Japan Proves It Is Not Enough to Change the Law

Although the Japanese labour code recognises the needs of women, they are failed by corporate practices and the business system. Eliza Klonowska-Siwak, who is an expert on Japan, talks about the reality of a country that on the one hand offers menstrual leave and on the other is at the very bottom of gender equality ratings.

What is it like to be a woman working in Japan? 

When I went to Japan for the first time in 1997, I worked during summer holidays at my university for a company owned by a very large capital group, Japanese Railways. I was struck by the fact that, except for numerous office ladies, there were virtually no women in professional positions. There were so few of them that I never even met any of them in person, even though I saw them on the payroll. Later on, as head of the Polish diplomatic mission in Tokyo, I myself found it difficult at first to be acknowledged by men because of my gender. This has changed over time. Today only 15 percent of senior positions in business are held by women, although the government’s goal is to reach 30 percent. The wage gap in Japan is 30 percent. Women are often better educated, they work harder because more is demanded of them and they need to prove themselves, and yet they are treated less favourably.

At the same time, it was Japan that was the first country to introduce menstrual leave – back in the 1940s. 

Japanese law provides women with solutions, however, corporate practices and the business system are failing women. The concept of menstrual leave dates back to the 1930s. It was then that one woman managed to negotiate a five-day paid menstrual leave with her employer. It was later implemented into the Labour Code as a right for women, but no further details were specified.

Analyses of the situation show that the idea was to encourage women to take jobs that had little to offer to them, as they were needed in low-paid and low-grade positions.

This was probably one of many factors. Japan was recovering from the Russo-Japanese War, World War I and the Second Sino-Japanese War, and another was already looming on the horizon. There were few active women, and men were also scarce. Meanwhile, the country needed hands to work. By the way, Japan is facing a similar problem now.

How does menstrual leave work in practice? 

The Labour Code guarantees menstrual leave to all women who perform paid work, regardless of the type of contract – it may be an employment contract, as well as a so-called ‘trash’ contract – and regardless of the working time – whether it is full time, half-time, or one-third of working time. The applicable legislation does not indicate how long this leave should be, or whether it is paid or not. This is regulated by individual companies on their own. They can even introduce a mixed leave, with the first day paid and the second and third days unpaid.

In my 15 years of working in Japan, however, I have never heard from any woman I know that she applied for such leave. Statistics show that only 0.9 percent of female workers take days off due to problematic menstruation.

Why is that so? 

Women feel ashamed to talk about themselves and their femininity. When applying for menstrual leave, they have to explain to their boss, who is usually a man, how long their period lasts and how painful it is. But the shame does not extend to menstruation only. It also covers the care-related responsibilities towards children or the elderly that are associated with a woman’s role, which means taking time off to go to the doctor, or having to leave work early. Women avoid showing their vulnerability and combining their private and professional lives openly.

Is femininity seen as a weakness? 

Anything that involves reducing your commitment to work for the sake of your private or family life is considered a weakness, a disadvantage. Also, losing a job is seen as a weakness. Japanese culture is collective, so the primary goal is being useful to society and the society – rather than the family as in Europe or the US – comes first. Work is the embodiment of such usefulness so if you do not contribute to society, you are perceived as maladjusted and not worth much. There is community pressure on not taking any time of at all, especially a long vacation.

Fewer and fewer companies offer paid menstrual leave, and three-quarters of companies offer only unpaid menstrual leave. Even if a woman decides to take it, she will probably be at a loss because of it, either financially or in terms of holidays, because the days may be deducted from the current or next year’s holiday entitlement. And yet her salary is basically lower than that of a man in the same position.

Does the law not empower women? Don’t they think, ‘Since I am supported by the Labour Code, shouldn’t I take advantage of it?’ 

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (editor’s note: he headed the Japanese government until September 2020) made an attempt to change the situation of women in the labour market. His extensive economic policy, which was called Abenomics, regarded the activation of women as a given, including increasing the presence of women in the government. Abe realised that the population was shrinking and aging – Japanese people live long and the average age has reached 50 – and hands were needed for work. Solutions have been designed for immigrants, primarily those from Southeast Asia, and for women, especially given that the other challenge for the country is negative population growth.

At the time, the government encouraged, for example, setting up in-house nurseries, taking paternity leaves, the four-day working week, and the more flexible work schemes for single mothers or caregivers of dependent individuals. The largest companies in Japan have started introducing such measures to show that they are keeping up with the global trends related to so-called corporate social responsibility. Thus, the policy was to encourage people to return to work after having a child (since few women currently do so) on the one hand, and on the other, to facilitate making a decision to have a child. Local authorities have started to introduce, for example, allowances for pregnant and postpartum women, without which hospitalisation for childbirthing is very expensive.

What is the conversation about the situation of women now? About their needs based on gender differences? 

According to the World Economic Forum, Japan was 121st out of 153 countries in terms of gender equality in 2019. The discussion stalled. The pandemic brought about other priorities and the government’s main focus is on how to protect the society from the virus and the economy from damage wrought by the crisis. This pushes Japan back into isolationism, which in turn encourages conservative attitudes.

How would gender equality look like in the Japanese labour market? 

It is a difficult question to answer. It would be a revolution that goes beyond the professional ground, it would impact customs and the system of values. Even Japanese women are very much divided on the issue. There are women who have managed to break the glass ceiling and are now devoted to blazing a trail for others. They arrange trainings and talks, and argue that women should dare to be themselves. Yet, there are also women who think only brilliant individuals can stand out, and that most Japanese women should just stay at home.

The business promotion system has a different tradition in Japan: instead of climbing up the career ladder like in the West, people rotate to equivalent positions to learn the ins and outs of the company. If you start in the HR department, you may be moved to the International Cooperation Department, then to the Payroll Department, and also to the factory floor. Only when you have an in-depth knowledge of the company, can you be promoted to a higher post. There are no young CEOs in large conservative companies. Women who cannot avoid interruptions at work due to their motherhood are not supported by the system. The fastest changes can be seen in sectors such as IT, fintech, and finance in general.

And which Japanese solutions support women? Is there anything worth following? 

Definitely the collective manner of finding solutions. It is embedded in the Japanese concept of kaizen, namely ‘improvement’. You can improve on anything that is good as long as you have ideas. There are kaizen circles in Japanese companies, where every voice – those of both women and men, of low-level and high-level staff – is equally heard and equally considered and rewarded. This is an excellent motivation to get involved in the company’s activities and makes people feel they contribute to its growth and success. Poland doesn’t seem to take advantage of what people who do the work have to say – contrary to Japan. At the same time, an improvement may involve mundane changes, such as adjusting machinery to the height of workers. This benefits the employees and the company alike. It also improves the quality and safety that every Japanese entrepreneur focuses on.

Interview by Anna Zaleska

The text was published at biznes.gazetaprawna.pl on 5 May 2022.