Today's date:
Spring 2006

Japan and Europe Must Look to Women and Aging Workers in Future

Mitsuko Shimomura, long one of Japan’s most distinguished journalists, was the first female editor-in-chief of a national circulation publication, the Asahi Journal. She is author of How Has the Women’s Movement Changed Men’s Lives? and, along with Akio Morita and Edwin M. Reingold, of Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. Having left journalism as a full-time career, she is now vice chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and president and CEO of The Center for Health Care and Public Concern. She has served as a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Board and as director of the Asian Women’s Fund. She spoke with NPQ in early March.

Tokyo — How have women’s lives changed in Japan over the last 10 or 15 years? First, the number of women who work has definitely increased. It is no longer something special for women to have a career.

There is a very distinct and significant trend for women to marry at a later stage in their lives. Women who used to get married in their early 20s are now not getting married until they are in their 30s.

This means that the traditional Japanese values toward women are undergoing major change. There is less social pressure for unmarried women.

Whether or not these women are happy is another issue. But it is a fact that there are more unmarried women who are earning their own income and living with a relative degree of freedom.

Also, the number of full-time homemakers/housewives is decreasing, since most women seem to try to continue working in some form after they are married, and sometimes even after they have children.

Another change that we have seen is the increase of female workers in management-level positions.

During the past 60 years, the number of female House of Representatives members was at its highest after the very first democratic election after the war, when 39 women were elected. The number decreased after this and never managed to surpass that number. But last summer’s election finally achieved this feat, and it was a very dramatic accomplishment for us. Yoriko Kawaguchi, a woman, became the foreign minister. A female foreign minister was unthinkable before.

Also the percentage of women in advisory councils, in various government ministries and agencies is increasing. There used to be almost none, but the government set a goal of 20 percent, which has been achieved, and the target percentage was drawn up to 30 percent, a number we are already nearing. This is a trend both in the central and regional governments.

There are more female medical doctors, accountants and other professionals, who earn as much income as their male colleagues.

Having said all this, Japanese society is still a tough environment for women who want to be married, have children and pursue a career at the same time.

This is said to be one of the reasons for the falling birthrate. The problem of the decreasing number of children was thought to be something women should solve on their own, but recently the government as well as corporate leaders have begun to feel a real sense of emergency in regards to the deterioration of the national power of Japan.

As the vice chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, I have had serious discussions about these issues with the male business leaders of major corporations. And they are really, from the bottom of their hearts, concerned that lack of proactive usage of female power is going to lead to the deterioration of the national power of Japan.

For them, it is not a matter of equality of the sexes; their motivation is business, economy and competitive power in the international market.

But I think it is a huge step forward.

The Facts | The definition of “labor participation ratio” I use is: the percentage of those working, and wanting to work, out of the entire population. That includes unemployed people looking for jobs; basically everyone except for full-time homemakers, full-time students and retired people.

Under this definition, the female labor participation ratio (between the ages 15 and 64) is now 60.9 percent, the highest since 1968, when such statistics began being measured.

When you graph the Japanese female labor participation with respect to age, you get what is called an “M-curve.” Most single women in their 20s work, which is the first peak of the graph. It used to be that these women would get married and have children in their mid- to late 20s, so the graph dipped. Then in their 40s, when they are mostly done raising their children, they start working again, which appeared in the graph as the second peak. And when they retired in their 60s, the graph decreased. The resulting graph looks like the “M” with two peaks.

In the United States and in Europe, there is no dip and the graph is more of a trapezoid. The M-curve is a distinct trend seen in countries like Japan and Korea. Recently, this M-curve in Japan is changing and becoming closer to the American/ European trapezoid shape.

This is because women are not marrying and quitting their jobs in their 20s, and more single women are pursuing their careers on a long-term basis. The years of continuous employment for women are also on the rise, from 6.8 years in 1985 to nine years in 2004.

Finding a job after they quit their full-time job and raised their children, however, is difficult. Many end up working part-time or temping, which means that for a given job description, their pay and other conditions aren’t as good compared to full-time employees.

On the other hand, however, Japanese women do not necessarily want to become like the Japanese workaholic men. Of course, there exist top, elite, highly-motivated Japanese female leaders who have no problem working as hard and as aggressively as men. But on the whole, a great of number of women want to live a more liberated lifestyle which allows them to have a family, work, enjoy hobbies, travel, study, be involved in the local community. They do not necessarily want to be tied down to one company as a full-time employee.

For example, the medical organization I currently run employs many medical professionals, some of whom are full-time employees, and others part-timers or temps.

And when we try to recruit some of the highly performing part-timers or temps to become full-time employees, we often find them not wanting to work full time. They want to have control over the amount of time they work, and some even say that it is more fun for them to go and work for different companies. This is a trend seen not only in women but men as well.

Legally, the government is trying to lessen the differences in the working conditions and rights (vacation time, pension, medical insurance, etc.) of part-timers/temps and full-time employees.

So you have to remember that among the part-timers and temps, there are both people who chose that style of working, as well as those who want to become a full-time employee but couldn’t.

The point of all this is that the value system which informs life’s decisions in Japan is changing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Japanese society is shifting toward a Western-style society. I can’t tell where we are headed, but Japanese society and its value system are in the process of diversification.

IMPACT ON CHILDREN | Many men believe that the decrease in birthrate is due to women pursuing their careers and putting off marriage, and they criticize women for that. But interestingly enough, statistically, working females are having more children compared to full-time homemakers. Full-time homemakers aren’t having as many children as one would expect, since they are reluctant to be stuck in the house raising the children pretty much on their own while the husband focuses on his career.

It does seem that, with the decrease in birthrate, mothers nowadays spend a lot of time focusing not only their energy but their frustrations on their child, and that can sometimes be a burden for the child. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the various crimes within the family you read about in the papers.

But all this really differs from family to family, and I think it is dangerous to generalize.

There is also a definite difference among the different generations with respect to the salaryman syndrome. Men over 50 or so tend to put high priority on work over family. Increasingly, more men in their 30s are valuing their time with their family, taking time off from work to go on vacation and be with the family. Compared to the older generation, these men are more concerned about maintaining a good relationship with their wives and children.

I think this is not only due to the change in men. Their wives have become stronger and they are requesting that the husbands pay more attention to family life. Before, there were distinct roles for husbands and wives, which both parties accepted. That value system is changing. Although still quite few, some men are starting to take paternity leaves.

NPQ | In 1956, the Swedish sociologist Alva Myrdal co-wrote a book called Women’s Two Roles. In that book, she said women could have it all—family and a career—but both the women and their families would do better if they did it sequentially—that is have kids, and then when those kids go to school or grow up, women could go into the workforce.

The problem with her idea, she admitted back in the 1950s, was age discrimination. However, now that Japan, Germany and other European countries are not only aging, but predominantly old, isn’t it time to make way for people to work longer—and in particular women who can devote themselves to family first, then to work?

When I asked this question to (the now late) Betty Friedan, she said: “The average life expectancy for women (in the US and Japan, I think) is 80 years old. Hence the idea that people ought to retire from active life at age 65 or less is entirely obsolete.

“Increasingly, as Alva Myrdal foresaw, people are talking more and more of ‘my next career’ or my ‘second stage.’

“The longer horizon of life also affects your choices earlier in life. It relieves the fear of having only one chance to make it and opens up life to more adventures and choices than were ever before possible in human history.”

Isn’t this a viable perspective now for aging societies like Japan or Europe? What are the obstacles to providing work opportunities for the aging? Isn’t this a priority—and a solution—especially for non-immigrant societies like Japan?

Shimomura | I don’t necessarily agree that it’s better for women to pursue family and career sequentially. This obviously depends on the field of career and family situation.

But my own feeling is that it is really important to try to continue working in some form. If a single woman was working 100 percent, for example, she can perhaps work 80 percent after she gets married, and 50 percent or even 30 percent after she has children. But it is important for her to keep in touch with the new trends in society, and keep building up her career little by little. It isn’t as easy as one thinks to re-enter the job force after years of spending time as a full-time homemaker.

In any case, it really depends on the individual and the type of career, so it’s impossible to come up with one definite solution.

In her book, Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan argues that everyone is capable of uncovering a new self, allowing one’s inner talent to blossom, regardless of age, until the very end of life. I believe that.

A few years ago, Sony went through a mild restructuring, and a large number of employees left the company, not fired but by voluntary retirement. And I have employed several of these former Sony employees who are in their 50s and even one who is 60 years old, since I felt that they were talented and in good shape to contribute to the organization. People age very differently, and so one shouldn’t assume that people’s performance deteriorates at a certain rate with age.

Japan’s population is starting to decrease earlier than expected, which alarms us all. There are only two solutions for now for aging societies like Japan or Europe: One is to tap into the talent of the female population that hadn’t been fully utilized until now. This will increase the labor force. In order to make this happen, we need to provide the social and legal infrastructure for women to continue working at a level that would fully utilize their abilities.

The other solution is to provide employment and career opportunities for the aging population. Betty Friedan mentioned in her book that in the US, people over 60 are seen as one blur of an image as an old, bedridden population, when in fact, only 5 percent of them are bedridden and all the others are relatively in good health.

In Japan, those over 50 have the most money, having built their houses during the high-growth period, are healthy, are motivated and are well educated. And it is a waste for them to spend their days playing golf and visiting hot springs, when they actually still want to contribute to society in some form.