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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

Glass ceiling has not budged for many of Japan's working women

THE NEW PARADOX FOR JAPANESE WOMEN: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality, by Toshiaki Tachibanaki. Translated by Mary Foster, I-House Press, 2010, 290 pp., ¥2,858.

As we enter the third decade of the "lost decade," there is much to despair about the state of Japan. There has been a sharp increase in the number of working poor, mostly due to the spread of nonregular employment, which now involves 34 percent of the workforce, nearly double the level of the asset-bubble peak in 1989.

Tachibanaki explains that this massive shift in Japan's employment system has been driven mostly by employers' focus on cost-cutting. He examines the consequences of this trend for women, who are disproportionately represented in this new "precarious proletariat" — one disadvantaged by low job security, wages, benefits and training.

In systematically explaining changes affecting women's multiple roles in Japan, Tachibanaki persuasively tramples on many myths about family, class and gender. His elegant analysis is data driven, drawing on public opinion surveys and a wide range of econometric studies.

The Japan Inc. model was based on stable families and jobs, but as Tachibanaki points out, both are becoming less stable and secure. The paternalistic employment model has also faded along with the breadwinner model. For most married households, two incomes is now the norm out of necessity.

Tachibanaki has been a central figure in the vibrant discourse in contemporary Japan about widening socio-economic disparities and rigid social classes. In doing so he has forced the nation to confront ugly and unappealing realities that clash with prevailing values and expectations.

Here Tachibanaki draws our attention to gender inequality and growing disparities among women — jojo kakusa. He elucidates how educational and occupational attainment, marital status, birth and employment have amplified existing gaps among women, leaving most still marginalized. Women from high-status universities are more likely to enter career-track jobs while others tend to cluster in clerical jobs, a sorting that generates significant economic disparities.

Disparity in education between men and women in terms of attainment and specialization is a key factor in gender inequality and the persistently high wage gap in Japan. According to Tachibanaki, women account for 70 to 80 percent of part-time and nonregular workers.

So, even though the gender wage gap among full-timers has slightly narrowed — women earned 66 percent as much as men as of 2004 compared to 55 percent in 1980 — women's wages overall slipped from 55 percent of male wages in 1980 to 51 percent in 2004. Thus, despite an Equal Employment Opportunity Law, women are still getting a raw deal.

The glass ceiling has kept some women from becoming managers, an outcome that helps explain why Japanese firms have been languishing. Moreover, Tachibanaki notes that the most educated women in Japan are the least likely to return to work after giving birth, reflecting limited incentives. This deprives corporate Japan of some of its most promising workers. Since these women are more likely to be married to high earners, they can afford to boycott a labor market that has not adjusted sufficiently to growing diversity in the workplace and the life-cycle needs of working mothers.

Unlike in most industrialized nations, full-time careers and motherhood are far more of an "either or choice" in Japan. This is because support mechanisms that would enable women to better balance their office and home responsibilities are inadequate.

Although many Japanese yet cling to the appealing myth of the ubiquitous middle class, Tachibanaki focuses on class rigidities and disparities. For women, status or class is influenced strongly by choice of marriage partner. More highly educated women are more likely to marry highly educated men, those who have the brightest career prospects. Women's educational attainment is strongly influenced by class, meaning that wealthy families are able to parlay their status into credentials that improve their daughter's chances in both the job and marriage markets and thus perpetuate her elite status.

Conversely, less educated women are not likely to marry up and thus will remain in a low-income household.

Interestingly, the author argues that educational credentials will have declining value in the job market as job performance becomes a more critical factor in determining job security and promotion. The implications for perpetuating class disparities, however, are unclear.

Tachibanaki argues that "discrimination against women is an indisputable fact of life in many areas of Japanese society," and the negative consequences are everywhere evident. While acknowledging that not all women have the same aspirations, and that some prefer more traditional roles, the author laments that too many women are denied their desired choices.

One of the few bright trends is the growing number of women entering elite universities. Tachibanaki hazards that "there is a good chance that some of the positions monopolized by highly educated men in the past will be taken by these ultra-educated women."

Perhaps, but much of this book cautions against optimism concerning Japan and its women workers. This superb translation, one packed with insights about Japan's evolving labor system and how it is affecting women, is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the current Japanese malaise.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asia Studies, Temple University, Japan

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