Who Will Work for Japan?

Irina Averianova, Nagoya University of Business and Commerce [About | Email]
Niculina Nae, Nagoya University of Business and Commerce [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 1 (Article 1 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 29 April 2018.


In 2013 Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō promised a society “where women can shine” with a rapid increase of female participation in the workforce. One part of Abe’s ambitious policy, whose major objective was to boost the country’s economy, is referred to as “womenomics.” There are two main factors underpinning this policy. On the one hand, the work potential of Japanese women is seriously untapped, as less than two thirds of them are employed outside the home. On the other hand, Japanese society at large strongly adheres to traditional gender-role distributions, which state that woman’s place is at home caring for the family and the elderly, rather than in the workplace.

The present study addresses these particular problems and offers insights, with regards to women’s participation in the workforce, into the attitudes and expectations of male and female undergraduate students attending a Japanese business university. Although young people’s opinions indicate a certain shift away from traditional views, the reality in the workplace is still likely to abate these expectations, hindering the country’s progress towards “womenomics.”

Keywords: Japan, womenomics, women in the workforce, gender, demographic decline, Abenomics.


The present paper constitutes the third stage of a larger study aimed at gaining insight into Japan’s younger generation’s willingness to promote a more active participation of women in the workforce. Moreover, we seek to identify any differences between young male and female undergraduates’ attitudes regarding work, family and child rearing.

In our previous studies conducted on English majors of a private business university, we found that, despite most female respondents being positive about their intentions to continue working after childbirth, and most male respondents tending to be relatively open and supportive of their future wives’ careers, a certain skepticism regarding the state’s ability to provide sufficient support to working families pervaded their comments (Averianova & Nae, 2015; Averianova & Nae, 2016a). The present comparison of the data obtained from both cohorts indicates a tendency of male respondents to be largely supportive of their future wives’ working full-time; however, in contrast with female respondents, a considerable number of male respondents tended to attach little importance to their future wives’ careers, but seemed content just to let them work, if they so wished. This is a surprising finding which might reflect the expectations of a new generation of male spouses: that of having a wife who is not only in charge of household chores and child rearing, but who also holds a full-time job.

In previous papers (Averianova & Nae, 2015; Averianova & Nae, 2016b), we provided a detailed analysis of the research into social, cultural and economic factors, which account for insufficient involvement of women in full-time employment. A summary of this overview will be provided further on in the description of the study conceptualisation and hypotheses tested in our research. The novelty of our study is in its attempt to evaluate the attitude towards these factors on the side of university undergraduates, who are about to embark on their adult working life path and who will become the future labour force of Japan. Whether they are willing to meet the challenges of womenomics or not constitutes the main research question of our study.

In the first part of our research we probed the attitude of young women to their lifelong place in the workforce (Averianova & Nae, 2015). The objective of the second part of the study was to explore the attitudes of young men to the issue of the increased women’s participation in the workforce, in general, and their willingness to support working women as future husbands and fathers (Averianova & Nae, 2016b). This paper presents the third stage of the research, where the results of the first two studies are correlated, and draws a comprehensive picture of womenomics, as seen by its prospective participants.

As Japan is currently confronted with the “3-Ds” (debt, demographics, and deflation), and is seeing its economic edge overpowered by China and other emerging economies, revitalising the country’s economy has become a major priority of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s economic reform plan, also known as “Abenomics.” A recent report from Goldman Sachs estimates that, if Japanese women were more active in the labour force, the country’s GDP would increase by almost 13 percent (Goldman Sachs, 2014:1). Abe’s ambitious plan of economic revival includes a number of targets for attracting more women into the labour force, to be reached by the year 2020. These include a target of 30 percent of working women in leadership positions, increasing women’s workforce participation to 73 percent, raising the percentage of women returning to work after childbirth to 55 percent, eliminate waiting lists for childcare facilities (by 2017), and increasing the percentage of men who take paternity leave to 13 percent (ibid, p.7). To this end, the government has promoted a number of measures, such as the “Comprehensive System for Children and Child Rearing” (April 2015), which aims at a quantitative and qualitative increase of childcare facilities, and the “Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace” (2016), which obliges companies to disclose the numbers and strategies for promoting women in managerial posts.

Since 2012, significant progress has been made towards engaging more women in the labour force. According to the most recent OECD statistics, in 2016, 66 percent of working-age females were employed, unchanged from 2014, but still the highest level compared with 63 percent in 2011 (Holodny, 2016). The M-curve of women’s employment (Fig. 1) shows that, in recent years, more women enter employment later in their twenties, probably due to a larger participation in tertiary education, and many of them continue working even after marriage or childbirth. As can be observed, after 1990, more women chose to continue working after 25-29 years old, a trend which was more pronounced in 2013.

Figure 1. The M-curve of women’s participation in workforce: past, present and potential

Averianova, Figure 1

Source: Goldman Sachs and MHLW

A 2014 opinion poll conducted by the government among Japanese men and women revealed that, although opinions on whether women should be stay-at-home housewives, while men should work outside the house were more-or-less equally divided: in 2014, slightly more women in their twenties (56 percent) were against this traditional gender bias. Incidentally, this opinion was also shared by 57 percent of the women in their fifties (Government of Japan, 2014). This result indicated that, in recent years, more Japanese have come to think that women should be taking a more active part in the labour force. Thus, the ratio of those who were against the idea that a woman should be a fulltime housewife (49.4 percent) was larger in 2014 than in 1992 (34 percent) (ibid.). However, a Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness survey conducted in 2016 showed that a considerable number of women in their twenties (73.1 percent) and half of those in their thirties dropped out of employment upon pregnancy and childbirth (MYILW, 2016a). In addition, in 2016, a slightly lower number of male respondents thought that the wife belonged at home (37 percent as compared to 40 percent, in 2013). Nevertheless, the ratio of women who were in favour of women as fulltime housewives was unchanged from 2013 (43 percent) (MYILW, 2016b). By comparison, it seems that more men than women favour the idea of a working wife.

Regarding reconciling full-time employment with childrearing, the survey showed that 60 percent of the female respondents would prefer to continue working after giving birth. The government survey showed a shift in attitudes regarding women’s option to continue working after giving birth or return after children are grown. In 1992, a larger number of women (42 percent) opted for returning to work after a few years, compared to an overall 23.4 percent of those who favoured returning to work at some point after childbirth. Further, the situation in 2015 showed that more women were thinking of continuing working (44.8 percent), as opposed to 31.5 percent, who favoured returning after a few years (Government of Japan, 2015, p. 4). Among the reasons for continuing working after childbirth, many respondents chose “it would be a waste for women not to use their potential” (51.8 percent), “women should have economic power” (47.5 percent) (ibid, p. 6). Moreover, regarding promoting women in leadership positions, 65 percent of the respondents thought that “having excellent people in leadership posts irrespective of gender would be positive,” 55.9 percent considered that “women’s voices would thus be heard,” and 42.8 percent thought that “it would bring diversity, which would result in creating new value, services and products” (ibid, p. 7). However, the lack of support from spouses or families in caring for children and the elderly and performing household chores posed a major impediment (50.1 percent), as well as insufficient child and elderly care services (42.3 percent) (ibid, p. 7). Most respondents believe that, in order to secure greater numbers of women in the labour force, child care facilities are vital (71.6 percent), as well as greater understanding from those around them (49.6 percent) (ibid, p. 11).

Although it appears that things are changing for Japanese women, progress has been slow. In 2015, Japan had more women in employment than Korea (66.7 percent compared to 57.8 percent); however, the ratio of female participation is nowhere near that of Iceland (85.5 percent) or Sweden (79.8 percent). The gender gap seems to be getting wider. In 2016, Japan ranked 111thout of 144 countries in terms of women’s equal opportunities to participate to business and governance (World Economic Forum, 2016). In 2017 it dropped further to 114 (World Economic Forum, 2017). Despite equal access of women to healthcare, education and technology, Japanese female population earns only 71 percent of men’s average pay, it holds 11 percent of the managerial posts, it has a 9 percent female representation in parliament, and a 22 percent representation in ministerial posts. It appears that the government may be far from achieving the 2020 targets of having women occupy 30 percent of managerial posts (World Economic Forum, 2016; Goldman Sachs, 2014).

What keeps women away from the workforce? Family is thought to be one of the most decisive influences. The Goldman Sachs report shows that, in comparison with countries like Sweden, Norway, Germany, US, UK, and France, Japanese fathers of children under 6 spend the least time (59 minutes) helping with household chores and child-rearing (Goldman Sachs, 2014:9). Fathers are seen rather like a useful, but often absent, appendage of the traditional family. Although in recent years there has been a growing trend of fathers to do‘kazoku saabisu,’that is, to spend time with families during weekends, rather than pursuing their own hobbies, and to care for young children (the so-called ‘ikumen’), Japanese fathers cannot measure up to those in other developed countries like Sweden or Norway. North (2009) points out that, “[f]or every Japanese husband who does the shopping, cleans the bath, cooks or takes his children to nursery school, there are nine who leave the household and care of children to their wives (or mothers).” Despite government’s attempts to encourage fathers of young children to take paternity leave, actually very few do so. In fiscal year 2015, only 2.65 percent of working men took paternity leave, out of whom 56.9 percent were absent from work for just five days (Mainichi, 2017). Nevertheless, there is hope. According to a study of Japan Population and Social Security cited by Goldman Sachs (2014:30), in the 1980s, 38 percent of young men aged between 18 and 34 thought that their future wife should be a housewife, as opposed to 11 percent, who believed she should be a working woman (Fig. 2). In 2010, 33 percent wanted their spouse to have a job, while only 11 percent hoped that their future wife would be a housewife.

Figure 1. Expectations of men aged 18-34 regarding their future spouse’s occupation

Averianova, Figure 2

Source: Goldman Sachs and Japan National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

In a critical paper on womenomics, Macnaughtan (2015b) argues that, despite apparent progress, especially in the public sector, Abe’s womenomics will have limited success, due to the fact that “it is focused on women. In order to really deliver employment equality, womenomics needs to include men too” (Macnaughtan, 2015b:3). The main problem lies, in her opinion, in the “gendered nature of regular and non-regular work” (ibid, p. 6). Currently, men are engaged in full-time employment, with prospects of advancement, while most women are employed in dead-end, part-time or non-regular jobs. Working women are mostly associated with the “temporary and cheap workforce supporting core male employment” (p. 7). This is the reason why women have fewer chances for promotion, can rarely expect to return to the same workplace after childbirth, and are not seriously considered for posts which involve responsibility. As Macnaughtan points out, “[u]nless that model [of gender segregated employment, n.a.] is dismantled, then progress for women in Japan will be only incremental at best and they will continue to predominantly work as a mainstay buffer force supporting an ideal of core male regular employment” (p. 19).

The Study Design

The initial conceptualisation of the study was grounded in the research conducted under the auspices of the Columbia University (USA) in the 1990s (Averianova, 1997, 1998), when the issue of the “glass ceiling,” a political term used to describe “the unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements” (Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995), became a disturbing reality in the West. “The Glass Ceiling Initiative,” started by US Labour Department, called for the thorough investigation of the covert, insidious discrimination against women in the workplace, as particularly reflected in the low numbers of women and minorities in executive positions. A similar situation was registered in other socio-cultural contexts, specifically in higher education in Ukraine (Averianova, 1998).

Twenty years later, in spite of numerous policies and regulations established to counteract gender discrimination, not only in the United States, but also worldwide, the situation remains largely unchanged. The necessity to revisit the glass ceiling of the new millennium was prompted by the famous speech of Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, who predicted the deceleration of the global economy growth due to the aging population and insufficient inclusion of women in economic life (Lagarde, 2014). According to Lagarde, this is particularly true of the “graying” countries of Europe, China, and Japan: these countries “will face growth precisely at a time when they need to take care of a retiring generation” (ibid.). In our further study, we explored contemporary labour demographics, namely the reticence of the labour market towards including women at its top end and other factors that contribute to this reticence, specifically, issues of traditional gender and role socialisation of women as powerful inhibitors of women’s upward mobility and career development (Averianova, 2014).

It comes as no surprise that the realisation of the threat of “an inverted socio-economic pyramid,” with fewer workers supporting the growing number of retirees, and the major radical way to avert it with the help of women, was, in fact, apprehended early on by the Japanese government. In a speech given at the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, Prime Minister Abe pointed out that it was a matter of great urgency to increase women’s participation in work and society. It is worth noticing that the buzzword “womenomics” was born in Japan and reflects the country’s ambitious plan to increase, by the year of 2020, the number of leadership posts held by women to thirty percent. Furthermore, leadership aside, Japan basically needs more women to work, as the country’s female labour force participation rate is still one of the lowest among OECD countries.

Whether women are willing or able to follow Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s plan of “womenomics” and whether their families are supportive of this is of critical importance to the country, with its rapidly ageing society and shrinking working-age population. Our research project has been designed with the purpose of exploring the attitudes towards womenomics with regard to the future workforce of Japan.

Conceptually, the project is envisioned as a longitudinal study comprising five parts. As was mentioned in the Introduction, the first three parts, i.e., a survey of women, a survey of men, and a correlation of the results for a broader, transgender perspective on womenomics, as perceived by undergraduates of one university, have been concluded. The further direction of the research is the correlation of these data with the findings obtained in two other universities, characterised by different compositions of student body from the viewpoint of vocational and career orientation. The final, concluding stage of the research will comprise a follow-up survey of the participants of the earlier research, who are presumed to be currently employed and, therefore, familiarised first-hand with the reality of working life. The instrument of the study was a survey conducted in electronic and paper format.

For the purpose of the current study, our attention was focused on the correlation of data obtained from our previous research within the following conceptual areas: 1) the intention of young women to work after getting married and the attitude of men towards having a working wife; 2) the intention of young women to work after childbirth, the attitude of men towards their child(ren) and their willingness to support their wives with household and childrearing chores if the women choose to keep on working; 3) maternal employment during childrearing and after children are grown up as a precursor of the respondents’ lifestyle choices; 4) participants’ perception of gender equality in the workplace; and 5) perception of policies and actions required to accommodate the needs of double-income families.

Data Presentation and Discussion

The survey of the women’s post-graduation plans revealed that the majority of the subjects planned to work before marriage, while most men either support or do not mind women working (Chart 1).

Chart 1. Attitude to Women’s Employment Before Marriage

Averianova, Chart 1

The answer “yes” corresponds to women’s intention to be employed upon graduation either full-time (78 percent) or part-time (1 percent). The answer “No” for female respondents corresponds to other post-graduation plans, such as continued education or travel, with only 1 percent intending to get married, presumably not being involved in any kind of employment. With men, “no” (4 percent) means being openly against female employment, while the majority of positive answers comprise 50 percent in favour of supporting female employment and approximately another half (41 percent) indifferent to the choices women make. The picture somewhat changes across genders regarding employment plans after marriage (Chart 2).

Chart 2. Attitude to Women’s Employment After Marriage

Averianova, Chart 2

As can be seen from Chart 2, there are more women than men undecided on the issue, and, while not many women want to quit their jobs after marriage, a higher percentage of men hold a negative stance toward their wives working.

This emerging differentiation of attitudes across genders is closely related to our findings of male attitude towards traditional role distribution in the family. In the second study, addressing only male respondents, there was a question probing the opinion of respondents about traditional gender roles, with men working and women responsible for housework and childcare, in which we found that 17 percent of the participants upheld the traditional pattern, and 9 percent did not have an opinion about the matter (Averianova & Nae, 2016b).

The most interesting findings are provided by the correlation of male and female answers regarding employment of women after children are born. As it was expected, a significant number of women (28 percent) want to quit their job, while 51 percent of them want to continue some kind of employment. Quite surprisingly, however, was that a much larger proportion of men voiced no objection to their wives continuing to work after giving birth (Chart 3).

Chart 3. Attitude to Women’s Employment After Childbirth

Averianova, Chart 3

The upper segments of the columns marked as “Other” reflect different data for male and female respondents, since the survey instruments were not identical for men and women. For women, “Other” responses correspond to  “Undecided,” while for men, “Other” signifies consent to a part-time or temporary/dispatch employment. Still, it is obvious that the majority of men do not object to their wives working while children are young.

In an attempt to interpret these findings, we compared the data on the respondents’ current maternal employment and their mother’ employment status while children were young. As vicarious learning through observing and emulating family patterns is considered by the research (Averianova, 2014) as a powerful factor in the development of an individual, this area of our inquiry also deserves certain attention. It was found that the data on respondents’ maternal employment situation confirm the established pattern, with only about one-third of mothers maintaining their full-time employment. Also, no significant difference was found between the data on women’s and men’s mothers, showing that both groups of the respondents shared a similar experience while growing up and that maternal employment does not directly affect the decision of a woman or her spouse to quit a job after the birth of children.

Thus, another plausible interpretation is that among the two groups, both being young and inexperienced, women hold on to more realistic expectations, visualising the demands on working women with young children, while men entertain a more idealistic scenario. This is indirectly confirmed on the issue of sharing household and childrearing responsibilities. In our earlier papers we found that, traditionally, men are socialised into the role of breadwinners, and, even assuming that men are now more inclined than in the past to see the value of shared domestic responsibilities, gender roles are slow to change (Gerson, 2010). Traditional gender stereotypes regarding housework and childcare operate like prisons for men, holding many of them back from trying new approaches to work and family life (ibid.).

This expectation of the role men can play in the family closely relates to the finding in the women’s survey within the answers to the question of what might help women with children to stay employed. Among other options described below, husband’s help was rated surprisingly low, at only 9% of other needs.

On the contrary, the young men among our respondents were eager to help their wives, which was proved by the absolute majority of answers (95%) to the question of whether they would help their working wives with housework and childcare. This romantic, but, in our opinion, short-lived enthusiasm, is grounded in the lack of experience male undergraduates have of working in the demanding conditions of the Japanese corporate culture. Still, on a separate question, a majority (54%) of them believe that men should work less and spend more time with children. They also believe that the government is not supportive enough of the double-income families (88%).

Correlating the male survey results with those of female undergraduates’ attitudes towards the needs of working mothers and the government/ corporate support of those needs (Chart 4), it seems that both genders are in accord regarding what is necessary to be done to support families with children, where both partners work. Chart 4 below shows where women look for the answers to the problem of working mothers. In the survey of male undergraduates, we extracted the relevant information from the comments elicited by the question “Should the government be more supportive of dual-income families?” Most of the male respondents (88%) believe that the government is not doing enough to improve the current situation. The areas where male respondents expected more governmental action were financial support, work time, childcare facilities and enabling a general change of mentality with regards to the roles of women and men at work and home.

Chart 4. The Needs of Working Mothers

Averianova, Chart 4

Should these findings be considered promising for the future of Japan’s workforce? Unfortunately, our findings do not provide a definitive answer. On the one hand, young men seem to be more egalitarian in their attitudes towards working women than was initially hypothesised on the basis of the perpetuated socio-cultural gender-role paradigm in Japan. On the other hand, male respondents do not appear to be unequivocal about the need to increase the participation of women in the national workforce. Personally, they are willing to give their wives free rein to choose whether to continue to work or not, and seem favourable to sharing household and childcare duties with their wives if they choose to remain employed. On the other hand, the results of a query on the quintessential question of womenomics, formulated as “Do you think that more women in Japan should work?,” rendered rather discouraging results. Since the responses were distributed between three roughly equal groups, e.g., 31 percent said “Yes,” 35 percent, “No,” and 28 percent, “Don’t know,” it is obvious that male undergraduates of a Japanese business university are not yet prepared to embrace womenomics as a foundation of the country’s new socio-economic landscape. This urges us to reiterate the (rhetorical) question which arose at the conclusion of the second stage of our research project: since most men believe they should work fewer hours and spend more time with children, but only one third of them consider that more women should work, who will work for Japan?


The study revealed that most young women are willing to participate in the workforce and to continue working after marriage and childbirth. However, they are also aware of the barriers which are still very much embedded in a conservative and sexist employment system, and which are easily discernible behind the façade of gender equality rhetoric.

Male respondents also appear quite supportive of women’s active participation in the workforce.Conceptually, the millennial generation of men has significantly moved away from the traditional concept of gender-based role distribution of Japanese society. The study indicates that most men want to marry and become parents and, while most of them came from families where mothers did not work or only worked part-time while their children were young, the respondents themselves appear supportive of female employment and are not averse to their wives working, either before or after marriage. Thus, our hypothesis about men adhering to the traditional views on gender roles was proved wrong. Even more surprising was to find out that our expectation of men holding on to traditionalistic views of women as housewives was also disproved.

Almost all students seem to be aware of the fact that times have changed, and that the traditional family picture with the father as sole breadwinner and mother as housewife and caregiver is no longer set in stone. Although the traditional model is still pretty much the norm, men and women have different aspirations and views compared to their parents. Men are no longer willing to sacrifice their life on the altar of corporate values. Women are more educated and more demanding about fulfilling their own dreams. However, there is a gap between men’s and women’s aspirations, on the one hand, and reality, on the other. Although women are willing to continue working full time after giving birth, many are aware of insufficient child care facilities and lack of support and understanding in the workplace. Men would like to dedicate more time to family and child rearing, but the pressure to keep up with the corporate tradition is still strong. The study has also found that some men have rather unrealistic expectations from society: they would prefer to work shorter hours, but would still like their spouses to fulfill their traditional role of stay-at-home caretaker.

To a certain extent, the inconsistency in some findings is moderated by the assumption that, at this stage of their life, respondents are not fully aware of the challenges dual career families with young children must face. However, their realisation that childcare and house chores are not just women’s duty and their willingness to help their wives testifies to the fact that participants are more cognisant of their choices than the researchers assumed them to be.

Participants also expected more from the government in support of working mothers and dual-income families, as was initially hypothesised, and their comments and recommendations are concurrent with those offered by womenomics analysts.

Still, the lack of adequate, mature appraisal of the work-life reality that many male participants of the study displayed calls for the need to address this issue by social and educational means. While the positive change in men’s attitude may bode well for the country’s attitude towards gender equality, the question remains: if men work less and women do not work more outside the home, who will work for Japan?


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About the Authors

Irina E. Averianova is a Professor of English at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business, Aichi, Japan. She holds an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, in Higher Education Administration, and a PhD in Linguistics from Kiev National University, Ukraine. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Language, Culture and Communication. Her research interests include electronic discourse analysis, women studies, translation, and CALL.

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Niculina Nae is a Professor of English at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business, Aichi, Japan. She holds an MA and PhD from Nagoya University, Graduate School of International Development. Her research interests include translation and interpretation, internationalisation of Japanese universities, motivation in foreign language learning, and gender studies. Her most recent research is related to perceptions of Japanese undergraduates regarding a more active involvement of women in the workforce.

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