Women in Japan

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Women in Japan
Kimono lady at Gion, Kyoto.jpg
A maiko dressed in a kimono, in Kyoto
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.131 (2012)
Rank 21st
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 5 (2010)
Women in parliament 13.4% (2012)
Females over 25 with secondary education 80.0% (2010)
Women in labour force 63.6% employment rate[1]
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value 0.6498 (2013)
Rank 105th out of 136

While women in Japan were recognized as having equal legal rights to men after World War II, economic conditions for women remain unbalanced.[3] Modern policy initiatives to encourage motherhood and workplace participation have had mixed results.[4] While a high percentage of Japanese women are college graduates,[5] and many hold jobs, they typically earn 40% less than their male counterparts, and make up 77% of the part-time work force.[6] Resilient traditional expectations for married women and mothers, and women's rejection of those roles, is cited as a barrier to full economic equality.[7]

Cultural history

The extent to which women could participate in Japanese society have varied over time and social classes. In the 8th century, Japan had women emperors, and in the 12th century (Heian period), women in Japan could inherit property in their own names and manage it by themselves: "Women could own property, be educated, and were allowed, if discrete, to take lovers (sic)".[8]

From the late Edo period, the status of women declined. In the 17th century, the “Onna Daigaku,” or “Learning for Women,” by Confucianist author Kaibara Ekken, spelled out expectations for Japanese women, stating that "such is the stupidity of her character that it is incumbent on her, in every particular, to distrust herself and to obey her husband."[9]

During the Meiji period, industrialization and urbanization reduced the authority of fathers and husbands, but at the same time the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 (specifically the introduction of the "ie" system) denied women legal rights and subjugated them to the will of household heads.[10]

After World War II, the legal position of women was redefined by the occupation authorities, who included an equal rights clause in the 1947 Constitution and the revised Civil Code of 1948. Individual rights were given precedence over obligation to family. Women as well as men were guaranteed the right to choose spouses and occupations, to inherit and own property in their own names, and to retain custody of their children.

Behavioral expectations

Japanese girls at a Pachinko arcade in Ikebukuro

In interviews with Japanese housewives, researchers found that socialized feminine behavior in Japan followed several patterns of modesty, tidiness, courtesy, compliance, and self-reliance.[11] Modesty extended to silence in actions and conversation. Tidiness included personal appearance and a clean home. Courtesy, another trait, was called upon from women in domestic roles and in entertaining guests, extended to activities such as preparing and serving tea.

Lebra's traits for internal comportment of femininity included compliance; for example, children were expected not to refuse their parents. Self-reliance of women was encouraged because needy women were seen as a burden on others. In these interviews with Japanese families, Lebra found that young girls were assigned helping tasks while young men were more inclined to be left to schoolwork.[11] Lebra's work has been critiqued for focusing specifically on a single economic segment of Japanese women.[12]

Political status of women

The Japanese Constitution, drafted by the US and adopted in the post-war era, provided a legal framework favorable to the advancement of women’s equality in Japan.[5] Women were given the right to vote in 1946. This allowed them greater freedom, equality to men, and a higher status within Japanese society. Other postwar reforms opened education institutions to women and required that women receive equal pay for equal work. In 1986, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect. Legally, few barriers to women's equal participation in the life of society remain. However, socially they lack opportunities in the workforce due to the long work hours and dominance in the workplace by men.

In a global survey of women in parliaments, Japan ranked 123rd out of 189 countries.[13] In Japan’s Diet (or parliament), women hold slightly less than 10% of seats despite a government goal for 30% of elected officials to be women by 2020.[5] In the lower house of the Diet, women hold only 8% of seats, with 19% in the upper house.[13] Less than 1% of mayors were women.[14]

The Japanese government has shown a will to address this problem in the 21st century of the Heisei period through several focused initiatives,[15] and a 2012 poll by the Cabinet Office found that nearly 70% of all Japanese polled agreed that men were given preferential treatment.[16]

Professional life

File:Fukuoka Office Ladies.jpg
Office workers in Fukuoka, Japan

During the 21st century, Japanese women are working in higher proportions than the United States's working female population.[3] Income levels between men and women in Japan are not equal; the average Japanese woman earns 40 percent less than the average man, and a tenth of management positions are held by women.[3] Women are often found in part time or temporary jobs. 77% of these jobs were filled by women in 2012.[6] Among women who do work, women-only unions are small in size and in relative power.[17]

Despite recent government efforts to encourage participation in the work force, many women (nearly half) simply don’t want to work, preferring to remain at home and raise children.[18][19] This is at odds with the desires of Japanese men, of whom four out of five say they want a future wife who will work.[13] When mothers do work, they often pick up part-time, low-paying jobs based on their children's or husband's schedule.[20]

Taking care of the family and household is still seen as a predominately female role, and working women are still expected to fulfill it.[21] A majority of women, 70%, leave the workforce for a decade or more after the birth of their first child.[6] In one poll, 30% of mothers who returned to work reported being victims of "maternity harassment", or "matahara".[14] The obento box tradition, where mothers prepare elaborate lunches for their children to take to school, is an example of a domestic female role.[22]

A number of government and private post-war policies have contributed to a gendered division of labor.[4] These include a family wage offered by corporations which subsidized health and housing subsidies, marriage bonuses and additional bonuses for each child; and pensions for wives who earn below certain incomes.[4] Additionally, in 1961, income for wives of working men were untaxed below $10,000; income above that amount contributed to overall household income.[4] Corporate culture also plays a role; while many men are expected to socialize with their managers after long work days, women may find trouble balancing child-rearing roles with the demands of mandatory after-work social events.[3]

Some economists suggest that a better support system for working mothers, such as a shorter daily work schedule, would allow more women to work, increasing Japan's economic growth.[7] To that end, in 2003, the Japanese government set a goal to have 30% of senior government roles filled by women. In 2015, only 3.5% were; the government has since slashed the 2020 goal to 7%, and set a private industry goal to 15%.[23]

Family life

The traditional role of women in Japan has been defined as "three submissions": young women submit to their fathers; married women submit to their husbands, and elderly women submit to their sons.[24][25] Strains of this arrangement can be seen in contemporary Japan, where housewives are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, as well as balancing the household's finances.[13] Yet, as the number of dual-income households rises, women and men are sharing household chores, and research shows that this has lead to increased satisfaction over households that divide labor in traditional ways.[26]

A Japanese family as presented in a magazine in the 1950s

Families, prior to and during the Meiji restoration, relied on a patriarchal lineage of succession, with disobedience to the male head of the household punishable by expulsion from the family unit.[27][28] Male heads of households with only daughters would adopt male heirs to succeed them, sometimes through arranged marriage to a daughter.[18] Heads of households were responsible for house finances, but could delegate to another family member or retainer (employee).[18] Women in these households were typically subject to arranged marriages at the behest of the household's patriarch.[18] Married women marked themselves by blackening their teeth and shaving their eyebrows.[18]

After the Meiji period, the head of the household was required to approve of any marriage.[18] Until 1908, it remained legal for husbands to murder wives for infidelity.[18]

As late at the 1930s, arranged marriages continued, and so-called "love matches" were thought to be rare and somewhat scandalous, especially for the husband, who would be thought "effeminate".[18][29]

The Post-War Constitution, however, codified women’s right to choose their partners.[18] Article 24 of Japan's Constitution states:

Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.

This established several changes to women’s roles in the family, such as the right to inherit the family home or land, and the right of women (over the age of 20) to marry without the consent of the house patriarch.[18]

In the early Meiji period, many girls married at age 16; by the post-war period, it had risen to 23, and continued to rise.[18] The average age for a Japanese woman’s first marriage has steadily risen since 1970, from 24 to 29.3 years old in 2015.[30]

Right to divorce

In the Tokugawa period, men could divorce their wives simply through stating their intention to do so in a letter. Wives could not legally arrange for a divorce, but options included joining convents, such as at Kamakura, where men were not permitted to go, thus assuring a permanent separation.[18]

Under the Meiji system, however, the law limited grounds for divorce to seven events: sterility, adultery, disobedience to the parents-in-law, loquacity, larceny, jealousy, and disease. However, the law offered a protection for divorcees by guaranteeing a wife could not be sent away if she had nowhere else to go.[18] Furthermore, the law allowed a woman to request a divorce, so long as she was accompanied by a male relative and could prove desertion or imprisonment of the husband, profligacy, or mental or physical illness.[18]

By 1898, cruelty was added to the grounds for a woman to divorce; the law also allowed divorce through mutual agreement of the husband and wife. However, children were assumed to remain with the male head of the household.[18] In contemporary Japan, children are more likely to live with single mothers than single fathers; in 2013, 7.4% of children were living in single-mother households, compared to 1.3% living with their fathers.[30]

When divorce was granted under equal measures to both sexes under the post-war Constitution, divorce rates steadily increased.[18]

Surname change

The Civil Code of Japan requires legally married spouses to have the same surname. Although the law is gender-neutral, meaning that either spouse is allowed to change his/her name to that of the other spouse, Japanese women have traditionally adopt their husband’s family name and 96% of women continue to do so as of 2015.[31] In 2015, the Japanese Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, noting that women could use their maiden names informally, and stating that it was for the legislature to decide on whether to pass new legislation on separate spousal names.[32]


While women before the Meiji period were often considered incompetent in the raising of children, the Meiji period saw motherhood as the central task of women, and allowed education of women toward this end.[33] Raising children and keeping household affairs in order were seen as women's role in the state.[34] Women's political and social advancement was thus tied to their role as mothers.[4]

Today, Japanese mothers are still seen as managers of a household, including the behavior of their children. For example, media reports often focus on the apologies of criminals' mothers.[35]

There is continuing debate about the role women's education plays in Japan's declining birthrate.[36] Government policies to increase the birthrate include early education designed to develop citizens into capable parents.[37] Some critics of these policies believe that this emphasis on birth rate is incompatible with a full recognition of women's equality in Japan.[38][39][40]


Girl students in Japan

Today, more than half of Japanese women are college or university graduates.[5] The proportion of female researchers in Japan is 14.6%.[41]

Modern education of women began in earnest during the Meiji era's modernization campaign. The first schools for women began during this time, though education topics were highly gendered, with women learning arts of the samurai class, such as tea ceremonies and flower arrangement. The 1871 educational code established that students should be educated "without any distinction of class or sex."[42] Nonetheless, after 1891 students were typically segregated after third grade, and many girls did not extend their educations past middle school.[43]

By the end of the Meiji period, there was a women’s school in every prefecture in Japan, operated by a mix of government, missionary, and private interests.[44] By 1910, very few universities accepted women.[43] Graduation was not assured, as often women would be pulled out of school to marry or to study "practical matters."[44] Notably; Tsuruko Haraguchi, the first woman in Japan to earn a PhD, did so in the US, as no Meiji-era institution would allow her to receive her doctorate.[44] She and other women who studied abroad and returned to Japan, such as Yoshioka Yayoi and Tsuda Umeko, were among the first wave of women’s educators who lead the way to the incorporation of women in Japanese academia.[44]

After 1945, the Allied occupation aimed to enforce equal education between sexes; this included a recommendation in 1946 to provide compulsory co-education until the age of 16.[43] By the end of 1947, nearly all middle schools and more than half of high schools were co-educational.[43] In 2012, 98.1 percent of female students and 97.8 percent of male students reached high school.[45] Of those, 55.6% of men and 45.8% of women attended an undergraduate year at a university, though an additional 10% of female graduates attended junior college.[46]


At 87 years, the life expectancy of Japanese women is the longest, of either gender, in the world.[5]

Abortion in Japan is legal under some restrictions. The number per year has declined by 500,000 since 1975. Of the 200,000 abortions performed per year, however, 10% are teenage women, a number which has risen since 1975.[47]

Laws against crime

A women-only train car in Tokyo, intended to provide a safe space where women cannot be groped

Domestic violence

In 2002, the government of Japan passed a law against domestic violence.[4] In 2013, 100,000 women reported domestic violence to shelters.[48] Of the 10,000 entering protective custody at the shelter, nearly half arrived with children or other family members.[48]

In Japan, domestic disputes have traditionally been seen as a result of negligence or poor support from the female partner.[4] A partner's outburst can therefore be a source of shame to the wife or mother of the man they are supposed to care for.[49] Because women's abuse would be detrimental to the family of the abused, legal, medical and social intervention in domestic disputes was rare.[50]

After a spate of research during the 1990s, Japan passed the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims act in 2001.[50][51] The law referred to domestic violence as "a violation of the constitutional principle of equal rights between sexes." This law established protection orders from abusive spouses and created support centers in every prefecture, but women are still reluctant to report abuse to doctors out of shame or fear that the report would be shared with the abuser.[50] A 2001 survey showed that many health professionals were not trained to handle domestic abuse and blamed women who sought treatment.[50][52]


Stalking laws were passed in 2000 after the media attention given to the murder of a university student who had been a stalking victim.[53] With nearly 21,000 reports of stalking in 2013, 90.3% of the victims were women and 86.9% of the perpetrators were men.[48] Anti-stalking laws in Japan were expanded in 2013 to include e-mail harassment, after the widely publicized 2012 murder of a young woman who had reported such harassment to police.[54] Stalking reports are growing at a faster rate in Japan than any other country.[55]


Surveys show that between a 28% to 70% of women have been groped on train cars.[56][57] Some railway companies designate women-only passenger cars[58][59][60] though there are no penalties for men to ride in a women-only car.[57] Gropers can be punished with seven years or less of jail time and/or face fines of just under $500.[59]

The use of women-only cars in Japan has been critiqued from various perspectives.[57] Some suggest that the presence of the cars makes women who choose not to use them more vulnerable. Public comment sometimes include the argument that women-only cars are a step too far in protecting women.[57] Some academics have argued that the cars impose the burden of social segregation to women, rather than seeking the punishment of criminals.[61] Another critique suggests the cars send the signal that men create a dangerous environment for women, who cannot protect themselves.[57]


The Japanese cosmetics industry is the second largest in the world, earning over $15 billion per year.[62] The strong market for beauty products has been connected to the value placed on self-discipline and self-improvement in Japan, where the body is mastered through kata, repeated actions aspiring toward perfection, such as bowing.[62]

In the Heian period, feminine beauty standards favored darkened teeth, some body fat, and eyebrows painted above the original (which were shaved).[63]

Beauty corporations had a role in creating contemporary standards of beauty in Japan since the Meiji era. For example, the Japanese cosmetics firm, Shiseido published a magazine, Hannatsubaki, with beauty advice for women emphasizing hair styles and contemporary fashion.[62] The pre-war "modern girl" of Japan followed Western fashions as filtered through this kind of Japanese media.[62]

Products reflect several common anxieties among Japanese women. Multiple polls suggest that women worry about "fatness, breast size, hairiness and bust size."[62] The idealized figure of a Japanese woman is generally fragile and petite.[64] Japanese beauty ideals favor small features and narrow faces.[62] Big eyes are admired, especially when they have "double eyelids." [64]

Another ideal is pale skin. Tanned skin was historically associated with the working-class, and pale skin associated with the nobility.[62] Many women in Japan will take precaution to avoid the sun, and some lotions are sold to make the skin whiter.[65]

By the 1970s, "cuteness" emerged as a desireable aesthetic, which some scholars linked to a boom in pornographic films and comic books that emphasized young-looking girls, or Lolitas.[62] While these characters typically included larger eyes, research suggests that it was not a traditional standard of beauty in Japan, preferred in medical research and described as "unsightly" by cosmetic researchers of the Edo era.[65]

Clothing is another element in beauty standards for women in Japan. Again, femininity is a large factor; therefore, pinks, reds, bows, and frills are all found in their apparel. Kimonos, full-length silk robes, are worn by women on special occasions.[64]


Geisha (芸者?) is a traditional Japanese female entertainer who acts as a hostess and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games, serving tea and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers.[66] Geisha are trained very seriously as skilled entertainers and are not to be confused with prostitutes. The training program starts from a young age, typically 15 years old, and can take anywhere from six months to three years.[66] A young geisha in training, under the age of 20, is called a maiko. Maiko (literally "dance girl") are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them to all their engagements. Then at around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha[67] in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar).

See also


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