The only figure you need to understand gender equality in Japan

If a single word could sum up Japan’s gender role rigidity, it’d be kanai. It means “one who remains inside the home,” and is how many husbands here refer to their wives in public. 

In 2016, finally more Japanese men were for women working than against it

That’s some typecasting for you. As it turns out, though, that mindset is not just a guy thing. When Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau highlighted the issue back in 2002, it asked people to weigh in on the following statement: “Husbands should be the breadwinners and wives should look after the household.” Over 50 percent of Japanese men—and over 43 percent of Japanese women—said yes. In September 2016, 44.7 percent of men and 37 percent of women still agreed. 

The problem with gender equality in Japan

So guess what? More men and women here are viewing marriage and family life as not-so-tender traps. Guys with skimpy salaries are poor marriage prospects, and even guys with money don’t want to play house unless they can do as they please. Independent women refuse to give up the perks of the single life for the stresses of cleaning up after spouse and kids, and maybe even being the primary caretaker for elderly in-laws. 

The unsavory ingredients in this depressing cultural witch’s brew include male-dominated corporate ladders, labor instability, breadwinner masculinity, assorted varieties of harassment—sexual, power and maternity—and Japan’s vast legion of heterosexual virgins under 40 (at 25 percent and rising). Oh, and a large dollop of patriarchal angst and how things used to be. 

One step forward, one side shuffle

Not all is dark. According to Kathy Matsui at Goldman Sachs—who came up with the “womenomics” concept back in 1999 that politicians such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have since latched onto—there’s been progress. And a lot of gender equality in Japan hinges on labor. For example, a record 71 percent of women ages 15 to 64 in Japan now work—more than in the U.S. (66 percent) and the Euro Zone (62 percent). Unfortunately, 56 percent of those jobs are part-time, making them inherently less stable and lucrative, but they’re in the labor force.

Also on the plus side, both mom and dad can take a year of parental leave now. Even the growing ranks of cool Japanese dads, however, are afraid of stepping out of the office for long. You know what would help with that? Teleworking, which the Abe government is pushing hard as part of its work reform bill. If Japanese companies were bendy enough to allow female employees to stay home and produce, they might be willing to have more babies as well. Teleworking dads would gain a greater respect for what it takes to run a household, too, and stronger relationships with their kids.

Japanese women are hungry for more time, freedom and opportunity 

So what effect does all this social churn have on Japan’s all-consuming females? Think time, convenience and practicality, health and wellbeing. Japanese women, married or not, are willing to pay a premium for quality goods and services—like gourmet takeaway, smart set-and-forget appliances and high-tech beauty gear—that solve problems and give them more freedom and peace of mind. For purveyors of food, entertainment and travel/tourism, you’ll benefit by giving them safe and fun solo options.

Selling to contemporary Japanese women

One more thing: if you want to sell to them, mute the cuteness. Gender stereotypes also exist here and in Japan, this field is becoming more level rapidly. Sure, some women will always be lovers of bling and fluffy, pretty things, but they want to be taken seriously as well, especially if they’re on a corporate career track or entrepreneurs with a professional image to maintain.

Where you offer your goods is just as pivotal. Amazon, Rakuten, fashion-focused ZOZOTOWN and other B2C e-commerce bastions offer fast fulfillment, allow mobile payments and pass out reward/loyalty points. A strong Instagram presence will also reinforce your brand with younger Japanese women.

Finally, if you’re hiring women and want them to stay and grow with you, take gender out of the labor equation—including closing the gender wage gap (now at 24.5 percent)—and make your office a harassment-free zone. If you can add teleworking schemes and childcare in-house, you’ll be on your way to golden unicorn status as an employer. 

Let's Talk