In Japan, working women are on the rise … sort of

As I’ve mentioned (in this previous blog post and in my memoir, The Same Moon), when I was living in Japan in the mid 1990s, many women in the labor force around me were playing supporting roles—clerks, secretaries, administrative assistants, tea-servers. They were the ubiquitous “Office Ladies” or “OLs,”as they are called in Japan.

And it wasn’t just my mother’s generation. It was mine. In 1995, more than 80 percent of the female university seniors seeking jobs at the Tokyo Student Employment Center were looking for clerical work—that is, to continue the tradition and become OLs.

At the time, I read that part of the reason for this was the idea that women engaged in koshikake, taking a seat for a short period of time. It was believed that women would occupy a position in the labor force for only a short time before leaving to marry and have children. The idea of koshikake was said to encourage young women to select two-year colleges and majors that were relatively easy to complete, so they could work longer before marrying and quitting their jobs.

In my little town, where I saw many women in the workforce—some single but many married with children and grandchildren, I wondered how many had decided not to shoot for their dreams because of the koshikake concept.

Looking for a change

In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said he wanted to create a society where women could shine. One goal he set was to increase the presence of women in leadership: By 2020 women would fill at least 30 percent of leadership positions. The concept, called “womenomics,” was intended, in part, to help bolster Japan’s shrinking workforce.

It’s nearly 2020, and Japan is nowhere near achieving this goal, said NHK World TV senior director Aiko Doden. According to a 2017 survey she shared at her recent talk, “Reinventing Japan: The Way Forward through Women’s Empowerment,” here is where women’s leadership stands in various fields:

Field Percent of leadership posts
held by women
Corporate 6.3
Local government 6.4
Lower House (legislature)10.1
Upper House (legislature)20.7

Why is achieving a higher percent of leadership positions for women so challenging?

Of course, first there is the question of women’s labor force participation. Doden illustrated this with what she called an “M curve”—referencing both its shape and the first letter of the act that contributes to its shape: marriage.

Photo of graph shared by Aiko Doden during her October 2019 talk at Portland State University, “Reinventing Japan: The Way Forward through Women’s Empowerment”

In general, the data show that many women tend to work until they reach marriage age and possibly until children arrive. (A more complete exploration of this topic would include the evolving average age of marriage and childbearing in Japan, and the percent of women opting out of both. More fodder for another time …)

But in each of the years shown, women in their mid to late 40s were working at nearly the same rate as those in their early 20s.

Also, the M curve is noticeably less pronounced in 2014 than it was in the earlier years. The data indicate that women are increasing their participation in the labor force through their late 20s. And those in their early 30s pull back at a lesser rate than women did in decades past.

Although there is more participation, Doden said that what this graph does not show is the number of women opting for part-time work, which carries fewer opportunities than full-time work in terms of responsibility, promotions, salary increases and job security.

“Women still have to make an either-or decision about work and family,” she said.


My memoir, The Same Moon, is the story of what happened when I ran far, far away … to find my way home. Learn more about it here.

Book cover -- The Same Moon

Photo (of woman and train) by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

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