‘Soft Power’ on rise in Japan


Washington, May 9:

The collapse of Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ in the 1990s and Japan’s subsequent decline as a global manufacturing power have created new openings for women in what used to be a society heavily dominated by men.

Since the turn of the century, the Japanese Diet has passed new laws providing financial assistance to Japan’s elderly — lifting a major burden from the shoulders of working women — and outlawing domestic violence and human trafficking. Experts cite a growing realisation, especially among the young, that there are alternatives to lives oriented solely around work and pleasing the boss.

“‘We are not workaholics anymore,” proclaims Mariko Bando, while addressing a Washington seminar last week organised by the Japan Information and Culture Center of the Embassy of Japan and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. Bando is vice-president of Showa Wom-en’s University and a veteran of the Japanese civil service, where her last job was director general of the Bureau for Gender Equality.

To be sure, Japanese women still face severe discrimination at the workplace, particularly in large corporations. According to recent government surveys, women make up just 10 per cent of the ranks of corporate management. This compares to 46 per cent in the US and over 30 per cent in the most advanced economies in Europe.

“The per cent of women in decision-making is still small,” says Bando, despite the fact that women manage most home budgets and include among their ranks many popular novelists, ‘gender equality is not yet realised.’

But in the 15 years since the bubble burst, she says, Japanese society changed from one that was ‘economy-based’ to one in which democratic values held sway. As a result, women began to demand more rights, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) focused on gender equality, allowing women’s issues began to flourish. “Japan lost its hard power, but has developed soft power,” adds Bando.

One of the most significant results of this increased activism was the passage in 2000 of a law providing long-term care for Japan’s growing elderly population. In the past, this duty had been thrust on women and housewives, who were often given the responsibility for caring not only for their own parents but those of their husbands’ as well.

But this burden became too heavy, “and women’s groups demanded the socialisation of these costs,” explains Bando.

The women agreed at the seminar that ‘gaiatsu’ — a Japanese word meaning outside influence or pressure — has been instrumental in the recent changes in women’s lives. Two key events, says Bando, was the release of a United Nations study in the 1990s that showed that Japan ranked 39th in a survey of how women have progressed in 70 countries, and the Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing in 1995.

“‘I think ‘gaiatsu’ was very important for pushing Japanese women’s issues,” she says, “It was only with gaiatsu that the Japanese government started to move,” adds Hara. This is particularly true in the area of domestic violence.

Ironically, however, foreign companies have reaped some of the benefits of the sexual discrimination that still exists in Japan. Non-Japanese corporations “get the employees who can’t go up the promotion ladder,” says Bando.