Japanese Women: Lineage and Legacies
Nov 4, 2004

Hitomi Tonomura, Associate Professor of History, University of Michigan
Barbara Molony, Professor of History, Santa Clara University
Margarita Estevez-Abe, Associate Professor of Government, Harvard University
Karlyn Bowman, Resident fellow, American Enterprise Institute

As the fertility rate continues to decline and the population grays, many in Japan are concerned about their country's future. Young Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to enter marriage and motherhood, even as they fail to break the "glass ceiling" in Japan's male-dominated corporations. A recent movement to allow females to inherit the imperial throne shows that the debate over women's roles has penetrated even the most conservative of Japanese institutions.

Hitomi Tonomura, professor of history at the University of Michigan, discussed women's rights as far back as the seventh century, with particular focus on the issue of imperial lineage. She pointed out that more than 80 percent of Japanese people support revising the Imperial House Law to allow the crown prince's daughter (an only child) to assume the throne. Such a move would have important symbolic significance in Japan, Tonomura suggested.

Tonomura explained that ruling empresses were not prohibited until the Meiji constitution of 1889; in fact, several women occupied the throne in pre-modern times. The rights of ordinary women, as well, were curtailed by the Meiji government. For example, women lost their ability to inherit property; divorce became taboo; and the government centralized the nation partly though Confucian notions of status and subservience.

Barbara Molony pointed out that the current crown princess is a "typical" Japanese woman in that she pursued a career, married late, and mothered only one child. The difficulty of combining work and motherhood in Japan is shown by the steep rise in marriage age from 23 to 27.6 from 1950-2003, Molony maintained.

Like Tonomura, Molony countered the stereotype of the "traditional" (subservient) Japanese housewives by arguing that the female ideal of "good wife, wise mother" was largely a Meiji invention. Before that, women worked as hard or harder than men in Japanese agricultural society, and were valued for their productivity. Today, many Japanese women live by basic principles of feminism without declaring themselves "feminists." Certain female dominated groups—such as consumer advocacy groups—have proved powerful in recent decades.

Margarita Estevez-Abe discussed the changing Japanese workplace. She pointed out that recent advances in parental leave and childcare have helped Japanese women combine work and family. However, the government's support for working mothers is still inadequate. According to Estevez-Abe, the number of Japanese women in such professions as law and medicine is increasing, but they are still woefully underrepresented in high-level corporate jobs—largely because of seniority-based promotion and lock-step hiring. Women are more likely to interrupt their career for childbearing and rearing, and find it difficult to get back "on track" in such environments. Estevez-Abe contended that corporations with rigid labor practices only hurt themselves. They suffer lower productivity than more flexible "women-friendly" companies.

Karlyn Bowman, serving as commentator, pointed out that change in women's roles and status is usually slow—in any country. Even in the United States, a more individualistic society, workplace equality is still progressing. However, companies are learning that keeping female employees happy is "simply good business."

Bowman also made the observation that Japanese women tend to declare themselves "happy" in greater number than American women in public opinion polls, even while expressing dissatisfaction in workplace equality. Perhaps they are satisfied with the progress they have made, slow though it may be, when they compare their lives with that of previous generations.

Drafted by Amy McCreedy Thernstrom, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020