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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Japan and the Gender Gap Information Gap

Female member of Japan's Legislature

As I was browsing through some online news reports last week, I learned that Japan is an oppressive patriarchal hellscape. It’s just so sad, and so unexpected. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from wandering around the country. If you waltz into any coffee shop in Japan, you see throngs of highly educated women dressed head-to-toe in the latest, trendy fashions. Between sips of exotic blended caffeinated beverages and bites of France-inspired pastries, they chat blithely about all the things that make life a never-ending fascination. Who knew that under all that frivolity, they were living a dystopian Handmaid’s Tale-esque nightmare?


At least, that is the impression I got from reviewing the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report. Issued from the WEF’s headquarters in Switzerland, the nearly 400-page “June 2023 Insight Report” tries to ascertain “the current state and evolution of gender parity across four key dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment.” The end result of this analysis is a single number for each country or region that can be used to wag a shameful finger at nations that fall short.


This time around, Japan earned multiple finger-wags from the worldwide media as it landed at 125th place out of 146 total regions, down from 116th place in the 2022 ranking. This puts Japan two slots below Myanmar, a country where two years ago a military junta tossed its female head of state into perpetual house arrest without even a hint of due process.


If you peruse Japan’s entry on page 217 of the report, you recognize immediately that the Political Empowerment score is the primary reason for Japan’s poor showing. With a total of 0.057 (out of 1.0), only eight other regions scored worse. Certainly, any quick glance at a session of the national legislature on TV will prove that it’s a men’s club. And then there’s the emperor, the symbolic head of state, a position that by law can only be held by a male descendant of the imperial family line.


But then there’s the pesky issue of Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, head of the world’s most populace city and a former member of Japan’s House of Representatives. For a short time, she even held the office of Japan’s Minister of Defense. Those are significant accomplishments for any Japanese citizen, regardless of gender. But according to the calculations of the WEF, this female leader of Tokyo as well as Hayashi Fumiko, the previous female mayor of Yokohama, are of no more consequence than the male mayors of Japan’s tiniest hamlets, mere statistics in a sea of malleable statistics.


These aren’t the first Japanese women to rise to the top off the political pyramid. Way back in 1993, Doi Takako became Speaker of the House of Representatives. Before that, she served as the leader of the Social Democratic Party, one of Japan’s top political groups of that era. Even today, female politicians, though relatively few, pepper the halls of the Diet, engaging in exactly in the same kind of questionable policy actions as their male counterparts.


Of course, none of this means that Japan is a women’s rights paradise. I am not blind to the complexities of gender relations here. The country is built on strong social hierarchies, and traditionally men have placed higher in those arrangements. I can still remember when Tea Lady and Elevator Girl were common job titles for women working in the corporate world. Japan has improved greatly since those days, but let me state the obvious in saying that it still has room to grow. And if the World Economic Forum wanted to point out specific situations where Japan was in need of improvement, that would be welcome input. But they didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, they provided a list of five numbers. No wait! They provided a list of five numbers and a very pretty graph highlighting four of those values. There are a few sub-scores that hint as to what each key metric is based on, but those breakouts are as vague as the core numbers themselves. Still, the graph is extremely pretty.


What is missing from the WEF report is any sense of either documentation or nuance. For example, how do you explain Japan’s near-perfect score when it comes to Educational Attainment? (Last year, it did get a perfect 1.0 score.) Then there is this recent comment from Nikkei Asia correspondent Kenji Kawase: “Japan is no longer a laggard in terms of women's participation in the tech workplace. The ratio of female IT specialists in the country has reached 22% in 2021, putting it on par with the U.S. and ahead of Europe's 19%, according to data from the Japan Information Technology Services Industry Association, Zippia and Eurostat” (emphasis added). By the way, the WEF places the US in 43rd place despite its tech women being as mired in the ranks as those in Japan.


Maybe Japan doesn’t have any problem with women in politics. Perhaps all the educationally attained females are simply so smart that they know what a waste of time it will be sitting in a political chamber blathering on and on about this or that meaningless legislation. On the other hand, it’s possible that Japan has gigantic problems when it comes to the treatment of women. The point is, it’s impossible to determine this either way from the Gender Gap study.


In a way, I feel sorry for the WEF. It can’t be easy trying to coalesce the complex nature of social interactions among eight billion people down to a single press release. They even caution in the introduction that the “findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this work do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Economic Forum,” which is a strange thing to say about one of their core publications. There are certainly ways in which Japan can bring more parity among the sexes. But you won’t find anything about how to do that from the WEF’s bombshell report.


[Image Credits: Liberal Democratic Party of Japan/自民党]

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