Fertility and gender equality in Japan are both low — on Monday, leading Japanese sociologist Setsuya Fukuda asked an audience of about 30 people on campus why.

From a policy standpoint, parental leave, family policy and employment opportunity laws in Japan are surprisingly comparable to that of nations in the European Union and the United States, Fukuda said. However, but Japan’s population is shrinking due to aging and low birthrates, and social roles may be to blame.

Fukuda is a senior researcher in the Department of Planning and Coordination at Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. His lecture focused on issues women face in the workforce, and subsequent impacts on birth rates, Japan has 3.45 million potential female workers, and Fukuda cited several to social pressures that may disincentivize women from working.

“I personally believe that gender issues or reconstructing gender roles in Japan is becoming the most important challenge for Japanese society,” Fukuda said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

He presented several statistics on how Japan’s share of women in managerial and leadership positions, as well as the country’s gender pay gap, ranked poorly when compared to other advanced economies. Fukuda also pointed out that many women in Japan work full-time until childbirth and then return to the workforce as part-timers after childbirth.

During his presentation, Fukuda proposed several solutions to the issue for a nation with policies that have worked elsewhere, but aren’t working there.  Japan’s tax and social security laws are based on a model where the man earns most of the family’s income, but Fukuda said these laws should be adjusted to the reality of a society where more women want to continue working full-time along with their husbands after childbirth.

Japan should also abolish tax deductions for dependent spouses who make less than a certain annual income that are putting pressure on women to stay at home or work part-time to achieve equity, Fukuda added.

Another solution may be to implement EU-like labor laws to strictly regulate working hours. Fukuda said Japan’s corporate culture, which stresses loyalty to the company, is forcing men to frequently work overtime and neglect household and child-rearing duties, which obligates women to stay home.

“We need to change the game, or the rules of work environment,” Fukuda said. “Japanese people have long work hours and that’s because companies don’t have any laws to limit the work hours, so people compete with each other to get promotions by working a really long time.”

He also proposed an additional solution based on his experience researching European labor and family policies, suggesting emulating the policy of the Netherlands, where flexible work arrangements boosted female labor participation rates.

Fukuda pointed out that in addition to the Dutch labor model, which allots more time for parents to be with their children, salaries between full-time and part-time employees who have the same job are also not as disparate as those in Japan. Fukuda ended his lecture by stressing that “equal pay for equal work” is a major key in tackling Japan’s labor problems.

“If the Netherlands can do that, why not Japan?” he said.


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