Japan’s Gender Gap Improves – But Not Enough

Japan’s Gender Gap Improves – But Not Enough

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A new report shows some progress in Japan's gender gap - but also highlights big problems. What are the key factors holding Japanese women back?

Regular readers will remember my recent infographic round-up of statistics related to gender equality in Japan. As part of that round-up, I cited the Gender Gap Index Report from the World Economic Forum. In their 2018 report, the WEF ranked Japan 110th out of 149 countries when it came to gender equality. The report said that, while men and women tend to be treated very equally through high school, Japan’s gender gap emerges as soon as women enter college. (Or, I should say, as they attempt to enter college.)

This week, the WEF released the 2020 version of its report. And the good news is, Japan’s score increased compared to last year. However, its relative ranking dropped, and it now ranks 121st out of 153 countries.

Political Representation, Economics Drags Down Score

Many people – including activists in Japan – say that conditions for Japanese women have improved substantially over the years. Sexism and gender discrimination are global problems that every developed country must tackle head-on. And Japan has, collectively, done its fair share to improve conditions for the women who live there.


But it seems other countries are progressing faster than Japan is. In 2006, Japan earned a score of 0.645 in the WEF’s index. Its 2020 score is 0.652. In other words, its scores have improved – but other countries have improved more. (Japan isn’t the only country in this position: the United States’ score increased slightly compared to last year, but it fell two places in the overall ranking.)

Japan's country score card in the World Economic Forum's 2020 Gender Gap Report.
Japan’s detailed scorecard from the WEF’s Gender Gap report. While the country earns high marks for Health and Survival and leads the world in certain educational metrics, it suffers from a lack of economic and political opportunities for women.

In a piece on the new report for Huffington Post Japan, reporter Izutani Yuriko dives into the factors driving Japan’s low score. Japan’s two lowest marks in the report are for women’s economic standing, and for their representation in politics. Economically, equality in Japan came in at 115th place – which actually marks a two-position improvement over 2018. However, political representation dropped to 144th – a full 19 positions back from 2018’s rank of 125th. The country also lost rank in education, falling to 91st place in 2019, compared to 65th in 2018.

(JP) Link: Gender Equality Postponed Again: Japan Falls to 121st, Its Worse Ranking Ever, in 2019 Gender Gap Report – Lowest Among the G7

Increasing Political Representation is Key, Says Expert

So how can Japan reverse the trend? Izutani talked with Shin Ki-Young (申琪榮), an associate professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. In Professor Shin’s view, it all comes down to political representation. Out of 465 members of the House of Representatives in Japan’s Diet, only 47 – 10.11% – are women. This means, Professor Shin argues, that women’s interests aren’t represented in critical discussions surrounding education, health care, and reproductive rights.

There are several factors driving this lack of representation. One is just flat-out discriminatory thinking – a belief that politics is a “man’s world,” and that women shouldn’t interfere. But another is a false belief that politics doesn’t matter:



In Japan, most people think that “politics is separate from daily life,” and “it doesn’t affect me.” That attitude’s a problem, and it’s one reason that there’s little female participation in politics.

Another reason is that political parties aren’t doing enough to sponsor female candidates for office. A new law passed last year says that political parties, “as much as possible,” must work to slate an equal number of male and female candidates. There’s no true penalty for not following the law, however, and more than enough wiggle room for parties to defend missing the mark. And Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自民党; jimintou) missed the mark big in the last election: only 14.6% of its candidates were female. “If the ruling parties…don’t adhere to it,” says Professor Shin, “it’s meaningless.”

The 100-Year Gap

Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion in the report isn’t any single country’s results. It’s the WEF’s conclusion that, given current trends, it will take 99.5 years to close the gender gap globally.

The good news is that this is a 10-year improvement over the WEF’s previous calculation. The global gender gap is still closing slowly, but the pace of progress is accelerating. If countries like Japan make gender equality a top priority – particularly when it comes to political representation – then maybe, just maybe, the gap can be closed in our lifetimes.

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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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