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Sunday, April 15, 2012

BIG IN JAPAN

Are women really on the ascendancy as some media proclaim?


'Joshi bakari ga naze tsuyoi?" ("Why is it that only women are strong?") asks Aera (Mar. 26). The question may be a valid one, at least when limited to international sports events, where Japan's women over the past several years have been outshining their male counterparts as they excel in soccer, women's Greco-Roman wrestling, skiing and figure skating, among others.

Japanese women also shine brightly when representing their country in cultural competitions — such as 17-year-old Madoka Sugai's first-place finish at the Prix de Laussane 2012 international ballet competition in early February.

These strong showings would seem to contradict the 2011 GGGI (Global Gender Gap Index), compiled by the World Economic Forum, which rated Japan 98th out of 135 countries. With "complete equality" (which no country could boast) pegged at 100 percent, Iceland and other north European countries rated between 80 and 85 percent. Japan was accorded a low 65.1 percent, behind such nations as the Philippines — 8th worldwide and Asia's highest at 76.8 percent — followed by Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

One reason for the low GGGI score by Japanese women is believed to be their poor showing in the business world.

"Unlike sports or the arts, where people are judged fairly on the basis of their numerical scores, in business evaluations are subject to the biases of those making the evaluations," Kaori Sasaki, president and CEO of the female-oriented market research firm ewomen, Inc., tells Aera. Sasaki estimates it might be "another 10 years" until major corporations make it a common practice to boost women to management posts.

But sport, it seems, is the great equalizer. When business magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai (Mar. 10) took count of TV commercial endorsements by Japanese athletes, it found that women athletes were well represented, particularly in women's soccer. Homare Sawa, FIFA Women's World Player of the Year for 2011, who led Japan's Nadeshiko national soccer team to victory in the Women's World Cup last July, was ranked second (after pro golfer Ryo Ishikawa's 17), with nine commercial endorsement contracts, outstripping baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners by one.

In the extended primate family tree to which humans belong, male dominance is not necessarily an inherent trait. The Sankei Shimbun (Apr. 8) noted that in over 13 generations of Japanese monkeys (Nihonzaru or Macaca fuscata) at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo dating back to January 1950, roughly one out of three bosu zaru (boss monkeys) has been female. (In a concession to gender correctness, from 1995 the zoo halted use of the term bosu zaru for the alpha leader, changing it to daiichi [numero uno].)

Zoo employee Shuhei Mizuka told the Sankei he supposed females assume leadership of the colony at times when dominant males are lacking. But the female leaders' tenures have tended to be comparatively short, perhaps because they had their hands full with giving birth and raising offspring.

The Ueno Zoo monkey colony makes for a fitting comparison with human society, the Sankei notes. Despite many of today's young men taking such an indifferent attitude toward romance that they are referred to disparagingly as "herbivorous males," this vacuum has not resulted in more women coming forth to grasp the reins of leadership. Why? Probably because the male and female realms in Japan remain separated by insurmountable barriers.

The April edition of Shincho 45 compiled a dozen essays around the title "Women emerge as the sole winners." In the second of the 12 articles, sociologist Noritoshi Furuichi discusses the "feminization of Japan."

In it, Furuichi theorizes that despite the wholesale adoption of feminist values in Japanese business and society driving the trend, this has not resulted in any substantial improvements in women's status per se.

Over the past several decades, even in such male-dominated sectors as construction and manufacturing, the numbers of job positions have been declining. And more new occupations — such as care workers for the elderly and disabled — have appeared that tend to be dominated by (or associated with) women. And in the tertiary sector, mainly service-related businesses, women have been able to harness their communication abilities and negotiating skills to carve out a larger chunk of the action.

This paradigm, however, is flawed by the generally low expectations of working women, and its long-term impact on the population demographic, Furuichi believes, holds disastrous implications for Japan. The acute shortage of day-care facilities has prevented women from returning to their jobs after maternity leave, resulting in the "M-shaped" job pattern in which women who give birth must delay their return to the workforce until their children are big enough to fend for themselves.

The raising of expectations and improvement of women's lot, Furuichi argues, will encourage families to have more children. Raising the birthrate while also enabling women to return to the workplace sooner will ultimately benefit male workers as well, by helping to relieve the heavy burden they bear under the present system.



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