Gender Inequality in Japan

Japan’s failure to address gender equality contradicts its image as a developed nation

Published about 1 year ago in Asia & Oceania and Culture

japan culture gender inequality sexual harassment metoo eastasia society

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University students line up for a job fair at the Makuhari Messe convention center (Source: The Guardian)


As an international student and foreigner living in Japan, there are many issues that are overlooked by tourists, sexual harassment being one of them. After studying gender in my classes and participating in the Tokyo Pride march as part of Amnesty International last June, I began to understand how Japan’s rigid social structure fails to support women, disabled individuals, and minorities. 

In June 2018, Japan won a shocking victory against Columbia by 2-1. Crowds of excited fans filled the bustling streets of Shibuya, partying late into the night. The next morning, news broke: sexual harassment complaints filed to the police jumped by a fold after one night. According to a Yahoo Japan article that was published the next day, during the commotion in the Shibuya Crossing area after the victory, many women were groped and harassed, resulting in a large number of sexual harassment claims filed to the police and comments on Twitter and other social media portals. One user on Twitter complained that she was groped around five times; another said the touches were not accidental, but with intention. The article also stated that it was against the law to touch people or their belongings in public places, citing Tokyo’s Prevention Ordinance Article 5, paragraph 1, number 1. It also stated that such acts are considered a crime.

Rush hour at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo (Source: Matt Long)


What was more shocking was not merely the reports, however, but the social media comments in response to the incident. The top comment with more than 16000 upvotes simply states, “It would better if (women) don’t go to such places.” Other comments follow, such as “Women shouldn’t go to these places alone,” or “Women have to be careful and be aware of the risk.” 

Another comment reiterates these sentiments. It reads, “Well, (sexual harassment) can’t be helped.” 

The blatant victim blaming or victim shaming in social media comments illustrated Japan’s failure to reduce the gender gap and showed that the lack of direct action against aggressors inhibits Japan from progressing to a more equal society. While there are laws against sexual harassment, it is seldom enforced and often overlooked in both work and school environments. The axioms“Boys will be boys” and “It can’t be helped” are often used to dismiss patriarchal and predatory behavior. More importantly, many cases of harassment are often not reported due to the fear and shame of victims and the failure of law enforcement to resolve these cases.

The FIFA incident is a sharp contrast from Japan’s international image as a forward, economically powerful country. Japan is the world’s third largest economy in terms of nominal GDP, third largest automobile manufacturer, and largest electronic goods industry. It is known as a leading nation in technology and innovation. Its distinct culture and society also drew in 28.69 million tourists in 2017, according to JTB Tourism. Japanese popular culture such as Japanese cinema, manga, anime, music, fashion, and video games has shaped Japan’s image abroad as a distinct nation and tourist-favorite scenic destination. 

Yet, despite all of its economic glory, Japan still struggles with gender equality; it is ranked 114th in gender equality based on the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in 2017. The report measures gender equality based on the “relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics.” Japan is ranked last out of the G7, the group of seven major economies. Out of the four key areas, Japan is ranked first in health, 74th in education, 114th in economic participation and opportunity, and 123rd in political empowerment. Japan’s main reason for a low score is due to large gender gaps in terms of income and job promotions, as well as low proportions of women in politics, such as female lawmakers, politicians, and Cabinet members. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to introduce female-centric economic policies, dubbed “Womenomics,” Japan’s ranking in worldwide gender equality remains extremely low compared to other developed economies.

Japan gender gap statistics for women in positions of power (Source: Akane Odake)



Japan attempts to improve gender equality by creating policies that bring more women into the workforce, citing that a higher female labor force participation will bring economic growth. Prime Minister Abe pushed “The Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace” in April 2016 as part of his economic policy reform. And in that aspect, it was successful in bringing more women to the workforce, from 67.8% in 2012 to 72.7% in 2016, according to the Gender Equality Bureau. However, while more women are in the workforce, there are still a lack of women in executive, management, and senior positions in companies and the government. Only 3.7% of Japanese company executives are women, and only two of Abe’s Cabinet of twenty are women. According to BBC News, only 10% of lawmakers in the House of Representatives are women. 

Japan cannot simply achieve better gender equality by stating that more women in the workforce improves the status of the economy. Gender equality should be achieved for the sole purpose of improving the lives of women, men, and children in society. 

Juxtaposing Japan’s image abroad as a scenic tourist destination and its persona at home with failures to close a tremendous gender gap, highlighted the severity of sexual harassment and assault in Japan. What Japan needs is to recognize that the problem lies within the daily lives of Japanese men and women and start to eliminate micro-aggressions and condemning sexist behavior, such as victim blaming. As a resident, it is appalling to see constant sexism in Japanese media because it perpetuates the widening inequality gap between men and women in Japan. I believe that through highlighting such issues in international media and other outlets outside of Japan, Japan will succumb to external pressure in order to provide safer spaces and working conditions for women. As a developed nation with the world’s third largest economy, Japan needs to recognize that its lack of gender equality in every aspect of the daily lives of Japanese people poses a risk to not only the economy, but also the wellbeing of Japanese society. 

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