Tokyo, Japan – When Nami Sakai returned to Tokyo in 2016, after 15 years working in the United States, she struggled to acclimate to Japanese corporate culture.
As a woman and a self-described “outsider,” Sakai, who works in consulting, found that her ability to make a difference and spread her voice had diminished, despite her seniority.
“In Japan, men have always been more dominant in the workplace,” Sakai told Al Jazeera, describing the work culture as “fundamentally” different from her experience in the US.
“The power hierarchy is so entrenched that men often don’t consider where women are, status-wise.”
Japan’s corporate culture, which prides itself on grueling office hours, has long been derided by critics as patriarchal and unfriendly to women.
Japanese women earned an average of 21.1 percent less than their male counterparts in 2021, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nearly double the average gap among developed economies.
Meanwhile, women make up just 14.7 percent of senior roles in Japan, compared with 42 percent in the US, 40 percent in Sweden and 37 percent in the UK, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to address this gender divide as part of his “new capitalism” aimed at narrowing social inequality.
Under the measures announced by Kishida earlier this year, large firms will be required to disclose the pay gap between men and women, the ratio of female managers and the rate of male employees taking parental leave in their annual financial reports.
The reporting requirements, which will affect more than 18,000 businesses with more than 300 employees, are scheduled to take effect from March 2023, the end of the fiscal year.
Natsumi Yamada, a Greater Tokyo Gender Program Officer, said she hopes greater transparency will spur change in the corporate world.
“The younger generation has a better sense of gender equality, so once this kind of information is revealed, I believe companies that struggle to achieve gender equality will have difficulty hiring bright minds,” Yamada told Al Jazeera.
“The younger generation can’t really cope with the lifestyle of women staying at home and men going to work, so that will also be a driving factor for inclusion.”
The policy builds on late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics, which sought to introduce structural reforms to the workplace, including measures to encourage greater participation by women.
Kathy Matsui, an economic strategist who coined the term “women” to describe Abe’s focus on ensuring women “shine” in corporate Japan, has argued that increasing women’s participation could boost Japan’s gross domestic product by at least 15 percent.
Japanese women have made gains in the workplace in recent years. The average pay gap between men and women has narrowed by a third since 2005, while the overall employment rate of women has risen above the OECD average.
But by many measures, Japanese female workers still lag behind their male counterparts and women across the developed world.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, released Wednesday, Japan ranks 116 out of 145 countries surveyed on a range of metrics, including political representation and economic empowerment, making it an outlier in the developed world. .
Although entry-level male and female employees start at similar salaries, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average monthly salary of Japanese men peaks between the ages of 55 and 59 at about 420,000 yen ($3,036), compared to 270,000 yen. ($1,951) for women.
Although Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act criminalizes discrimination based on immutable characteristics, it does not cover discrimination based on wages. In 2018, the Japanese parliament passed a law promoting quotas for women in politics, but similar moves have not extended to the workplace.
Yoshiko Ogawa, who works in human resources in Tokyo, has seen women gain more respect in the workplace since she began her career in the male-dominated real estate industry.
“Female workers were expected to serve tea to visitors regardless of their job position,” Ogawa, 36, told Al Jazeera.
But Ogawa, who is now a mother of three, said raising children remains a big issue for women as nurseries are often expensive and oversubscribed.
Although Japan guarantees up to 58 weeks of parental leave – generous by international standards – critics say women are often not discriminated against in the employment process because of their ability to bear children.
“Employers see this as a threat, so they often hire men as there is more potential for longevity,” Nina Cataldo, co-founder of Brave and Bold Mastermind, a business accelerator program for Asian women entrepreneurs in Japan, told Al Jazeera. “There is no political conversation about reshaping the image of women.”
Cataldo said many Japanese women find being a housewife more attractive than the alternative of “working from 8am to midnight every day and being harassed by their bosses”.
“And I think that’s why the system isn’t changing: women have an advantage, and in some ways it’s a little bit cheaper.”
Sarah Louisa Birchley, a business professor at Toyo Gakuen University, said the “female” ambition had failed to materialize.
“The pandemic also set the numbers back somewhat as women were disproportionately disadvantaged during that time as many working mothers had to leave work to care for children or support their husbands who worked from home,” Birchley told Al Jazeera.
Birchley said many women are frustrated by the lack of affordable childcare, high-pressure work environments and overtime cultures, and required participation in “nomikai,” or drinking parties, which she likens to ” old boys’ clubs”.
“There are also strict guidelines on how women should behave during the recruitment process; their skirt length is specified, along with the type of pantyhose they should wear, there are tips on makeup, hair color, and even what they should have in their purse,” she said.
“Modern women feel that this limits their personality, and many students complain to me about how uncomfortable it is to have to ‘play a role’ or ‘act’ in a certain role.”
For Sakai, the consultant in Tokyo, the government’s efforts to support women in the workplace have generated mixed feelings. She questions whether the policy will be just a “cosmetic change and whether women will be ‘tokenised'”.
“I think it’s good to have female leaders, but are they qualified?” And if they are qualified but still outnumbered, what kind of support system is there?” she said. “They don’t need to be born, but what are we really doing to empower women?”