6 Facts About Gender Equality in Japan

6 Facts About Gender Equality in Japan

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A vocal minority on the Internet wants the English speaking world to believe women have no issues with gender equality in Japan. The facts say otherwise.

One of Unseen Japan’s goals is to highlight trends and movements in Japan that get little coverage in the Western English press. One such issue is the struggle women face for acceptance in Japanese society. Thanks to movements such as Ishikawa Yumi’s #KuToo campaign and the Flower Demos, such issues are capturing greater attention in the West.

One issue that still gets little play is how media portrayals affect the daily lives of women living in Japan. As part of the recent Uzaki-chan controversy, Unseen Japan spent some time translating tweets from Japanese women about their feelings on media portrayals of women in Japan. In turn, many Japanese and Western male anime fans accused us of “imposing Western values on Japan.” Japanese women, they insisted, didn’t care about these issues. We were quoting the words of a few lone wolves – a vocal minority. The majority of Japanese women, these men insisted, are barefoot and pregnant, and they like it.

Unfortunately for prejudiced otaku worldwide, the facts don’t back them up. To drive the point home, we discuss some of the relevant studies that have been done on this subject in Japan. We’ve also compiled an infographic below with some salient statistics about gender equality in Japan, both from the studies cited below as well as a few others.

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Media Representation Concerns Begin in High School

The most detailed and recent study on the subject of media depictions of women in Japan was a survey by the Girl Scouts of Japan. (The full survey in Japanese is available from the Girl Scouts of Japan site as a PDF.) Entitled “Written Report on High School Girls’ Relation to Gender,” the survey collected data from 524 high school age women; of those, 313 were Girl Scouts, and 211 were not.

The results were startling. A full 62% of high school girls surveyed said they have experienced or seen sexism or gender-based bullying. Of those, 49% said they’d witnessed discrimination in the media. Other sources of discrimination were the Internet (46%), public places (30%), school (18%), one’s partner (13%), home (9%), and juku or cram school (6%).

Picture: Girl Scouts of Japan gender study PDF

Additionally, 53% of the young women surveyed said that Japanese media doesn’t depict women equally. The top examples of unequal treatment included:

  • Namecalling towards women (79%)
  • Women serving as mere props to men on variety and news programs (58%)
  • Women working harder than men to achieve the same result (52%)
  • When women and talent are on TV, programs emphasize their appearance, not their ability (40%)
  • Media focusing on a woman’s appearance rather than the substance of her achievements (37%)

Concerns from Adult Women as Well

The Girl Scouts report is not an isolated result. Another survey by Plan International of 324 women 15-24 years of age found that 41.8% of respondents had seen ads that had made them uncomfortable. The study was part of an international study run as part of Girls’ Day 2019.


The reasons applicants cite for feeling uneasy mirror many of the reasons cited in the Girl Scouts survey. Respondents said that media images:

  • Used close-ups and other techniques to emphasize women’s sexuality
  • Relegated women to supporting parts relative to men
  • Pushed standards of beauty upon women
  • Exhibited outright prejudice in the form of violence against women
  • Didn’t take LGBT people into consideration

Gender Equality in Japan Until High School – But Not Beyond

One statistic that stands out from the Girl Scouts study is that many high school women did not report heavy harassment of prejudice inside of their schools. This seems to be a constant theme across statistics. In several reports and studies, Japan earns high marks for equality…right up until high school.

This difference comes out clearly in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2018. In the WEF’s report, Japan ranks 110th in gender equality out of 149 countries. But as Fuma Kenji writing for Gendai Media notes, the devil is in the details. When you look at the WEF scorecard for Japan, you see that the country ranks first in its literacy rate, and in equality in primary and secondary education. But as soon as women enter tertiary education (college), that number falls to 103. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given what we learned last year about the discriminatory acceptance criteria at Japanese medical schools.)


This gender gap was further driven home by a recent report from Motoko Rich, the New York Times’ Tokyo Bureau chief. Rich notes that the undergraduate class of Japan’s most prestigious college, Tokyo University (東京大学, toukyou daigaku), is only 20% female. On Twitter, Phillip Lipscy, the director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto, noted that this makes Tokyo University of 2019 worse than America’s Stanford University…of 1891. (In 1891, 23% of Stanford’s undergrad class was female. (Today, Stanford boasts a gender-balanced student population.)


The Uzaki-Chan Poll

We don’t mention this in the infographic, but I think it’s worth mentioning here. When the whole Uzaki-chan controversy broke, there was fierce debate over whether the majority of people in Japan would agree that the character was inappropriate for use in a Japan Red Cross poster. It’s only a single data point, but someone actually did commission a survey. It’s not quite clear who commissioned it, but the survey was run by Cross Marketing Group. It surveyed 800 people – 400 men and 400 women across four age brackets. Respondents were asked both if the poster made them uncomfortable, and – separately – whether they saw an issue with the poster.


Sadly, a large percentage of young men – over half – didn’t see an issue with the poster at all. However, almost half did – and over half of men age 40 and over find the poster problematic. By contrast, well over half of all Japanese women surveyed – over 60% of women in their 20s, and over 70% in all other age brackets – were both disturbed by the poster and found it problematic.

We should take these poll results with a grain of salt. In an analysis of the poll, author sumomo notes that the survey didn’t offer an “I don’t know” option. Had the poll included that option, they say, it’s likely the numbers would skew downwards. Even so, it’s heartening to have some data showing that, contrary to the insistence of male Western manga fans, resistance to this poster comes from more than a “tiny minority.”

A Longstanding Issue

Some may believe that this is a recent development kicked up by the rise of social media. It’s not. A report from Japan’s MEXT Ministry conducted in 1992 showed striking similar results. In that survey, both men and women believed – as they do today – that boys and girls received equal treatment at school. Yet when it came to the workplace and the household, the majority of Japanese women believed that they were treated unequally.

Unfortunately, few of these numbers have moved substantially. If we look at the same survey results from 2016, for example, the number of women who say that workplaces in Japan favor men has gone from around 63% to 57%. While that’s progress, it’s only 6 points of progress in the span of 27 years. And the number of women who believe that Japanese society, as a whole, favors men stands at a whopping 79%.

In short, women have faced persistent issues with gender equality in Japan for decades. Japanese women are keenly aware of such issues – and many of them are yearning for change.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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