Japanese Women and Work: Holding Back the Nation

Originally posted on The Economist

Women’s lowly status in the Japanese workplace has barely improved in decades, and the country suffers as a result. Shinzo Abe would like to change that.

KAREN KAWABATA represents the best of Japan’s intellectual capital. She has just graduated from the University of Tokyo, the most prestigious in the country. Wry and poised, with an American mother and Japanese father, she has the languages and cosmopolitan attitude that Japanese companies particularly value nowadays. In April she will join McKinsey, a consultancy that should give her immediate membership of a globe-trotting elite.

Yet Ms Kawabata sees obstacles in her path. She is acutely aware of the difficulties she would face at traditional Japanese companies, should she find herself joining one. Ferociously long working hours, often stretching past midnight, are followed by sessions of “nominication”, a play on the Japanese word for drinking, nomu, and the English word “communication”; these are where young hopefuls forge connections and build reputations. Nowadays women trying to impress the boss are allowed to drink plum wine mixed with plenty of soda instead of beer, says Ms Kawabata. But that is hardly a great improvement.

Above all, she worries that having a family will be nigh on impossible to combine with a demanding career. When she met her boyfriend’s father for the first time this year, she reassured him about her intentions at McKinsey. “I told him that I would rethink my career in a few years’ time,” she says.

That one of the brightest of Japan’s graduates needs to say such things should worry Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. Japan educates its women to a higher level than nearly anywhere else in the world: its girls come near the top in education league-tables compiled by the OECD. But when they leave university their potential is often squandered, as far as the economy is concerned. Female participation in the labour force is 63%, far lower than in other rich countries. When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America. Quite a lot of those 70% are gone for good.

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