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Vol. 1 Overall Trends of Japanese Women in Business

Palette Editorial Team

December 23, 2018


The 2016 Gender Gap Index released by the World Economic Forum showed Japan ranked 114 out of 144 countries, down from 111th in 2016. Palette editors introduce the basic facts and figures about Japanese women in workforce. This article is based on the presentations at the University of Colorado and Showa Women’s University Joint Workshop for Students, held in May 2016.


International Comparison of Female Roles in Workplaces


Internationally, the number of women who is working in administrative position has been increasing. In Japan, however, the ratio of women in managing position is still very small compared with other advanced nations (see Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1. Women in the Parliament



Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union


Figure 2. Proportion of Women in Managerial Posts



Source: ILO Statistical Database, employment by occupation: managers, June 2014.


Women Labor in the Past



Young women were important labor resources for newly emerged silk industry.

Source: Joshu Tomioka Seishijo no Zu (A Portrait of Tomioka Silk Mill).

Digital Collection of National Diet Library


From the late 1870s, Japan started promoting the manufacturing industry, including steel, silk, and cotton. Like in many other industrialized countries, many young girls from the rural agricultural communities came to big cities and entered into apparel industry as factory workers.

   Figure 3 shows a day of a typical factory worker. In general, the workers age was 15 to 20 years old but some were even under 12 years old. Their working environment was very bad. The total working hours was about 14.5 hours per a day and yet eating time was limited to about 15 minutes. Many of them died from overwork and sickness, such as T.B and digestive disease. They were forbidden to go out and often suffered from harsh violence. Wages were results-based. Typical worker got 40-50 yen per year and 100 yen earner meant she was an excellent worker. It is hard to imagine the fact that girls as the same age of authors worked in such a difficult environment. But only 3% of them said to complain about their terrible conditions because they thought factory work was better than the housework! Many of them were from poor farming villages and there girls had to work almost whole day in the house and in the farm. As the factory workers, at least, they were guaranteed to get meals and wages. As many economist figured out, in Japan, too, women began to be independent by earning a living and that was the start of self-help of ordinary women.


Figure 3. A Day of Typical Factory Girl



: Data based on Huter, Janet. "Japanese Women at Work, 1880-1920." Japanese Women at Work, 1880-1920 | History Today. N.p., 5 May 1993. Web. 02 May 2017.Source


Female Labor in the Modern History


Looking at the female labor in the 20th century, as Japan recovered from the World War II, Japan’s overall labor force increased dramatically (Figure 4).


Figure 4: Trends in Labor Force and Participation by Gender



Source: Cabinet Office, Government of Japan


Role by Gender in Rapid Growth Era


Such typical household of “single bread winner and home-making mother with two kids” became the standard of national welfare policies in 1960s. It was used as a model households for taxation and pension systems.





   But at the same time, more and more women went to universities and they wanted to work professionally by making use of the knowledge that they learned at schools.

   While they tried hard to widen their roles and sphere of activity, although there were no gender discrimination in labor laws, there were many gender discriminatory practices in the workplaces, such as wages, conditions of employment, and mandatory retirement ages.

   Right after their graduation, women with higher education faced with the adaptive challenges to cope with the society of “division of labor by gender.”

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