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BOOK REVIEW | ‘Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan,’ Edited by Gill Steel





The allegedly very large gender gap in Japan, as reported by the World Economic Forum (WEF), is a favorite subject for foreign pundits.


This book starts from the assumption that the gender gap is indeed very large. Then it raises the question: “What is puzzling, though, is that despite the inequity in a system that places ‘unsustainable burdens on women,’ most Japanese women do not feel that they are ‘struggling’; they do not feel powerless and frustrated.” (Page 1)


Rather than considering the possibility that the WEF gender gap ranking is nonsense or that most Japanese women have their own set of priorities which are rather different from the WEF or that of woke feminists, this book presents 13 discrete essays which claim to answer the question. Those essays do nothing of the kind.



Why No Answer is Given: Dated and Limited Survey Data


First, according to the editor, “[W]e do not analyze subjective measures of well-being or happiness….  Instead, we examine various aspects of the lived experiences of women.” (Page 2) But, in fact, none of the essays really do this, or at least not for Japan as it exists now.


Only two essays are largely directed at the well-being or happiness issue using lived experiences. Mito Akiyoshi writes about “Busy, Happy, and Withdrawn: Japanese Women’s Constrained Leisure Choices” and Yuko Ogasawara takes up “Working Women’s Husbands as Helpers or Partners.”


The Akiyoshi chapter is based almost entirely on a survey of “Leisure Time and Sports” published in 2007. That means that as of the publication date of this book, her primary data is more than a decade old. To be sure, Akiyoshi has made a limited effort to bring this paper up to date, but it remains one of several in the volume that leaves the impression that it is something recycled from much earlier graduate school research rather than current ongoing work.


The Ogasawara chapter is based on a tiny sample of just “23 men living in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.” Moreover, the author goes on to say: “Since the aim of the study was not to understand average Japanese men who were known to do little at home, I selected men whose wives worked full-time and therefore would be under greater pressure to participate in childcare.” (Page 86)


This is one of several cases in this book where ordinary or average Japanese are spoken of in condescending terms. Throughout this book there is a palpable class bias in favor of educated white collar workers, or what is called the professional managerial class (PMC).


It is not just average men who are excluded from the narrative.


In my patch of Tokyo, aside from women working as clerks and running their own shops, I see women driving delivery trucks and taxis, working as surveyors on building sites, and recently running along with men behind the ward-operated trucks collecting refuse. The Arakawa Tram Line running near my SOHO has at least one female driver. Women are now common as conductors on Tokyo commuter trains and I have seen women drivers on JR regional lines.


Reading this book, you would never know that such women exist in Japan.



Why No Answer is Given: The Past Rather Than the Present


Although the wording of the problematique for this book would seem to require writing on the treatment of Japanese women now — or at least within the last few years — several of the longer and more detailed essays are about Japan 10, 20, or even 30 years ago.


In “The ‘Silent Majority’ Speaks Out: Conservative Women Defending Convention,” Kimiko Osawa analyzes interviews she did in 2007 and 2008.


In “Women and the Liberal Democratic Party in Transition,” Yuki Tsuji takes up developments in the 1980s-1990s. She has almost nothing to say about developments since the turn of the century, let alone the last decade.


This is also true of “‘Life’ as Political Agenda” by Hiroko Takeda.


Even more than the Ogasawara and Akiyoshi chapters, those by Osawa, Tsuji, and Takeda convey the feeling of something done long ago and pulled off the shelf, either to fill out a thin conference program or to justify a trip to Kyoto on university research funds.



Why No Answer is Given: Irrelevant Content


The chapter by Liv Coleman entitled “Japan’s Womenomics Diplomacy” is of no relevance whatsoever to the nominal theme of this book. This is true even if one accepts her thesis, which is basically that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s championing of “womenomics” and empowerment was a ploy to remove what Coleman calls “Japan’s Gender Stigma.” The stigma was said to have resulted from (1) the comfort women issue and (2) Japan’s low ranking on international gender equality metrics.


About the only thing positive that can be said about this chapter is that at least Coleman does not claim that Abe championed greater workforce participation for women to avoid introducing more immigrant workers.


My own view is that (1) Abe bought into the somewhat questionable claims for womenomics put forward by Kathy Matsui and (2) as a Choshu man with something of a Meiji-era fukoku kyohei (prosperous country, strong military) agenda, he would, like Meiji-era modernists, push women and even immigrants if he saw them as essential to the prosperity of Japan.



Irrelevant But Still With Merit


Not all the irrelevant essays are without merit. The very short essay by Mayumi Nakamura entitled “One Size Fits All? The Implications of Differences in Regional Fertility for Policy” is suggestive without being satisfying. In taking up differences in fertility between Fukui and Toyama prefectures, she raises a subject completely ignored by foreign writers and only slightly less so by Japanese.


It is a standard theme in foreign writing that Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. This obscures the fact that some prefectures in Japan have high fertility rates that put them at the top of the European or developed country range.


In 2016 Okinawa had a fertility rate of 1.95; Tokyo had the lowest at 1.24. Even if Okinawa is excluded because of its distinct history, a number of prefectures exceeded the average fertility rate for European Union countries in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available at the time this book was written.


This variation means that there is no “one size fits all” prefecture’s explanation of fertility in Japan, whether that explanation is “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese” or husbands not helping with housework.


Moreover, the prefectural data appears to give the lie to claims that social/political conservatism leads to a low fertility rate. Generally, the high fertility prefectures other than Okinawa are known for social and political conservatism, whereas the low fertility prefectures are known for being socially progressive and having rather left-wing politics.



One Interesting but Flawed Essay


For me the single most interesting essay was that by Susan Pavloska, “Tokyo’s First Female Governor Breaks the Steel Ceiling.” It was informative because it gave more information about Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike than anything else I know of in English, although the author is clearly uncomfortable with Koike’s nationalism and conservatism on some issues.


In foreign and Japanese feminist writing, women who are conservative or nationalistic on some points — even if liberal and progressive overall, especially on women’s issues — seem to be downgraded and marginalized. This perhaps explains why Fumiko Hayashi, the very popular mayor of Japan’s second largest city, has earned little mention in English.


Further, the fixation of the proportion of female MPs in Japan in the WEF gender gap index obscures the fact that the two largest cities in Japan with a combined population of 12 million are headed by women. Tokyo dwarfs a number of European states in GDP and population. Yokohama dwarfs some European countries and a number of American states.


Pavloska’s essay is also flawed in that she trots out a remark by Shintaro Ishihara about Koike as a “caked-up old woman well past her prime” as an example of “a brutal and often misogynistic campaign.” (Page 154) This judgement is laughable relative to what goes on in the United States.





Conventional standards of academic rigor and coherence appear to have been jettisoned in favor of what might loosely be styled as political correctness in this book.


Above and beyond the use of outdated data and a reliance on what foreign writers have said about the situation of Japanese women — rather than what “ordinary” Japanese women say about themselves — was disappointing. 


Similarly, women in sport are ignored. In Japan, as in other countries, the accomplishments of women in sport have been attracting increased attention even as there have been charges of male-focused funding, bullying, and sexual harassment. It is odd that a book published at a time when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics is daily news ignores women in sport.


I found it particularly disconcerting to see various references to Japan’s allegedly declining birth or fertility rate. As I have pointed out, and as all standard data series show, the Japanese fertility rate has been rising since 2005, albeit with some wobble at the second decimal point. 


As someone who taught international students over two decades at various universities in the Tokyo area, I could not help but notice the academic affiliations of those contributing essays to this deeply flawed volume. Most appear to be involved in the teaching of foreign students. 


The one thing reading this volume did do for me was to provide additional evidence for my belief that foreign students who study in Japan do not necessarily acquire a solid and unbiased knowledge of the country. In my own teaching, which did cover gender issues, I often found foreign students with hackneyed images or out-of-date factual knowledge about women in Japan. Frequently their misinformation had been picked up from other international studies faculty in the same university.


Foreign readers, international students, and most of all today’s Japanese women deserve much better than what the writers of this volume and their essays have to offer.



Title of Book: Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan


Publisher: University of Michigan Press, 2019


Edited By: Gill Steel


To Learn More: Follow this link to read more about the book at the publisher;s website or to learn how to purchase a copy.




Book Review Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth