comments – upwards of 300 a day – and many demanded that she either leave the show or die, immediately. It’s said that the Covid-19 induced isolation further drove Kimura over the edge. Alone in her home, she couldn’t help but read and obsess over the hellish comments on social media, directed straight at her.
On May 23rd, Hana Kimura was rushed to the hospital after friends found her lying on the floor in her apartment, but it was too late. The details of her death have not been disclosed, but she left a note, apologizing to her friends and thanking her mom for “bringing me into this world.” Astonishingly, the anonymous cyber bullies who were at least partly responsible for her death resumed their bashing, accusing her of being ‘weak and needy’ and ‘not cut out to endure the hardships of working in the entertainment industry.”
All that hate though, faded away after Fuji Television Network, the creator of the Terrace House franchise pulled the plug on the show five days after Hana-chan’s suicide. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is now pushing for a law to hunt down those who post hate comments, and slap them with fines or worse. Even Prime Minister Abe has moved on the issue, remarking that “hateful comments on the Internet have the power to do irreparable damage, and they should be stopped, if possible.” Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Hana Kimura’s critics have seemingly disappeared off the face of the Net at least for now, and news commentators are continuing to express their ‘profound regret’ over her death.
That said, a certain apprehension hangs in the air; it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abe’s popularity has hit an all-time low and the belated delivery of two “Abenomasks” per household that he promised back in March, has become a running joke. It seems that most things he does these days is being ridiculed. The death of Hana Kimura may have been a welcome respite from having to deal with the social ills spawned by the lingering coronavirus, and the pile of political embarrassments racked up during the nation’s 49-day shut-down. Moritomo scandal, anyone?
it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage.
In the meantime, media pundits are pointing out that both the Abe Administration and the Japanese populace should have their minds on other, more relevant issues, like the racial protests tearing the US apart, and now raging in Europe as well.
Political columnist Takashi Odajima observed in Nikkei Shimbun that the pandemic has afforded the US an opportunity to take a hard look at social injustice, while in Japan that same pandemic has given the government an excuse to cover things up. “In Japan, the government hides its scandals and inconvenient truths under the masks they insist on wearing,” he wrote.
You don’t have to be a pundit like Odajima, to get that sinking feeling: once again, Japan lags way behind the west when it comes to grappling with stuff that truly matters, in spite of, or maybe because of, an ongoing pandemic. While we’re still wrapping our faces and panicking about the number of new infections cropping up in Tokyo (more than 10! How horrifying!), protesters across the Pacific are risking their lives for racial justice. The comparison is scathingly humbling. Gosh, we’re small. And scared shitless of direct conflict.
Odajima pointed out that the Japanese are hopelessly bad at arguing a point, or any form of adverse social interaction unless it’s done among family members. He’s right. The bad stuff happens mostly at home and behind closed doors. In some cases they continue for years before anyone finds out. There’s anonymous groping on trains, and faceless bullying on the net but public protests in broad daylight rarely occur unless the protesters are hiding their faces behind masks. This explains why Hana-chan got so much flack – she dared to express rage over public airwaves, in her own name. And though it’s been pointed out that the show’s producers obliquely coerced her to do so, many Terrace House viewers were too naive to see the difference between the ‘reality’ of reality shows, and real life.
Maybe that’s just the way the Abe Administration wants it. Passive silence behind masks is vastly preferable to outright self-expression, in whatever situation. Imagine if the Japanese took to the streets to protest income inequality, the plight of temp workers, foreign laborers, and single mothers, domestic violence and rampant child abuse–just a few items off the top of an endless list?
The truth is that at this point, the nation needs many more Hana Kimuras–brave enough to express anger and negative feelings without fear of being punished for it. Hopefully, we can do that better, once the masks come off.
The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Japan hard as of late. Classrooms remain empty after spring break, restaurants begin to provide take-out, and factories stall upcoming projects. The number of workers who are predicted to lose their jobs due to the novel Coronavirus was projected in the upwards of 1,021 people last month, according to the Ministry of Labor. Prime Minister Abe did declare a State of Emergency on April 7th, and the Ministry of Finance announced that ¥100,000 would be given to residents (and eventually confirmed that foreign residents were included) but some experts argue that this declaration occurred too late.
While April would normally be the start of new jobs for many in Japan, this April seems to have an opposite turnout for most job-seekers. Lines outside of Hello Work* buildings all over the country would be twice as long as lines for masks outside of drugstores. Certain locations have also reduced the amount of staff members on-duty, causing longer waiting times at local Hello Work branches.
(Hello Work is an employment service center operated by the Japanese government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Its main role is to help connect job seekers to companies in need of skilled labor.)
In early April, I became a part of this statistic. My 6-month contract at a city hall in Osaka was not granted for renewal, and the job openings for tourism and English education in the area seemed to have vanished as the governor also declared a state of emergency. I decided to reach out to Hello Work to see if I was eligible for any benefits and to search for jobs through their system.
I arrived on a Thursday morning around 11AM. The line encircled the entire building and moved slowly. There was little distance between us and we stood outside of the building for about two hours. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available to use before entering the building. It reminded me of Disneyland for a brief moment.
Once I entered the Hello Work office, I was greeted by an energetic staff member. Everyone in the office, including the job-seekers, were wearing masks. We were told to sit two to three seats apart from each other, and the seats for the computer lab were 1 seat apart. There appeared to be no multilingual support at this Osaka branch. Many of the people in the room appeared to be elderly or recently graduated from university. Some of the job-seekers previously worked in factories or in retail.
After about an hour, it was my turn. Since my previous contract was only for six months, I was unable to receive any benefits. But the staff member who assisted me thoroughly searched and found about fifteen jobs that I could apply for. The process itself took about 10 minutes. I turned around and saw the computer lab filled to the brim with anxious job-seekers. Most of them has 0 search results, and the staff would try their best to experiment with different search entries to find a match.
Hello Work branches all over the country seem to be facing the same dilemma. For many newly unemployed residents in the Chubu region, they faced the most difficulty with their former employer. “I did not know much about the paperwork I needed to file for unemployment”, said Guillerme Okada. “At the factories, we were suddenly told that we couldn’t work anymore. I had to ask several of my friends first.” Okada had brought someone with him as an interpreter to explain to his Japanese supervisor that he needed to give documents for Okada to receive unemployment benefits. “It is a common issue with factory workers in this area. If I struggle to get legal documentation, I struggle to trust this system. I came with my interpreter to Hello Work, but there were two already available to help me. I had a lot of support from my community and from them during this time.”
Other employers would also push back start dates and avoid paying the contracted salary despite the legal 60% minimum requirement. Maria M., a Tokyo resident, would get last-minute notices and conflicting information about her start date and paycheck.
“I had already given my previous job a month’s notice and quit to start this new one. I was supposed to start during the first week of April but they changed it. It’s at a store so telework is impossible.”
About four or five days later, she was asked to Skype with the human relations chair. Her hiring date was moved to May 15th with no pay in advance. She contacted the labor bureau about her situation. “They confirmed that my company was responsible for me. My friends [who also worked at the company] said that they were receiving part of their salary in April. When I told my employer that I contacted the labor bureau, they quickly agreed to offer me part of my contracted pay.”
During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to navigate unemployment and economic stability on top of acquiring the basic necessities for surviving the pandemic. As the numbers of infected individuals steadily increase, the ratio of available job positions drop to its lowest level in three years. However, with the national and local government bringing out new sources of financial aid for individuals and businesses alike, there is room for growth in the economy and policy change.
As of March 1st, Japan has already seen more than 900 people get infected by the deadly coronavirus. To avoid contributing to the spread, many businesses have decided to suspend operations; schools in some prefectures are closing for a couple of weeks.
Naturally, you might wonder how you are going to survive all of March if your employer suddenly cancels some or all of your shifts. This has happened to a number of teachers already. Here is a guideline which summarizes everything you need to know to still receive your salary.
If you were Hired by Board of Education and Teaching at Public Schools
If you are employed by a board of education, teaching language classes, or working for a public school in any way, you should contact your employer (it would most likely be the prefectural board of education) and ask whether you will still be guaranteed your March salary. Essentially, it’s up to your employer (board of education) whether to continue to pay for the classes you were forced to miss. The Tokyo Board of Education has decided that part-time lecturers/teachers would still be guaranteed the same amount they would have received even if schools are closed due to coronavirus. (授業がないと給与が払われない？ 一斉休校による「非正規」教員への影響)
Remember, this particular rule only applies if you work for a public school and are employed by a board of education. Thus, assistant language teachers (ALTs) who are employed by dispatching agencies do not have to worry about contacting their local board of education.
If you are NOT employed by a board of education, then this is what you have to know. Unless it is you who decided not to go to work, due to various reasons–such as the fear you might get infected commuting–you should still be paid for the time missed. It does not matter if you are working full-time or part-time, whether you work as a regular employee (seishain) or on a temporary, fixed-term contractor (hi-seiki), every worker has the right to receive the full amount.
No matter what the reasoning behind closing operations temporarily, employers must pay at least 60 percent of your salary if they tell employees not to show up. Article 26 of the Labor Standards Act which states that “in the event of an absence from work for reasons attributable to the Employer, the Employer shall pay an allowance equal to at least 60 percent of the Worker’s average Wage to each Worker concerned during said period of absence from work.”
For example, your March shifts had already been set, and you had ten days/shifts, 8 hours a day, in March, and your hourly wage is 2000 Yen, for a total of 160,000 Yen. Your employer canceled all of your shifts because of the coronavirus. You should still be able to receive at least 60 percent of that 160,000 Yen which is 96,000 Yen, according to the Labor Standards Act, no matter what your employer tells you or what the reason for closing the company operations.
On top of that, 60 percent is the absolute minimum that your employer must pay to avoid being persecuted for violating the Labor Standards Act. You have the right to demand that your employer pay 100 percent of your missed salary since it was not your fault that you could not work. It might not be your employer’s fault that the coronavirus is spreading so rapidly and we are in a total chaos (Japan Shows Coronavirus May Be a Gift—for Would-Be Dictators https://www.thedailybeast.com/japans-coronavirus-cruise-ship-debacle-shows-epidemic-can-be-a-gift-for-would-be-dictators?ref=author) , but what matters in receiving renumerations is that it was your employer (and not you) who told you not to come to work.
In order to still receive your salary, make sure to keep track of your missed shifts (dates, hours) and calculate how much you ended up not getting paid. When your March payday comes, and you find out your employer did not bank transfer your March salary, then you can write a letter to your employer demanding that it pay your March salary. If your employer still decides not to compensate, then you can go to the labor standards office, which oversees the district where your workplace is (not where your company headquarters is) and have an officer investigate.
Or you can contact labor NGOs or labor unions for assistance. There’s a labor NGO called Posse, which is running a coronavirus hotline for foreign workers on March 4thfrom 5 pm to 8 pm, offering legal advice in English free of charge (WE ARE STARTING A CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) HOTLINE FOR FOREIGN WORKERS! https://blog.goo.ne.jp/posse_blog/e/0125cd742806a2d9b201bbae5d7c29b1).
What if the company wants you to come, but you don’t want to show up?
You have two options. The first option is to use your annual paid leave. Article 39 of the Labor Standards Act guarantees ALL workers that you are entitled to receive at least a day of paid leave after working for the same employer for six months. If you work full time, then you should have at least ten days per year after six months of being employed by the same employer. The chart on page 42 tells you how many days of paid holidays you should have (https://www.hataraku.metro.tokyo.jp/sodan/siryo/29-5rodojikan.pdf) and you could have more if your contract states otherwise. You have the right to decide when you want to use your annual paid leave. It would be illegal for your employer to restrict you from using your paid leave.
The second option is to apply for a benefit called “shou byou teate kin (傷病手当金)”. You can receive a payment from your health insurance provider if you are sick and have to take more than three consecutive days away from work. You need to have missed your paycheck and have to have your doctor fill in the paperwork to receive a payment, which guarantees you get 67 percent of your monthly salary.
What if You Are Infected with Coronavirus during Work?
This might be the worst-case scenario, but if you are (or if you think you are) infected with the coronavirus during work, you should apply for workplace injury compensation (Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance is the official English translation of the Japanese term, rosai 労災). It’s up to the labor standards office to determine whether your infection is work-related or not, but if it does so, you should receive free medical services, and 80 percent of your salary is guaranteed. For the 20 percent of your salary the insurance does not cover, you have the right to demand your employer to cover that part since it is a workplace injury. No employer can terminate a contract of an employee who is taking a leave due to workplace injury.
See Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare: Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Guideline for Foreign Workers
So what should you do if your employer tells you not to come? First, you should make sure to keep track of how many days or hours you are forced to miss. If you use an online calendar in which your employer can delete your shifts easily, make sure to take a screenshot of your schedule before your shifts get removed. Then you should demand your employer to still pay for the time missed. If you are not sure about what to do, there are several NGOs and labor unions which you can contact in English. There’s Tokyo General Union (https://tokyogeneralunion.org/), which mainly organizes language school teachers, and there’s Posse (https://foreignworkersupport.wixsite.com/mysite/english), a labor NGO working on behalf of foreign/migrant workers.
(This post is based on the material published in the article written first in Japanese by a labor activist/researcher Haruki Konno. Some parts of the original material are modified. If you are looking for similar information in Japanese, please refer to the link below)
Carlos Ghosn, the former chairman of Nissan, now a fugitive, will make his first public appearance on Wednesday, several days after his dramatic escape from Japan. He was scheduled to be tried for alleged financial misconduct….in 2021. (He was arrested in 2018 and detained for 128 days)
After being muzzled for months by Japan’s prosecutors, under a Damocles sword that if he held a press conference, he would be re-arrested and thrown into “the pig-box” (detention cells/jail), Carlos Ghosn will tell all tonight.
Ironically, the Japanese media, which has except for a few periodicals, kept leaking information from Nissan and the prosecutors without scrutiny, has been shut out of the press conference.
According to Fox Business News:
Carlos Ghosn told FOX Business’ Maria Bartiromo this weekend that he has “actual evidence” and documents that will prove that this was a coup to take him down.
Ghosn told Bartiromo that at a press conference this week he plans to name names, including some people behind the Japanese government which he believes, are behind his 2018 arrest over financial misconduct allegations. Ghosn believes “they wanted to take him out” because he was going to merge with Nissan and Renault.
The big questions: who are the suspects, who will be on the J’Accuse list？
Based on talks with Carlos Ghosn, his lawyers and former Nissan and Renault executives here is my list of the unusual suspects .
Yoshihide Suga (Cabinet Spokesman)
Hari Nada (Nissan executive who made a plea bargain with prosecutors)
Hitoshi Kawaguchi (Nissan executive and close friend of Suga)
Akihide Kumada (former special prosecutor, Prime Minister Abe’s pet lawyer)
Toshiaki Ohnuma (Nissan executive who allegedly made a plea bargain with prosecutors)
Masukazu Toyoda (former METI official who seems to have been put on Nissan board just in time to plot Ghosn’s downfall. Nissan spy?)
Phillippe Klein (Renault)
Allegedly was in Renault on November 20th all the “evidence” to prove Ghosn was guilty.
The Japanese government’s lip service towards gender equality is just that, a falsity. In 2015 Abe revised his goal of raising women’s participation from 30% to just 7% in government and 5% in the private sector (Kano, 2018, pg. 8). His own cabinet saw the reduction of 5 female ministers to only 1 after a 2018 cabinet reshuffle (The Asahi Shimbun, 2018). Furthermore, four years on from Prime Minister Abe’s famous Davos speech and Japan’s current ranking has slipped to 117th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index (World Economic Forum, 2018, pg. 11)
A note from Japan Subculture Research Center–The following is an academic essay contributed to the website. As much as possible, we have kept to the original form and structure of the essay, although this may make for stiff reading, it is nonetheless illuminating and we felt it was worthy of being shared.
Gender inequality is amongst the most significant issues facing Japanese society. The stunted participation of Japanese women in the economy is one manifestation of this inequality. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to correct this deficiency through his womenomics policy which seeks to encourage Japanese women’s economic participation. This dissertation asserts that ultimately womenomics will not succeed. The failure of Abe’s policy is a result of three interrelated social and historical factors. Firstly, the discursive construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity emphasises women’s familial responsibilities and limits their options outside of the home. Secondly, based on the notion that women are naturalized as mothers and by extension caretakers, the role of welfare is integral to determining their engagement in the economy. Historically speaking, Japanese welfare practices have not served to encourage women’s participation, rather they have sought to maintain traditional gender divides which relegate women to the home. Finally, Japanese employment patterns which dictate that employees must prioritize the company over the family impedes upon women’s ability to engage in work. The interaction of these three factors renders women’s participation in the Japanese economy highly gendered and unequal. In order for womenomics to succeed it must address and seek to dismantle the structures which inhibit Japanese women’s equal economic participation.
Introduction: 3 0.1 Structure 3 0.2 Methodology 4 Chapter 1: Theorizing Women in the Home and at Work 4 1.1 Gendered Division of Labour 5 1.2 Feminism and the State 7 Chapter 2: The Construction of Motherhood 7 2.1 The Protection of Motherhood Debate 9 Chapter 3: Welfare Politics 12 Chapter 5: Womenomics & Neoliberal Feminism 25 5.1 The Origins of Womenomics 26
2 Lip Service 28
5.3 Neoliberal Feminism 31
Gender inequality remains deeply entrenched in Japan. Despite being one of the most economically developed countries in the world with the 3rd largest GDP, women are continually marginalized in society. Inequality in Japan is manifested in various spheres of life, and in particular is evident in women’s economic participation. In 2014, the Japanese government adopted its womenomics policy which encourages the economic participation of women. This dissertation argues that womenomics will ultimately fail to empower Japanese women because it is a purely economic solution to a cultural, historical, and social problem which is manifesting itself in the economic sphere. This will be demonstrated by analysing 3 factors: firstly, the construction of motherhood, secondly, welfare politics, and finally, employment patterns. The structure of the dissertation is presented below.
The first chapter focuses on the theories of feminism in order to place the Japanese case study within the wider literature of gender inequality. The focus is on theorizing the gendered division of labour and its effects on women’s economic participation. This chapter will also explore the role of the state in producing, sustaining, and reinforcing gender inequality. Overall this section will provide a basis for understanding the broad forces which affect women’s equal economic participation in Japan.
The second chapter explores how the formation of identity in Japan is linked to the gendered division of labour. This section will be engaging with the construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity. Furthermore, it will demonstrate how motherhood has been discursively constructed as the ideal form of “womanhood” and how this in effect obstructs women’s economic participation.
The third chapter builds upon the construction of motherhood by analysing welfare politics. This chapter will demonstrate how Japanese welfare politics limit women’s access to social services which inhibits their ability to engage more equally in the workforce.
The fourth chapter explores employment patterns in Japan. In particular, it analyses how women’s employment has been deeply affected by their identity as mothers and their ability to access welfare. The chapter will demonstrate that gender inequality in Japan persists despite the economic participation of women.
The final chapter will focus on examining the origins of womenomics and its intended outcomes. This section will demonstrate the failure of womenomics to adapt to the outlined barriers and address the basis of true inequality, ultimately rendering it a failure.
This dissertation presents a unique application of feminist scholarship to a non-western country, as such, there are limitations regarding the accessibility of primary sources in English. In order to overcome this barrier, the research focuses heavily on qualitative research and secondary sources conducted by contemporary Japanese scholars writing in English. By focusing on Japanese scholars the dissertation limits western bias while also presenting culturally relevant information. Furthermore, this dissertation uses quantitative data, obtained from global indexes and Japanese government bodies such as the Gender Equality Bureau, to articulate with measurable accuracy the historical experience of Japanese women. In addition to focusing on Japanese scholars writing about the Japanese case, the dissertation also employs broader feminist literature and applies it, where relevant, to demonstrate the universality of gender inequality.
Chapter 1: Theorizing Women in the Home and at Work
In order to understand the roots of Japanese women’s inequality in the labour force, it is vital to examine feminist scholarship which theorizes gender inequality more broadly. The following chapter theorizes the role of women within the family and in the private sphere by engaging with feminist scholars and their perspectives. Firstly, this chapter will begin by engaging with literature on the gendered division of labour to demonstrate how inequalities between men and women are reproduced. Following, it will assess the different characterizations of the state based on feminist international relations theory to determine the role of states in marginalizing women. Overall, this chapter will set the tone for assessing the construction of motherhood, welfare practices, and employment in Japan.
Inequality amongst the sexes can be regarded by assessing the distribution of political power, material goods, economic opportunities, educational advantages, in addition to countless other variables (Chafetz, 1991, pg. 3). Simply put, the degree of stratification based on the aforementioned variables reflects the extent to which women are disadvantaged within society. This is evidenced in Japan where women’s access to economic opportunity is particularly low.
1.1 Gendered Division of Labour
Amongst the structures which contribute to gender stratification, Claudia Geist argues that the gendered division of labour is the primary producer of inequality (2005, pg. 23). Furthermore, the division of labour can be regarded as the principal feature which restricts women’s active participation in the labour force. The gendered division of labour refers to the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid labour conducted by men and women. In particular, it notes the relegation of women to the private sphere to conduct household labour, while men are consigned to the corporate sphere to conduct paid labour (ibid, pg. 24).
Household labour can be understood as the variety of processes associated with maintaining the home (Bianchi et al. 2000, pg. 192). This includes everything from cooking and cleaning, to childcare and eldercare. Household labour is a necessary component of social reproduction which in turn is necessary for capitalism (Elias & Roberts, 2018, pg. 37-39). The term social reproduction refers to child-rearing processes which contribute to the production of healthy and valuable citizens. Social reproduction literature shifts the focus from the production of goods for capitalism to the production of labour for capitalist exploitation (ibid). Furthermore, social reproduction has been naturalized as women’s work (ibid). Feminist scholars are critical of the term “natural” because it is used to dismiss subordination as something that is beyond change (Mies and Federici, 2012, pg. 45).
Across all socially, culturally, and historically different societies men have never been the primary caregivers (Chafetz, 1991, pg. 4). Cross-societal research has indicated a variable degree of male involvement in domestic duties; however, across the board, women have always constituted the primary caregiver in society (ibid). This gendered division of labour is particularly evident in Japan where men are mainly active in the workforce and women are mainly present in the household (Nagase & Brinton, 2017, pg. 445).
Three main approaches have been utilized to understand the determinants of the division of labour: the rational process approach, the relative resource approach, and the gender ideology approach. The rational process approach is founded on the notion that the division of labour is not gendered (Geist, 2005, pg. 25). Actors are motivated by economic maximization (ibid). As such, men and women negotiate a rational division of labour based on which partner earns more and is, therefore, more valuable in the labour market (Kamo, 1994, pg. 350). The second approach is based on the relative resources of partners. The partner with greater resource accessibility is able to negotiate for less involvement in domestic affairs by exchanging resources for reduced responsibility in the domestic realm (ibid). The final approach for understanding the origins of the division of labour focuses on the importance of gender ideology. Feminist scholars contend that the division of labour is not a rational arrangement, rather it is a performance of deeply ingrained gender norms (Geist, 2005, pg. 25). The feminist approach focuses on how gender roles are socialized from a young age and serve to inform men and women about their respective societal roles (Bianchi et al. 2000, pg. 194). Feminists critique the rational process and relative resource approaches for failing to recognize the role gendered ideologies play in inhibiting women’s access to both labour market equality and resource accumulation. This dissertation and the focus on Japanese women’s economic emancipation will demonstrate the validity of the feminist argument. More specifically, the dissertation will highlight the significance of gender norms, specifically motherhood, for attaining both labour market equality and resources.
1.2 Feminism and the State
In order to understand more deeply the role that gender ideology plays in perpetuating the division of household labour it is necessary to examine the role of the state in feminist theory. Feminist international relations (IR) scholars have theorized that the nature of the state has implications for women’s liberation. Liberal feminists characterize the state as a neutral entity which believes strongly in the principles of equality. Under a liberal regime, states which display gender inequality can combat these grievances by incorporating women into the existing institutions and structures of government and economy (Tickner & Sjoberg, 2010, pg. 199). In a critique to liberal feminists, the critical school of feminism finds that the institutions and structures of states are inherently patriarchal. Therefore, separating “male” power from “state” power is impossible (ibid). As such, critical feminist scholars find that the state is unable to liberate women by increasing their visibility because the state itself is the oppressor. An extension of the critical feminist perspective is promoted by the socialist feminist school. Socialist feminist’s regards the state as a patriarchal and capitalist structure predicated on exploiting women’s social reproduction labour to bolster capitalist productivity (Elias and Roberts, 2018, pg. 73). Thus, for socialist feminists, the emancipation of women comes from challenging the structures of both male dominance and market capitalism.
This dissertation demonstrates that Japan is a capitalist patriarchal state. Japanese welfare practices illustrate the inherently male-dominated institutions which reinforce women’s marginalization while the Japanese employment system is predicated on exploiting women’s part-time work. Based on this characterization of the Japanese state this dissertation will demonstrate that womenomics as a policy, which is fueled by liberal feminist principles, is ultimately doomed for failure because the Japanese state is not neutral. In fact, the state can be regarded as reinforcing the gendered division of labour.
Chapter 2: The Construction of Motherhood
This chapter will focus on the construction of motherhood as the dominant identity for Japanese women. The discursive use of motherhood as hegemonic feminity constricts women’s participation in the labour force by placing them in the realm of the home. Hegemonic feminity is based on Gramsci’s definition of hegemony which regards the ideological subordination of one category in light of a different, hegemonic, category (Bates, 1975, pg. 351). This definition is used to describe how variants of gender are constructed and hierarchized (Howson, 2005, pg. 57). In Japan motherhood is the privileged feminity, and therefore the hegemonic feminity. This chapter demonstrates how hegemonic feminity, i.e. motherhood in Japanese society presents one of the largest hurdles for the success of womenomics.
Since the 1900’s women in Japan have been visible in the public sphere primarily as a result of their reproductive capabilities. Factory reforms from the 20th century illustrate the significance of characterizing women through the lens of motherhood. In 1911 the Japanese government ushered in its first-ever labour protection law entitled the “Factory Act of 1911”; the Act was aimed at protecting working women and children (Vera, 1998, pg. 72). These laws provided basic safeguards against overnight work and protection from hazardous industries in addition to maternity leave and nursing breaks for mothers (ibid. pg. 91). Despite resistance from the industry, the Factory Act was passed because it was believed to be serving the national interest (ibid. pg. 76). The government’s justification was that by protecting working women, the state was ensuring the health of mothers and by extension children, or in capitalist terms, the future productive labour force. This characterization is reinforced by the description of working women as the ‘women who are the mothers of the nation’ (kokumin no haha) (ibid). In reality, however, working women tended to be young, unmarried, and childless (Uno, 1999, pg. 14). This distinction was unimportant to the Japanese state. The actuality of motherhood was not as imperative as the potentiality.
In a paradoxical sense, it is worth noting that it is only through the construction of motherhood that Japanese women are afforded labour rights (Vera, 1998, pg. 77). These rights, however, are not granted as rights owed to workers, but, are rather constructed as forms of protection provided by the “paternalistic” state to mothers in need of protection (ibid. pg. 71). This narrative paints Japanese women as passive, dependent, and reliant on the state rather than as individuals with agency and equal dignity to that of a man. The promulgation of the Factory Act provides a glimpse into the significance of motherhood for attaining visibility in Japan’s public sphere. Furthermore, the importance placed on motherhood demonstrates what the Japanese government values. Without the state’s pre-emptive desire to safeguard future labour, working women’s rights would have been wholly dismissed. The primacy of motherhood in Japan is further exemplified by one of the country’s most significant feminist debates.
2.1 The Protection of Motherhood Debate
The Protection of Motherhood Debate (Bosei Hogo Ronsō) unfolded between 1916 and 1919 (Vera, 1998, pg.86). However, the arguments and ideas underpinning the debate transcend these dates. The Protection of Motherhood Debate is significant because it demonstrates the importance of motherhood as an identity and establishes the value of economic independence for Japanese women. The exchange was inspired by feminist trends in Europe. Fukushima Shiro, an editor at the women’s newspaper Fujo Shinbun, was analysing two key feminist developments overseas: the women’s civil rights movement and the mother’s rights movement (ibid). In Europe, these two strands often collided with individual women’s class and race backgrounds causing what Boxer (1982, pg. 552) terms a “mosaic” feminist movement rather than a homogenous movement amongst all European feminists. In Britain, the feminism of the early 20th century was characterized primarily by the growing suffragette movement (British Library Learning, 2018). To contrast, in France, the right to vote, although important, was not the primary concern of French feminists in this same period (Boxer, 1982, pg. 552). French feminists were concerned with improving the conditions related to women’s natural vocation as mothers and carers (ibid). Shiro argued in line with French feminists stating that the more pressing of the two concerns in Japan was the latter question of mother’s rights (Vera, 1998, pg. 86). Fukushima Shiro’s argument reflects the significance of motherhood as an identity in Japanese society and was heavily supported by Hiratsuka Raichō.
Hiratsuka Raichō was a key contributor to the Motherhood Protection Debate. In 1911 Raichō, inspired by the Bluestocking Society in England, founded Japan’s first all-women’s literary magazine entitled Sieto (literally translating to Bluestocking) (Tomida, 2005, pg. 50). In Seito, Hiratsuka advances her idea of ‘the new woman” when she elaborates by saying:
“Fundamentally mothers are the precious source of life. Before women produce children, they are regarded as nothing but mere individual beings, but through their worthwhile act of giving birth to children, their status as trivial individual beings is raised to the point where they are considered to be socially and nationally important beings.”
(Hiratsuka in Tomida, 2004, pg. 255).
Hiratsuka Raichō’s idea of what constitutes “the new woman” furthers the notion that women in Japan were visible only as an extension of their maternal capabilities. Raichō’s ideas were dismissed in 1916 by Yosano Akiko, the second significant contributor to the Motherhood Protection Debate. In the article entitled “I Refuse to Over-Emphasise the Significance of Motherhood” Akiko drew on her own experiences as a mother, poet, and wife to argue that women are defined by more than just their roles as mothers (Tomida, pg.252, 2004). Akiko went on to criticize the notion that child-rearing was a solely female responsibility, citing the importance of fatherly love in children’s lives (ibid). This first phase of the debate reflects the construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity. While Raichō emphasises the importance of childbearing and rearing, Akiko explores the multitude of identities held by women which are marginalized in light of the category of mother. The debate can be read as a uniquely Japanese attempt at problematizing and dismantling gender norms which dictate care and motherhood as naturally feminine.
The Protection of Motherhood Debate reached new heights when Raichō advocated for a stronger state role in protecting motherhood. In 1918 Hiratsuka Raichō published an article outlining the significance of children to society, as future forces of labour, soldiers, and the bearers of national identity (Tomida, pg. 255, 2004). Inspired heavily by the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, Raichō argued that the state should protect mothers through financial support and award their contribution to society. The argument built upon her assumption that women’s value to society is defined in relation to their reproduction and social reproduction activities. Thus, she argues it is through the lens of motherhood, not womanhood that Japanese women should be granted state protection.
The primacy of motherhood over alternate categories, as outlined previously, was troublesome for Akiko, who wrote a counter article arguing for women’s emancipation. Yosano Akiko criticized Raichō’s calls for protection, contending that such practices encourage dependence mentality and likened women to state dependents akin to the elderly and disabled (Vera, pg. 86, 1998). Akiko further recognized that women in this situation would be presented with two equally demeaning options: women’s choice was between dependence on an individual male (father, husband), or, dependence on the patriarchal state (ibid). Both options would continue to constrict women, thus, Akiko argued that economic independence was the only form of true freedom for women. In a critique to both Akiko and Raichō, Yamada Waka, the final significant contributor, promoted the notion of a “family wage” similar to French feminists ideas (ibid, pg. 87) (Boxer, pg. 555, 1982). Waka argued that if men received a family wage the notion of “motherhood protection” would be obsolete (Vere, pg. 87, 1998). Yamada Waka’s proposal sought to maintain the integrity of women’s role in the domestic sphere and, similar to Raichō, she proposed a solution targeted at mothers financial security rather than women’s.
The Protection of Motherhood Debate is particularly significant because it marks one of the first major debates of the Japanese feminist movement, even predating calls for women’s political inclusion. The debate emphasises two significant points. Firstly, the identity of women is largely shaped by their role as mothers in the Japanese context. Secondly, the debate outlines the importance of economic independence for women. Despite varying opinions, each of the contributors is ultimately proposing a vision which seeks to protect women’s economic security. Thus, it is evident that for one to determine the effectiveness of womenomics and understand the economic emancipation of Japanese women in contemporary times it is necessary to examine the influence of motherhood and the constraints it places on realizing true economic empowerment. Motherhood is at the primacy of women’s economic independence because it represents a gender norm which naturalizes the division of labour. Consequently, it is necessary to analyse Japanese welfare practices which could alleviate the burden of motherhood to allow for greater economic participation.
Chapter 3: Welfare Politics
Based on the notion that Japanese women have been, and continue to be, constructed as mothers, this dissertation argues that welfare politics play an essential role in dictating women’s economic empowerment and will determine the overall success of womenomics. The relationship between gender norms and welfare is cyclical and reinforcing. The welfare state, through its redistribution of resources and institutionalization of ideologies is able to shape the distribution of domestic responsibilities (Geist, 2005, pg. 26). The provision of childcare in addition to the overall structure of welfare has significant influences on women’s ability to participate equally in the labour force and thus merits greater attention. I argue that two key features of Japan’s welfare system demand attention for their impact on womenomics. Firstly, this chapter examines the evolution of Japan’s welfare society and the implications this has for reinforcing motherhood. Secondly, it will examine how childcare provisions have been structured as a result of the welfare society and the impact this generates on women’s economic participation. Together, these two elements serve to highlight conditions which are actively constraining women to the domestic realm.
3.1 The Welfare Society
The welfare society is amongst the most powerful mechanisms which reproduces gender hierarchies, institutionalises traditional gender norms, and reinforces the identity of motherhood. The features of this institutionalized society contribute to the failure of womenomics. Following the end of the Second World War, Japan endeavoured on a course to establish welfare provisions. Originally, Japan moved towards welfare expansion (Miura, 2012, pg. 58). However, in the 1970s the country quickly retracted welfare policies after conservative backlash (ibid, pg. 59). Critiques of welfare expansion highlighted the British economic struggles of the period as a “disease” brought on by extensive welfare provisions (ibid). Thus, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government turned toward a different solution, one that was not regarded as impeding upon the economic success of the nation but would influence greatly the level of equality between Japanese men and women.
This new model was epitomised by the slogan of the 1970’s LDP government, which read “towards a Japanese style welfare society” (Watanuki, 1986, pg. 259). The principle of the welfare society was to transfer the responsibility of welfare from governments to families, the community, and society (ibid, pg. 263). Prime Minister Masayoshi Ōhira emphasised the family as the foundation of the welfare society and in 1980 commissioned a 204-page report on “How to Strengthen the Basis of Families (ibid, pg. 264). In practice, the importance placed on the family ensured welfare responsibilities were primarily attributed to the women in households. By conflating family values with state welfare, the Japanese government effectively institutionalized the gendered norms which kept women in the home and therefore out of the labour market (Geist, 2005, pg. 26).
The policy direction towards a welfare society over a welfare state can be read through two lenses: neoliberal, and, feminist. The neoliberal lens articulates an economic justification for the government’s pursuit of this track while the feminist lens seeks to demonstrate how Japan’s welfare society has actively constrained women’s equal participation in the workforce by reinforcing the identity of motherhood.
The welfare society plays a significant role in attributing care based tasks to women through its emphasis on family obligation. This is most evident in the importance placed on a woman’s social reproduction responsibilities. In Japan, the mother is the primary provider of welfare. This notion is reflected in the Family Charter of 1970, which highlights the role of the mother in social reproduction as follows:
“A woman should recognize herself as the best educator of her child. An excellent race is born from excellent mothers…only women can bear children and raise them. Therefore, mothers should be proud and…employment opportunities should be given to those women who have finished raising their children and who still wish to resume working outside the home.”
(Quoted in Mariko 1989, pg. 73)
The ideals presented in the Family Charter can be further evidenced in the stereotype of the ‘Education Mother’ (Kyoiku Mama), whose main responsibility is to ensure her children’s scholastic success and to secure their productive capabilities for the nation’s future exploitation (Uno, pg. 2). Uno describes the ideal Kyoiku Mama as follows:
“She studies, she packs lunches, she waits for hours in lines to register her child for exams and waits again in the hallways while he takes them. She denies herself TV so her child can study in the quiet and she stirs noodles at 11 P.M for the scholars snack”
The Kyoiku Mama is a reflection of the ideal mother in Japanese society because she facilitates the education of an “excellent race”. Furthermore, in keeping with the ideals outlined in the Family Charter, the ideal mother cannot take up employment outside the home since it would distract from her ability to ensure her child’s success. A good mother and a good citizen are conflated under the welfare society model.
Overall, it is evident that Japanese welfare practices naturalize the division of labour by transferring welfare responsibility to mothers. This contributes to the failure of womenomics by inhibiting women’s equal economic participation. On the macro level, the welfare society advocates for a greater sense of family responsibility, while on the micro level, this responsibility falls strictly on women. The welfare society norms have a direct effect on Japanese women’s relegation to the domestic realm and on their access to child care provisions which could allow them to work.
3.2 Childcare Provisions
The welfare society and the gendered norms it institutionalizes reflect the nature of childcare provisions available. In order for womenomics to succeed it must seek to alleviate the childcare burdens which constrict women to the home. Due to the emphasis placed on mothers as primary caregivers and welfare providers, the Japanese government historically limited its involvement in childcare provisions. Early provisions which did exist for childcare can be understood through a strategy of “poverty relief” (Peng, 2000, pg.100). Childcare centres under the purview of the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) existed primarily as safety nets for lone-mothers in the early post-war period (Lambert, 2007, pg. 8). Day-care facilities held strict eligibility criteria which in effect only admitted children of single mothers or sickly fathers who were unable to work and therefore unable to support the family (ibid). These centres existed for the sole purpose of alleviating child-rearing responsibilities for single mothers so that they could pursue jobs beyond the home to maintain economic stability and refrain from falling below the poverty line. The development of day-care institutions was therefore a means of encouraging the poor to work, rather than relying on the state for security (Uno, 1999, pg. 13).
Married women were not entitled to access the early childcare provisions because it would serve to fracture the orthodox gendered division of labour and challenge the role of women in the home. Women’s access to child care services was limited as a consequence of societal norms and formalised application processes which only admitted children of single mothers (Lambert, 2007, pg. 9). Furthermore it was expected that married women gained their financial stability from their husband’s family wage (Peng, 2000, pg. 109). This expectation was codified beyond rhetoric, and the importance of the family in welfare provision was even translated to legal enforcement. Ito Peng identifies the post-war Family Law, which holds family members responsible for one another’s welfare by extending vertically three generations and horizontally amongst spouses, as a site of inequality reproduction (ibid, pg. 91). Family Law, and by extension the obligation of familial care contributes to generous company welfare packages which are calculated based on a male employees dependents such as wives, children and parents (ibid). Welfare packages for male workers are intended to support the gendered division of labour so married women can stay at home. Thus the existence of a family wage along with the lack of childcare accessibility for married women demonstrates how the welfare society’s notion of family obligation is actualized. Furthermore, the lack of childcare accessibility actively enforced women’s position as caregivers and reinforced the primacy of motherhood over all other identities, including workers in the labour market.
Child-care provisions since the early post-war period have marginally expanded as a result of women’s increasing economic participation; however, the ideals of the welfare society continue to plague the reach and accessibility of these services. The distinctions between Yōchien (kindergarten) and Hoikuen (day-care) serve to reinforce the values of the welfare society and the division of labour which relegates the “ideal” women to the private sphere. Yōchien are widely regarded as a place of learning and early socialization, as such, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (Soma and Yamashita, 2011, pg. 136). Contrastingly, Hoikuen, which can offer education, but are primarily care facilities are managed by the MHLW (ibid). In addition, Yōchien holds classes primarily in the morning between 9:00 am and 11:00 am whereas Hoikuen hours mirror the working day (Mariko, 1989, pg. 77). As such, these institutions exist to serve two distinctly different groups. Yōchien are accessible to housewives who are not working and able to mind their children after classes’ end, while Hoikuen exists to serve working mothers. In 1982 only 29.7% of students attended Hoikuen before their elementary education while 64% had attended Yōchien (ibid). The attendance disparity can be attributed to the limited availability of Hoikuen as a result of the perceived social value of the institution. Yōchien conformed to the ideals of the welfare society model by maintaining the primacy of the mother in social reproduction and thus garnered higher prestige (Imoto, 2007 pg. 93). Over time, however, demand for childcare provisions which would permit more women to work has emerged, thus the line between Yōchien and Hoikuen has blurred slightly in recent decades (ibid, pg. 96).
Margarita Abe and Yeong-Soon Kim demonstrate that it is only during the 1990s that a change in childcare provisions, which would permit more women to engage in the labour market, can be regarded (2014, pg. 666-685). The LDP had limited incentive to change childcare provisions from “poverty relief” to “universal accessibility” before the 1990s because it would disrupt the traditional gender arrangements (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676). However, labour shortages since the late 1980s contributed to the rise in female workers, which in turn has spurred a rise in demand for childcare (Lambert, 2007, pg. 2). Traditional middle-class housewives, who were previously relegated to the home, drastically increased their economic participation. In 1955 roughly 10% of married wives engaged in the labour force, yet in 1996 the proportion of middle-class married women in employment reached 50.5% (Peng, 2000, 103). As a result, the demand for childcare services has skyrocketed. In 1995 there were 28,481 children on waiting lists for childcare services (Zhou & Oishi, 2005, pg. 104). To accommodate the rising demand for childcare the LDP government initiated the Angel Plan in 1994 which was intended to expand the access of day-care services beyond just single-mothers (ibid, pg. 101). However, Ito Peng notes that the changes have been insignificant due to a lack of funding (ibid). Based on statistics from the MHLW the demand for childcare services rose to 42,800 in 2003, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the 1994 Angel Plan in providing childcare (Zhou and Oishi, 2005, pg. 104). This failure is further evidenced by the series of government policies which rolled out following the original Angel Plan.
A mere 5 years later the government introduced the “New Angel Plan” in 1999 which was followed by the “Zero Waiting List Plan” in 2001 (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676) and a “New Zero Waiting List Plan” in 2008 (Kawabata, 2015, pg. 42). As an element of womenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his plan to eliminate waiting lists completely by 2017 (Matsui, 2014, pg. 9). Since then Abe has pushed his deadline forward to 2020 (Nikkei Asian Review, 2017). Broadly speaking the aims of each new plan has been relatively identical: to increase the availability of childcare for Japanese children. Each plan has failed to meet this goal (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676).
In 2017 Yuka Ogata, a politician of Kumamoto municipality brought her 7-month old baby to a chamber debate to highlight the lack of childcare services available for working mothers (Demetriou, November 30th 2017). Ogata was met with intense backlash from her colleagues but widespread support from mothers on social media who faced the same challenges (ibid). The politician’s stunt was an effort to highlight that without childcare provisions, mothers are unable to enter the workforce and move beyond the realm of the home.
Despite nearly two decades of increased government involvement in childcare provisions the demand for day-care services is drastically surpassing the supply (Zhou & Oishi, 2005, pg. 103). Thus, while the government has seemingly made some effort to improve access to childcare, as evidenced by the continuous updating of childcare provision policies, ultimately Japan has not succeeded in alleviating the burden of care off of women, making it increasingly difficult for mothers to work. The overall failure of the expansion of Japanese childcare can be attributed to the continued influence of the welfare society in perpetuating gender norms, the nature of Japanese employment and ultimately the failure of womenomics as a policy.
Chapter 4: Employment Patterns
The structure of Japanese employment is influenced by the emphasis placed on motherhood and the ideals of the welfare society. What is critically understood about female employment is the type of work women engage in, primarily part-time work in order to balance their welfare responsibilities. Part-time employment inescapably contributes to inequality between men and women which is reflected in pay gaps along with different career progression tracks. This chapter will first address the construction of the salaryman as a form of hegemonic masculinity which bars women’s access to equal employment. Following, the chapter will analyse why women are saturated in part-time work and how this reinforces the ideals of the welfare society. Overall the chapter serves to demonstrate how the government and corporations maintain traditional family structures which restrict women’s equal participation in the labour market and must be dismantled in order for womenomics to succeed.
Labour in Japan is divided into two distinct categories: regular worker (Seiki) and non-regular worker (Hi-Seiki) (Kano, 2018. Pg.7). It is the balance of these categories that continues to reinforce the gendered division of labour and sustains the ideals of the welfare society. The difference between the two is not simply related to working hours but is greatly influenced by gendered constructs.
4.1 The Construction of Salaryman Masculinity
The conditions of a regular employee effectively disqualify women from being both good citizens, under the terms of the welfare society, and good employees. The construction of the salaryman as a form of hegemonic masculinity and the glorification of the salaryman as the ideal employee has barred women from achieving equal economic opportunity, despite female participation in the labour force, and therefore requires greater analysis to understand why womenomics will fail.
The archetypes of the salaryman (Sararriiman) and corporate warrior (Kigyô Senshi) have been regarded as the foundation of Japan’s economic growth and the success of Japanese corporations. The hyper-visible men ranging between their mid-20s to late 60s in almost uniform-like black suits, white button downs, matching “seven-three” haircuts, and leather briefcases can be spotted crammed together on Tokyo’s subways during morning rush hour and drunkenly stumbling home on the last train in the evening (fig. 1). On the surface, the term salaryman defines a white collar worker (Seiki) in the private sector (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 120). This definition, however, is overly simplified. More accurately a salaryman represents the ideal Japanese worker, which, as the moniker indicates, is a man.
As Dasgupta identifies, the salaryman is a figure of Japanese hegemonic masculinity which stands in direct opposition to the hegemonic femininity of the mother (2003, pg. 118). Following the end of WWII, formerly revered masculinities such as the farmer and soldier were subdued in favour of the corporate warrior/ salaryman (ibid, pg. 122). That is not to say that the values which underpinned the former masculinities have been erased. In fact, the opposite is true. The attributes which underpin the core values of Japan’s Samurai (warrior) class come to also colour the character of the salaryman. Loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and endurance are integral features of the salaryman and they are reflected through the salaryman’s commitment to the corporation (ibid, pg. 120). Part of the contract between the salaryman and his employer stipulates the understanding that it is the employee’s duty to prioritize the needs of the corporation before his own (Miura, 2012, pg. 23).
Japanese salarymen are stereotypically known for working long egregious hours as part of their commitment to the company. The typical salaryman works well past the average 8-hour day, with over 60% reporting a minimum 10-hour working day (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 515). The burden of overwork is so deeply embedded in Japanese salaryman culture that death by overwork and suicide from overwork are common phenomena (Kyodo, 2002). The normalization of overwork has significant impacts on the gendered division of labour. Claudia Geist’s empirical study demonstrates that men’s participation in the household is highly dependent on the amount of time they spend working (Geist, 2005, pg. 26). Similarly, a case study conducted by Nobuko Nagase and Mary C. Brinton concludes that Japan’s overwork employment practices inhibits male participation in domestic duties and actualizes the role of women as primary caretakers (2017, pg. 362). These studies indicate that individual beliefs about gender equality influence the division of labour less than systemic employment conditions which prioritize loyalty to corporations over family.
Salarymen’s unwavering commitment to the company, and by extension their invisibility in the domestic realm, is not accidental as it is taught through media and therefore is a gendered construct (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 124). Keniichi Suzuki’s “What Men Need to Do in Their 20’s” instructs incoming salarymen that economic success comes from dedication. Specifically, Suzuki states that the word “no” should not exist in the vocabulary of an entry-level salaryman (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 124). Keniichi Suzuki’s instructional manual demonstrates how long working hours are not simply a product of the Japanese work environment, rather, they are an integral feature of the identity of the salaryman. Overwork and the sacrifice of a personal life are constructed as a heroic display of commitment to the company, akin to the sacrifices made by warriors for the nation (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 514). Since sacrifice of the personal life is a glorified aspect of the salaryman identity, working women are required to mirror this hegemonic masculinity, or, opt out of full-time employment. Women who attempt to juggle welfare society expectations with employer expectations are unable to commit to the same extent as their male counterparts and are thus characterized as “weak” (ibid).
Kumiko Nemoto highlights that promotion for women is synonymous with childlessness (2013, pg. 514). Prejudice against Japanese women in the Seiki working track is rampant. As recently as 2018, Tokyo Medical University, one of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions came under fire for altering female applicants test scores to lower the number of women entering the university from 40% to less than 30% (BBC, 2018). When questioned, the university officials claimed that their “silent understanding” for lowering women’s test scores was driven by the assumption that “female students who graduate [would] end up leaving the actual medical practice to give birth and raise children” (ibid). Tokyo Medical University argued that women’s child-rearing responsibilities led to staff shortages and added strain to an already overburdened healthcare system (Todd and Reese, 2018). A similar case of test score tampering was uncovered at Jutendo University and Kitasato University (ibid). The example of these universities illustrates how presumptions about a women’s welfare responsibilities have actively lead to a compromise in women’s economic opportunity and must therefore be addressed by womenomics. This type of prejudice against female professionals is not rare in Japan; in fact, while the Tokyo Medical University scandal received scrutiny and overseas coverage, it is a mere reflection of the society-wide problem.
The division of women as workers and mothers in Japanese corporate life is significant for understanding why womenomics will fail. Sayaka Osakabe, the founder of Matahara, an organization dedicated to opposing the rampant maternity harassment of Japanese corporations, advocates for the fair treatment of pregnant women in the workforce. Osakabe notes that maternity harassment is a widespread form of power abuse which forces women out of employment as a result of pregnancy (Hall, 2017). In 2015, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation released a report which indicated 20.9% of women experienced such harassment (ibid). This is particularly telling since, women are severely underrepresented in Japanese unions and thus it can lead us to believe that these figures are much higher when addressing not only unionized female employees but all female employees.
Maternity harassment is a widespread practice because Japanese companies believe that child-rearing will take away from an employee’s efficiency. This belief is termed “the motherhood penalty” and greatly impacts a women’s career progression; the same is obviously not true for men since men’s status as fathers has no influence on their progression as employees (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 514). This juxtaposing treatment of female and male parents in the workforce is a direct result of the ideologies reinforced by the welfare society. Due to welfare responsibilities, regular working women are often pushed out of full-time employment at the cusp of motherhood. As a result of the demands of the regular working track, Japanese women are more often relegated directly into the part-time category to ensure they can balance welfare and work responsibilities.
4.2 Part-Time Work
As a result of the impossible to emulate salaryman characteristics and the lack of accessible childcare, Japanese women are saturated in the part-time career track. The relegation of women to part-time work further solidifies the gendered division of labour, fails to encourage women’s equal economic participation, and presents a hurdle for womenomics.
Women’s part-time work can be regarded as the product of the tension between governments and corporations. The patriarchal state promotes women’s role as mothers and caretakers under its welfare society model and as such requires women to be relegated to the home, but, Japanese corporations, who look to maximize profit through additional labour exploitation, seek to encourage women’s participation in the labour force. Part-time work is regarded as the compromise between these two spheres as it allows for women’s labour to be exploited while their continued primacy remains within the home (Broadbent, 2002, pg. 60).
Pato (part-timer) is a highly gendered term used to define female part-time workers, traditionally working housewives (Miura, 2012, pg. 25). This is evidenced by the fact that 90% of pato in 2005 were women (ibid). The saturation of women in the pato category is a result of women’s restricted access to childcare. Mizuki Kawabata’s research in Tokyo demonstrates that 72% of women with children under the age of 5 want to work, but only 37% of those women are actually in employment (2014, pg. 42). Similarly, figure 2 from the MHLW demonstrates that the majority of Japanese mothers are unemployed before their children reach school age, and when they do enter employment it is primarily on a part time basis.
Percent Distribution of Mothers Occupation Status by Childs Age Group
Source: Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare
The volume of part-time workers is significant for women’s economic emancipation because pato earn marginally more than minimum-wage (Miura, 2012, pg. 25). This contributes to high levels of wage-inequality between Japanese men and women, as evidenced by figure 3.
Gender Pay Gap Comparison of OECD Countries
Wage inequality also ensures that it is increasingly difficult for Japanese women to enjoy economic security without marriage. Furthermore, as a result of the competitive nature of the salaryman, Japanese men are discouraged from taking a more active role in care giving responsibilities. Part-time employment is therefore a supplement to the pre-existing single-male breadwinner model and contributes to the failure of womenomics (Broadbent, 2002, pg. 57).
4.3 The “M” Curve
When graphed, the employment patterns of Japanese women follow an “M” curve (fig 4.).
Women’s Labour Force Participation by Age Group
Source: Gender Equality Bureau of Japan
The employment rate peaks around the age of 20 when women began graduating from university and continues to rise steadily till women reach child-bearing age, and then the level of female employment drops drastically. The valley in the “M” curve exists until children have reached school age, at which point mothers re-enter the workforce and a second peak in women’s employment is regarded and sustained until retirement. As demonstrated by figure 4, the labour force participation of women from others countries is less impacted by motherhood. The “M” curve and Japanese women’s employment pattern is therefore particularly unique. The steep valley in the “M” curve reflects the lost labour potential of Japanese women. Furthermore, the existence of this off-ramping reduces women’s skills progression and negatively influences their ability to move up the corporate ladder into managerial and senior positions. As a result of the off-ramping, the only option for women re-entering the workforce is part-time employment. Overall, the “M” curve is a consequence of the welfare responsibilities women must undertake when they become mothers and the lack of childcare provisions which would enable them to continue working and raise children.
Based on the salaryman model and the structure of part-time employment it is evident that even when Japanese women are participating in the labour market their work is not equal. The disparity between men and women’s economic participation is the result of welfare responsibilities and the construction of motherhood. Japanese women cannot access regular worker tracks without sacrificing personal aspirations. Women who choose to engage in work and family life must compromise by entering the part-time workforce which provides limited career opportunities. Thus, the fair and equal treatment of Japanese working women should be the main priority of the government’s womenomics policy.
Chapter 5: Womenomics & Neoliberal Feminism
Previous chapters have effectively sought to analyse the construction of motherhood, the ideologies of the welfare society, and employment patterns in the evolution of women’s economic participation in Japan. Together these sections have demonstrated the barriers which restrict women’s full participation in the labour market and by extension their economic emancipation. The emergence of womenomics as a policy is the culmination of this evolution and a proposed solution to bolster women’s economic participation. I argue that womenomics is ultimately doomed to fail because it is an economic solution to what is principally an economic problem caused by cultural, societal, and historical barriers. Government policy seeking to promote women’s economic participation must, therefore, fully address the barriers I have identified throughout this dissertation to enact genuine change. This chapter will illustrate that womenomics as an economic policy appropriates liberal feminist branding, while ultimately failing to drive women’s overall economic emancipation because it disregards the historical roots of women’s oppression. The chapter will first analyse the emergence of womenomics as an economic solution for declining growth. Then it will demonstrate how womenomics has transcended into the realm of policy as a tool for boosting Japan’s public image. Finally, it will demonstrate the neoliberal roots of the policy.
5.1 The Origins of Womenomics
As evidenced by its name, the emergence of womenomics as a policy is driven by economic need, rather than the principles of equality. Womenomics has been posited as the solution to Japan’s economic stagnation; this is particularly evident when tracing the emergence of the policy. Kathy Matsui, Vice Chair and Chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, has been advocating a women-centric solution to Japan’s economic crisis since 1999. The Goldman Sachs report penned by Matsui et. al “Women-omics: Buy the Female Economy” proposes that by increasing female labour participation the Japanese economy can continue to grow. Matsui predicts that by closing the gender gap Japan’s GDP could increase by 13% (Matsui et al, 2014, pg. 1). The argument identifies that male employment rates in Japan are essentially at capacity (Matsui et al, 1999, pg. 1). Therefore growth, for the Japanese economy depends on an additional, novel source of labour. Three potential solutions are presented by Matsui for policy consideration: Firstly, the government should focus on increasing the birth rate, secondly, greater support for emigration to Japan should be provided to drive new labour sources, finally, the government can capitalise on women and the role they can play in the labour market. When assessing these options the report states that the government’s attempts to increase the birth rate have been met with overwhelming failure (Matsui et al, 1999, pg. 8). The second option proposed by the report is to increase immigration to Japan. However, as noted by Matsui, this remains largely taboo in society and among politicians (ibid). This leads the authors to conclude that women’s increased participation in the labour force is among the most feasible of the recommendations for a revitalized Japanese economy. The chronology and structure of the report begins by problematizing a solution for Japan’s economic situation, where women only enter the dialogue as a tool for economic growth. Thus, the emergence of womenomics is derived not from an interest to empower women, rather a desire to fuel the economy.
Four volumes of Goldman Sachs Womenomics report have been published since Matsui’s original proposal in 1999. In the 2014 edition entitled “Womenomics 4.0: It’s Time to Walk the Talk” Matsui indicates that:
“Japan has more to gain than most countries from raising female labour participation” (Matsui et al. 2014, pg. 2)
More than 15 years after the original report, and the language used by Kathy Matsui to promote womenomics has remained almost identical. It articulates what the nation has to gain from female labour participation and not what women themselves have to gain and hence illustrates the values which drive the policy of womenomics.
Furthermore, Matsui assumes participation is equivalent to empowerment. However, as noted in previous chapters, women are already actively participating in the Japanese economy and will continue to do so. However, participation itself is fundamentally unequal due to the pressures of motherhood and the structure of regular and non-regular working tracks. Matsui’s proposal to raise women’s participation rates in the labour market makes no consideration of the welfare society ideologies which constrict women to the domestic realm. In essence, the report argues an overall increase in women’s burden by promoting further labour participation with no outline for balancing welfare responsibilities. Despite the lack of depth and consideration in Matsui’s womenomics proposal, the ideas have transcended into the realm of policy. The appropriation of womenomics into the realm of policy is fundamentally the result of economic necessity and a need to improve Japan’s international standing. Womenomics first appeared in Japanese politician’s vernacular in 2014. At the annual 2014 Davos summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech which for the first time alluded to Matsui’s ideas of achieving economic success through increased female labour participation. Abe, taking note of Japan’s “super ageing population” inquired to the audience about where Japan may seek to find the human capital it desperately desired for growth (2014). His answer mimicked the now 15-year-old report by Matsui. Abe declared “the female labour force in Japan [as] the most under-utilized resource” (ibid). The immediate comment made by Prime Minister Abe upon announcing womenomics as a policy course mirrored Matsui’s notion that womenomics could serve the economy. From the onset, Abe did not frame womenomics as a policy to increase women’s equality or bolster the position of women in society. Instead, he sought to alleviate the burden on the Japanese economy by referring to women as “resources”.
In addition to the economic factors which motivated the adoption of womenomics by Abe, there is a clear desire to utilize womenomics to bolster the image of Japan in the eyes of the international community. In the 2014 Global Gender Index Japan ranked 104th out of 142 countries (World Economic Forum, 2014). The World Economic Forum’s index is calculated based on four factors: Economic Participation & Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health & Survival, and Political Empowerment (ibid). Japan’s low score overall is a result of its poor showing in economic participation & opportunity and in political empowerment (ibid). Data for the Global Gender Index is derived from the visibility of women in political positions and managerial positions in the workforce. Thus, in order for Japan to raise its overall standing the government needed to focus on improving these two factors (Kano, 2018, pg. 4). Womenomics, with its central focus on encouraging women’s participation, increases the visibility of Japanese women and consequently should lift Japan’s international standing. In 2014, Abe announced that 30% of leadership positions would be occupied by women in 2020 (Kano, 2018, pg. 2). In an effort to move towards his target, the Prime Minister appointed 5 women to his cabinet (ibid, pg. 4). One year later Japan’s place on the Global Gender Index jumped to 101 (World Economic Forum, 2015) and its ranking for political empowerment improved from 125th to 104th. Therefore as Ayako Kano notes, the Abe administration’s goal of increasing women’s representation by 30% can be viewed as a performative nod to progressive liberal ideologies without actualizing significant socio-cultural change (2018, pg. 4). The Japanese government’s lip service towards gender equality is just that, a falsity. In 2015 Abe revised his goal of raising women’s participation from 30% to just 7% in government and 5% in the private sector (Kano, 2018, pg. 8). His own cabinet saw the reduction of 5 female ministers to only 1 after a 2018 cabinet reshuffle (The Asahi Shimbun, 2018). Furthermore, four years on from Prime Minister Abe’s famous Davos speech and Japan’s current ranking has slipped to 117th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index (World Economic Forum, 2018, pg. 11). These changes are drastic and they allude to the Abe’s inability to genuinely understand how the interaction of welfare, motherhood, and employment intersect to limit women’s equal economic participation. The administration is not completely blind to the social challenges women face. The LDP, has a vested interested in maintaining the status quo and upholding traditional gender norms (Kano, 2018, pg. 2). However, the government is aware that a degree of social change is necessary for propelling women into the workforce. Without a shift in domestic responsibilities, the womenomics project which aims to contribute to the growth of Japan’s economy will remain idle. Thus, a few nods, as a part of womenomics, have been made in the direction of altering societal norms. Firstly, Abe has acknowledged that access to childcare is a significant hurdle for women’s employment (Abe, 2014). Therefore, the Prime Minister declared his governments support for childcare expansion by building upon existing actions like the Angel Plan and Zero Waitlist Plan with a new promise to eliminate waitlists by 2017 (Matsui et al, 2014, pg. 9). As previously established, the government has failed to attain this goal with over 55,333 children reportedly on waitlists as of 2018 (Jiji, 2018). Abe was not merely unsuccessful in eliminating the childcare burden, but the argument stands that the government was hardly invested in the issue to start with. Rather than increasing government spending to support the provision of childcare, Abe has sought a solution based on outsourcing Japan’s care needs.
In his Davos speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that “support from foreign workers will also be needed for help with housework, care for the elderly and the like” (Abe, 2014). The statement indicates that the Japanese government is aware of the welfare barriers currently weighing on Japanese women and impacting their economic participation. Abe’s response to these hurdles is the mere transferal of domestic responsibilities to foreign workers. In the 1970s the government transferred welfare to women, and in 2014 it seems the next transfer will be to migrant workers. Japan will thus become incorporated into the transnational care economy which is predicated on the basis of creating a care deficit in one country (almost always a developing one) in order to absorb the care demands of another (Lutz, 2011, pg. 22). Although Abe’s use of “workers” is gender neutral, the reality is that transnational care economies are highly gendered. Domestic work has become the largest sector fuelling women’s migration and is characterized by unfair pay, restrictions on freedom, and poor social security (ibid. pg. 19). Womenomics, therefore, encourages the exploitation of foreign women. The ease with which the Prime Minister encourages migration to alleviate Japanese women’s welfare responsibilities reflects his government’s willingness to exploit both migrant women and Japanese women. Thus, it is evident that womenomics is motivated by economic principles rather than egalitarian ones. Helma Lutz inquires:
“Why despite the waning significance of the housewife marriage … has there been no redistribution of family or care work between gender groups? Why is it preferable to pass on this work to another woman from another country?”
Abe privileges migrant women over domestic men as caretakers because transnational care economies fundamentally maintain the gendered hierarchies of society. The invisibility of Japanese men in Abe’s Davos speech is stark and their place in womenomics is, if anything, purely ceremonial.
In an effort to pander at the most basic level to international critiques and domestic opponents, the Abe government has targeted male participation in domestic duties as a way of promoting women’s employment. A new government-backed trend ikumen (handsome men who partake in domestic duties) has been advertised as the changing force in Japan’s domestic division of labour (The Japan Times, 2016). The government has even launched awards for companies which encourage their male employees to take paternity leave (Fleming, 2018). The glossy media coverage ikumen has received is far from the reality it is attempting to portray. Kumiko Nemoto’s research at two major Japanese companies found that male attitudes towards child leave, despite employer encouragement, remained negative. Only one man, from both companies took child care leave (2013, pg. 522). Furthermore, the same employee revealed his decision to take leave was not based on a desire to conform to the ikumen standard but rather was, in the ideal salaryman way, an act of loyalty to his company. The employee stated that:
“If one man takes childcare leave in a firm, the Japanese government approves the firm as being family-friendly and adds it to the list of family-friendly companies. The company needed one man. I had to sacrifice myself. It was just for the image of the firm. It might be better for the profits of the firm…. Nobody wants to take such leave. When you take childcare leave, you get a 3.3 per cent reduction in your salary.”
(Nemoto, 2013, 522).
The salaryman’s reservations about child leave are not completely unfounded. Stefanie Anne Aronsson argues that it is actually “economically rational” for Japanese women to take child care over men, because from the onset the perception of women as mothers has limited their ability to earn as highly as their male counterparts (2016, pg.35). Thus, the ikumen project, more than anything, is simply a discursive marketing strategy being employed by the government to improve the image of Japanese gender divisions without addressing the true employment inequality women face.
5.3 Neoliberal Feminism
Abe’s womenomics represents a new wave of feminism: neoliberal feminism. Hester Eisenstein explains that Neoliberal feminism, also labelled “transnational business feminism”, is based on the notion that women are untapped resources who represent the solution to capitalisms downfalls (2017, pg. 38). This is evidenced by the way both Kathy Matsui and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have spoken about women as the solution to Japan’s economic stagnation. The main focus of neoliberal feminism is to incorporate women into the structures of capitalism (ibid, pg. 45). McRobbie has dubbed neoliberal feminism a “faux-feminism” (2009, pg. 119) because the “revolutionary demands of feminism have been reduced by capitalism” to reflect that paid work and political visibility are equal to liberation (Eisenstein, 2017, pg. 37). The emerging notion that economic participation can be equated to women’s liberation focuses primarily on the individual with little concern for the wider political and social systems which have historically been responsible for women’s oppression (ibid, pg. 42). Eisenstein’s point is clearly reflected in the reality of Abe’s womenomics policy, which has failed to challenge the existing social structures of welfare, employment, and motherhood to empower women. Thus, when characterising Abe’s womenomics as a new neoliberal form of feminism it is necessary to inquire about who wins and who loses as a result of this pseudo-feminist policy (Kano, 2018, pg. 8).
It is undeniable that womenomics will produce “winners”, most obviously the Japanese economy and corporations, but also some women’s economic independence will be improved as a result of the policy. Part of the womenomics agenda has been to encourage the promotion of women to managerial positions. The International Labour Organization released a report to commemorate International Women’s Day this year, which details that only 12% of management positions in Japan are occupied by women (2019, pg. 30). This is only a 3.6% increase in representation of women in management since 1991 (Tanaka, 2019).
In 2015 the administration passed legislation that requires businesses with over 300 employees to set quotas and targets for women to achieve leadership positions (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre). However, there is no enforcement to ensure companies comply with their self-set targets, as well as no penalties for failing to advance women (BBC News, 2018). Furthermore, as previously indicated corporations and the government have made marginal progress with regards to childcare accessibility this in effect disqualifies mothers from attaining management positions. Evidently, womenomics is not succeeding in bolstering women’s rise to leadership. Women who are advancing to management are those who are willing and able to mirror the salaryman lifestyle, i.e. do not have welfare and childcare responsibilities (Nemoto, 2013, pg.513) (Aronsson, 2012, pg. 47). Ultimately no changes have been made by the administration to challenge the status-quo employment practices which privilege total commitment to the employer over a work-life balance, which could drastically improve the prospects of women who seek to enter senior positions. Women who seek to pursue a family life and career will be faced with a “struggle and juggle” dilemma as a result of the welfare responsibilities and unfair employment practices which will continue to persist under womenomics (Kano, 2018, pg. 7). With regards to certain women’s progression as a result of womenomics, Ayako Kano poses an important question:
“Rather than all women being treated as second-class citizens because of their gender, if some women would be treated as first class… would this be a step forward or back?”
(2018, pg. 10)
In response to Ayako’s question, I argue that this division of elite and non-elite women is, in fact, a step back for the women’s liberation project because it fails to dismantle the social structures which are constricting Japanese women. The creation of “elite” women would distract from addressing the lived inequality faced by most women in society. Furthermore, while Aronsson (2012, pg. 9) argues that elite women may act as role models, the fact remains that until socio-cultural inequalities are address by womenomics there will be little improvement.
Thus it can be understood that womenomics will privilege a certain type of women but will fail to emancipate women as a whole. In the words of Ayako Kano womenomics presents “an uncomfortable marriage between feminism and neoliberalism” (2018, pg. 1). It isn’t genuine concern for women’s empowerment which is driving Japan’s turn to womenomics but rather a desire to grow the economy at the expense of women. As such, feminists should be dubious about womenomics and the promises it seeks to make.
“The roots of gender inequality are not found in women’s exclusion from production per se, but rather in the material and ideological separation of production from social reproduction”
(Roberts, 2015, pg. 219).
Adrienne Robert’s remarks are particularly valuable for understanding the failure of womenomics as a policy. Women’s marginalization in Japan will not be reversed as a result of their increased visibility in the labour force. In fact, for most women, inequality will only be furthered as they are forced into a double work-shift to try and manage welfare and workfare responsibilities. Womenomics will undoubtedly increase the number of working women. However, these workers will largely be relegated to part-time employment because womenomics does not challenge the ideological foundations which continue to construct women as primary caretakers and welfare providers. In order to genuinely challenge gender inequality a serious attempt at dismantling gender norms such as motherhood and reformulating welfare and employment practices is necessary.
This dissertation has demonstrated how identity formation, and the primacy of motherhood, has influenced the accessibility of welfare for Japanese women and further characterized their role as employees. Without fully addressing the social, cultural and historical roots of women’s oppression, Japan’s search for growing women’s participation is doomed for failure.
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Fahreen Budhwani is currently completing her Masters in Gender, Policies and Inequalities at the London School of Economics. Her passion for gender intersects with her love of Japan and fasciation with Japanese politics and institutions. Alongside her studies, Fahreen is the co-host of a Feminist Podcast titled “Super Smash Hoes”. Along with her co-host Erika, the two girls explore society, gender and culture in Japan.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.
Note: Theories abound as to how mahjong originated in China. Some say the inventor was Confucius who played it, was hooked and ultimately abandoned it because of its addictive nature, some time in the 6th century B.C. In its present state, mahjong is played with 136 to 144 rectangular tiles, over a table seating 3 to 4 players. All the tiles are marked with Chinese characters and symbols.The goal of the game, simplified, is to get a mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can either be a “pung,” which is three identical tiles, or a “chow,” which is a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit. A single tile cannot be used in two sets at once. In the west, the closest thing is gin rummy. In Japan, mahjong has been around since the 1900s and is a semi-legitimized form of gambling, provided the stakes are low. It used to be the favorite past-time of college students and bored reporters in the police press club.
On March 17, the day that character actor and performer Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) was arrested for possession of cocaine, the producers of the film Mahjong Horoki (Mahjong Chronicles) inwhich Taki appears in a significant role, held an emergency meeting. First item on the agenda: to open the film on the slated date of April 5, or to scrap it? Already the Japanese media was moving to make Taki disappear – all his endorsements, events and TV appearances were cancelled. A concert scheduled for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, evaporated. NHK even rubbed out all of Taki’s scenes in their prime time Sunday night drama Idaten, (including those already aired), making preparations to shoot everything all over again.
Taki had never sold on a nice-guy image but this scandal was huge, packing enough explosives to rock Mahjong Horoki 2020’s distributor company Toei, from its very foundations. After much discussion, the makers of the film – in particular director Kazuya Shiraishi, Taki’s long-time friend, pushed for a go. Letters were sent out to the press explaining the move, and why Shiraishi decided not to slash any of Taki’s scenes before opening. “Taki’s arrest is not the movie’s fault,” said the letter. Fair enough and a good thing, too. “Mahjong Horoki 2020” is weird, gross and ultimately appealing – it’s a celebration, among other things, of the sheer, raging wonders of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). So much, that the last 31 years of the Heisei era start to look like a bland, blah wasteland. As a line in the movie aptly describes it, “the only thing anyone does around here is to live a long, long time.” Ouch.
Still, the Heisei era should be given credit for supplying Shiraishi with the iPhone 8, (eight of them to be exact) that he deploys in shooting the film. The colors schemes are too lurid, and the jittery, hand-held effect doesn’t really work in scenes with open spaces but the device is brilliant for close-ups, of which there is plenty, including Taki’s scary, deadpan visage.
Taki plays a man called Mori – and he’s the kind of snide, rude, power-hungry asshole that Pierre Taki portrays to perfection. Mori is the director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is abruptly cancelled with the breakout of WWIII. A very pissed off Mori vows to hold an Olympics of something, and as the story progresses that something turns out to be mahjong. On the Friday that the movie opened, Pierre Taki was released on bail and director Shiraishi announced in a press conference that he hoped the Japanese public would “laud and encourage” Taki, once he was rehabilitated and reinstated as a media figure.
Speaking of reinstated, another intriguing presence in the movie is Becky, the half-British, half-Japanese comedienne whose career was all but obliterated following a noisily publicized affair with a married musician. In Japan, infidelity is a serious offense among celebrities, perhaps more so than drug use. Becky was benched for over 2 years while her partner in crime came out relatively unscathed (which is another can of worms labelled gender discrimination). In “Mahong…,” she stars in a double role – first as a mysterious club hostess with incredible mahjong skills, and next as the android “AI Yuki,” programmed to win against the most talented mahjong player.
As you may have guessed, Mahjong...is defined by and obsessed with, the titular game. Based on the first of the 4-part novel series by Tetsuya Asada (aka Takehiro Irokawa) published in 1969, Mahjong…recreates the blood, sweat and tears backdrop of Tokyo’s immediate postwar years as well as highlight the dark grotesqueness that often accompanies the game. Unlike pachinko, mahjong comes under illegal gambling and liable for prosecution, as in the case of a mayor who was arrested in the middle of a game in Fukuoka prefecture 3 years ago. Like pachinko however, the police turn a blind eye to most mahjong players and the “jyanso,” or mahjong houses that host them. As long as the stakes are low, the cops won’t come bursting in – theoretically. The crossover line is 200 yen at 1000 points, which roughly adds up to about 30,000 yen an hour for the winner.
In Japan, one hears of fantastic mahjong stories, like the woman who won 550,000 yen on a single night and then lost double that amount in her next game. Or the guy who put up his home as collateral and how his wife and kids found themselves on the street even as he holed up in a jyanso to turn his luck. When it comes to addiction and self-destruction, mahjong players are in a league of their own and the tumble into the mud sludge of debt generally comes quicker than anyone bargains for. The consequences (since most jyanso are owned and operated by the yakuza) can be severe. Tetsuya Asada’s novel series laid it all out, tracing the life of the protagonist “Boya (which means little boy) Tetsu.” At first, Tetsu was a fresh-faced 16-year old mahjong rookie, being groomed for the game by the pros in Tokyo in 1945, when the city was nothing but ash and rubble. In the last volume, Tetsu is a salariman in his his early 30s, struggling to break free of his addiction (and failing) as Japan gears up to become the world’s number one economy.
Mahjong Horoki was adapted to the screen once before, in 1984 by Makoto Wada. A young and perky Hiroyuki Sanada played Tetsu, and Mariko Kaga played his benefactor and the story’s mahjong goddess. Now in 2020, those roles have gone to Takumi Saito and Becky, respectively. Saito is best known for having cornering the market on degenerate, sexy dude roles but now in his late 30s, the role of Little Boy Tetsu may be a stretch (in the story, he’s also supposed to be a virgin. No way.). But to Saito’s credit, Tetsu’s addiction to the game oozes out of his every pore. The guy can only think of one thing: to sit at the mahjong table and play for the kind of stakes that, even if he wins, would destroy his soul forever.
Japan has changed beyond recognition since Asada penned the original novel series, but addiction – as this movie abundantly illustrates – is a monster that never dies.