Thursday 28 November 2019

Umeko Tsuda and Gender Equality in Japan (Part 2: Today)

Part 1 of this post focused on Umeko's role as a pioneer in promoting education for women in Japan. Her legacy was recognised in April this year when it was announced that she had been chosen for the new ¥5,000 bank note to be released in 2024. The Ministry of Finance explanation noted she was one of the first Japanese to be sent to study in the U.S. and in establishing Tsuda College contributed greatly to contemporary women's higher education. She was not the first woman to appear on a bank note though - the current ¥5,000 bill features Ichiyo Higuchi, the Meiji poet and short-story writer who died age 24. Before that two other women have appeared: Empress Jingu (who is still the subject of historical debate) and Tale of Genji  author Murasaki Shikibu. However, Umeko is undoubtedly the first to have promoted female empowerment, at least on an individual level: on the other hand, she was anything but a feminist and opposed giving women the right to vote (women in Japan gained suffrage in 1945).
New ¥5,000 note to be released in 2024 (© Japanese Ministry of Finance)
What of Japan today? Earlier, in part 1, I noted that Japan was ranked at 110 in the 2018 WEF Global Gender Gap Report. This was mainly due to its low ranking in two criteria: (1) political empowerment (ranking 125) and (2) economic participation and opportunity (ranking 117). The former is based on the number of female MPs and ministers; the latter is based on participation in the labour force, remuneration (the pay gap), and advancement (female senior officials, managers, and professionals). While Abe's womenomics policies have boosted the number of working women - they topped 30 million for the first time in June - a large proportion of these are irregular part-time or contract workers, leading to a punishing pay gap (women earn 30% less than men) and a tiny number of female legislators, senior officials, and managers. Of course, there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics" - in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index Japan comes a respectable 22 - but this reflects a strong weighting on education and health, two areas where Japan performs strongly.

In everyday Japan, sexism is endemic. Last year, it was revealed that one of Japan's most prestigious medical schools, Tokyo Medical University, had deliberately marked down female test takers to ensure more men became doctors (apparently because women were thought to be more likely to quit to have children). Moreover, the #MeToo movement has been practically invisible in Japan; one of the few women to speak out, journalist Shiori Ito, has been widely vilified on social media and mostly ignored in the mainstream press for talking about her sexual assault (see here for good accounts in Japanese and English). After her complaint was dropped by police who cited insufficient evidence she sued her accuser in a civil suit and won ¥3.3 in damages in December 2019 in a rare case of a victim publicly coming out and pushing for justice (Japanese and English articles).

At the workplace level too, Japan still remains far behind. This year a group campaigning against women being forced to wear high heels in the workplace has gained a lot of attention. Drawing on the #MeToo movement, the group is called #KuToo, a play on the Japanese words for shoes (kutsu=靴) and pain (kutsū=苦痛). Despite the leader of the movement, Yumi Ishikawa, appearing in the BBC's list of the 100 most influential women of 2019, the Japanese media has given the movement short shrift with the Minister of Labour saying such dress was "socially accepted" and "occupationally necessary." A recent survey found that 11.1% of companies in Japan have rules on the height of heeled shoes worn by female employees in the workplace!

Now the trending hashtag is #メガネ禁止 (glasses forbidden) which highlights the fact that many women are told not to wear glasses at work. The whole regulation of female clothing and looks at work comes as no surprise personally: when working as an intern in a local bank in the 1990s I remember asking why all the female staff had to wear the fixed uniform (inevitably featuring a skirt) while the men were free to wear whatever they wanted. I still remember the incredulity that greeted my question: the eventual answer was that it was "convenient" for the female workers who "liked it" (though I'm pretty sure no-one ever asked them!). I wonder what Umeko would make of all this lack of choice in a country which, in terms of gender inequality at least, doesn't seem to have changed so much from the one she left in 1871. For more, see the Voice up Japan homepage, an organisation active in promoting gender equality in Japanese society.