Japanese women have made some gains since implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986, but they still lag far behind men in Japan and women in other industrialized countries in terms of employment opportunities. In this essay, I will evaluate how full and accurate a picture of the lives of women in contemporary Japan Sayoko Yoneda provides in her chapter on the 'Problem of Women's Studies in Modern Japan and Women's History' (1991, 238-260). Specifically, this essay focuses on her comments in the section on the '"Equal Employment Opportunity Law System" and Women' (246-251).
Section 1 of this essay analyzes the Japanese legal framework related to women's employment. The next section examines the extent and nature of female labor force participation. Sections 3 and 4 evaluate the two principal features of the 'equal employment opportunity law system' mentioned by Yoneda, namely long working hours and non-regular (or part-time) employees. Section 5 discusses what I believe to be the key structural features and practices that lead to employment discrimination against Japanese women. The following section looks at some positive developments for equal employment opportunity. The final section provides conclusions.
Yoneda identifies three major laws as forming the 'equal employment
opportunity law system': the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, revisions
to the Labor Standards Law, and the Temporary Work Services Law, all of
which went into effect in 1986 (246, 249). Since then, several other new
laws and revisions to existing laws have been implemented to improve employment
opportunities for women.
Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL)The drafting of the EEOL provoked an intense debate regarding protective legislation for women, such as restrictions on the number of overtime hours. Critics charged that legal restrictions gave employers excuses to not allow women in managerial positions and certain occupations. Others suggested that the working conditions (e.g., overtime hours) of Japanese men were unreasonable and inhumane, so the working environment of men should be improved (Brinton 1993, 230). When finally passed by the Diet, the law contained provisions that companies must voluntary endeavor to not discriminate in recruiting, hiring, assignments, and promotion. The law also had provisions to prohibit discrimination in retirement, dismissal, fringe benefits, and training. However, the law included no provision to penalize companies for noncompliance.
Other LawsThe Labor Standards Law was also revised to relax overtime restrictions for some women. Originally established in 1947, this law limited overtime for women to two hours per day, six hours per week, and 150 hours per year. The law also prohibited holiday work and late-night work (from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.). Under the revisions implemented in 1986, restrictions were abolished only for women in managerial positions and in 14 occupational categories requiring specialized knowledge or technical skills. Although exact figures are impossible to obtain, it is estimated that fewer than 5% of all female employees worked on a totally equal basis with men even after enactment of the revisions to the law (Shinotsuka 1994, 105-106).
Yoneda incorrectly emphasizes the importance of the Temporary Work Services
Law in contributing to the expansion of non-regular, unstable employment
(249). This law applies only to temporary workers dispatched to companies
by personnel agencies, and in 1992 this category of workers made up only
0.3% of the total work force (NHK 1995, 113). The number of non-regular
women employees has rapidly expanded (discussed in Section 4 of this essay),
but the reasons for the growth have very little to do with this law, which
allowed personnel agencies to provide companies with temporary workers
in 16 occupational categories (Hulme 1996).
Recent ChangesSeveral important new laws affecting women's employment opportunities have been passed since Yoneda's work was published in 1991. In 1992, the Child Care Leave Law went into effect which allows employees, both men and women, to take a leave of absence until their children reach the age of one. Workers with preschool children may also get reduced hours in place of a leave (Rôdôshô 1997). This law only applies to full-time regular employees, and it does not guarantee payment of salary while on leave. In 1995, the law was revised to include family care provisions (e.g., parent care).
In 1997, the Japanese Diet passed revisions to several laws, including the EEOL, the Labor Standards Law, and other related laws, in order to guarantee employment equality and to improve work opportunities for female workers (Sôrifu 1997). When these revisions go into effect in April 1999, they will effectively abolish legal provisions protecting women employees, which means they will now be exposed to the same working conditions as men. With these revisions, the supporters of protective measures for women (and men) effectively lost to those who support equality.
The 1997 revisions not only abolish restrictions on overtime, late-night work, and holiday work, they also make mandatory the EEOL anti-discrimination provisions related to recruiting, hiring, assignments, and promotion, which previously employers only needed to make voluntary efforts in regard to compliance. Enforcement provisions in the new revisions appear very weak, with the only penalty being that violators may have their names made public. The new laws also contain some positive action (similar to 'affirmative action' in U.S.) provisions for companies to take measures to encourage improvements in women's employment. (Rôdôshô 1998)
According to the Ministry of Labor's Labor Force Survey, the
number of working women has increased from 15.5 million in 1985 to 20.1
million in 1993 to 27.6 million in 1997. During these same years, women
made up 36%, 39%, and 41% of the total labor force. More than 60% of the
rise is due to an increase in non-regular (or part-time) workers. (Nakano
1996, 67; Sôrifu 1998)
M CurveFemale labor-force participation in Japan reflects a so-called 'M Curve'. The first point of the M is in the 20-24 age group, which had a 73% participation rate in 1997. This peak occurs as women enter the work force after completion of college or high school. The bottom of the M is at the 30-34 age category, with a 56% labor-force participation rate. This dip in the rate is caused when women leave the work force to raise their children. For example, in 1992, among mothers with the youngest child being under four years of age, the paid employment rate was only 21% (K. Tanaka 1995, 297). The second peak in the M occurs when women return to work after raising their children or after they start to attend school. Women in the 45-49 age group have a 72% participation rate. (Sôrifu 1998)
Between 1980 and 1990, the dip in the M (the middle) shifted from the 25-29 to the 30-34 age group due to the increased age of first marriage, which has now reached 26.4 for women (Shinotsuka 1994, 99; Sôrifu 1998). Over the last 40 years, female labor-force participation in eight age categories from age 20 to 59 has increased almost continuously, which has made the M somewhat less drastic now than when compared to previous years (Kumagai 1996, 109).
Japanese women's pattern of participation in the labor force differs
drastically than that for Japanese men and for women in other industrialized
Western countries. Japanese men's employment remains over 95% from ages
25 to 54 (Ogasawara 1998, 17-18). Women's labor-force participation in
the U.S. and Sweden, for example, has an up-side-down 'U-curve' since women
tend to continue in the work force while rearing their children (JETRO
Wage LevelsIn Japan, men's wages tend to rise steadily throughout their careers until ages 50 to 54, whereas women's wages begin to fall as they enter their 30s. In 1996, the average wages for Japanese women were 63.5% of men's, but this is up from 56% in 1985 (Pollack 1997, 3). The percentages by age group show the decline of 1996 women's wages in relation to those of men: 91% at 20-24 age group, 75% at 30-34 age group, and 52% at 50-54 age group. Women's wages in relation to men's in Western industrialized countries are greater than in Japan. The rates in the U.S., Germany, and France are 76%, 74%, and 81% respectively. (Keizai Kikakuchô 1997, Sect. 1.2.1, Graph 1-2-1)