Japan’s Glass Ceiling: Obstacles to Women’s Participation in the Workplace

Japan’s Glass Ceiling: Obstacles to Women’s Participation in the Workplace

Source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/2f317fed-c3bd-4c88-8ab2-b3e972d9d766

Female participation in Japan’s workforce has increased in the last few decades but Japan still ranks poorly in terms of women’s participation in politics and corporate organisations relative to other developed economies. Initiatives to rectify this inequality struggle to due to gendered social expectations and unfavourable political conditions.

How Are Women Faring Now?

In 2010, Japan’s female labour force participation rate was 63.2%, lower at the time than many other developed countries including the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Australia. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo unveiled a raft of policies dubbed ‘Womenomics’ in an effort to boost female involvement in the workforce. As a result, over 7 years later, Japan’s female labour force participation rate is around 72.6%, solidly above the OECD average of 65.1%. 

Yet, Japan still lags behind other comparable economies in terms of women’s participation in politics and corporate management. According to data collected by The Economist, women hold only 10% of seats in Japan’s House of Representatives, well below the OECD average of 31.5%. Similarly, in 2019, women held only 10.7% of seats on corporate executive boards and appeared to face comparable difficulty in obtaining lower level managerial positions, occupying approximately 8% of such roles.

Why Does It Matter?

From an egalitarian perspective, Japanese women’s relatively low participation in corporate or government positions in contrast to other developed countries is worth investigating as it implies inequality of opportunity in the workplace. From the standpoint that social inequality is inherently bad, it is important that Japanese women’s situation is addressed. 

There are also economic benefits that spring from the promotion of equal access to the workplace.  Increasing the number of women in work and the quality of the roles available to them will help Japan to cope with the labour shortfalls that its ageing population will ultimately bring about. Furthermore, Japanese women often have a higher level of educational and skills attainment than their male counterparts; as of 2018, 64% of women aged 25-34 had completed tertiary education compared to 58% of men in that same age range

There are also specific benefits to improving female participation in politics. Firstly, to build a truly representative democracy, more women need to fill political leadership roles. Secondly, a representative democracy would provide a platform to the voices of Japanese women, which would likely go a long way towards tackling female specific issues such as sexual harassment and childcare provision. Furthermore, there is significant evidence to suggest that female policymakers often prioritise such social issues.

Causes of Low Participation

In Japanese politics, it could be argued that women’s progress has been stalled by a lack of gender quotas. Though quotas do not address the root causes of low female participation in politics, they have provided a useful starting point for improving representation in other countries. In part, the reason that Japan has not introduced quotas is that the ruling political party has enjoyed power almost consistently since 1955. As a result, there has been little motivation to entice female voters with promises of gender-equality reforms. Moreover, scholars have argued that the lack of political motivation for gender-based policy reform can be traced to the fragmentation of the women’s movement and the failure of opposition parties to incorporate quotas into their own manifestos.

A second obstacle to women’s participation in both the political and corporate spheres is the persistence of gendered social expectations – specifically the expectation that women perform the majority of childcare and housework. A 2018 study concluded that the dearth of female Japanese politicians was attributable to the difficulty of balancing professional and domestic duties. In a December poll that asked why women were not advancing in politics, the main reason cited was the obligation of housework, closely followed by the perception of politics as a male pursuit. Japan’s work culture is notoriously particularly demanding, thus making the challenge of balancing housework and a career even more difficult than in other developed countries


Fortunately, the rate of female participation in Japan’s workforce is likely to continue to rise over the course of the decade, if the positive trend continues as expected. As Japan’s labour shortfall grows over the medium to long term, it is probable that more Japanese businesses will implement policies to ease the burden on female employees. This might include financial support for childcare or longer-term strategies such as early-career management training to equip women to return to leadership positions after taking career breaks to raise children. If implemented, these policies would bolster the positive trend towards greater female participation in leading roles in the workplace.

Though there is potential for reform from commercial actors, unfortunately, the Japanese government is not likely to be the driving force behind gender-equality policies in the near future. Though the government approved a new plan for gender equality last year which included pledges such as the introduction of gender quotas, the absence of external political pressure on the LDP to enact these reforms will slow the process. Indeed, in 2010, the government drafted a plan for gender equality, the proposals of which remain largely untouched.

Besides the government’s reluctance to introduce reforms, progress is likely to be slowed by the persistence of the gendered expectations of men and women’s roles in society. Though progress has been made and evidence indicates that Japanese voters in general are not opposed to female politicians, it is probable that any change in these attitudes, present in both men and women, will be gradual and organic.

Japan still has a long way to go to improve the position of women in society, but the country is gradually improving the chances for women to assume high-profile roles in the political and corporate spheres. It is essential that the Japanese government support women to be leaders and influencers.

Categories: Politics, Southeast Asia

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.