Gender Inequality in Japanese Workplace and Employment

By Anjali Anand

Kazuo Yamaguchi, Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology, has long had an interest in the causes of inequality, social mobility, and social stratification. But he didn’t work specifically on gender until he became a Visiting Fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade, and Industry (REITI), an affiliate of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, in summer 2003. One of only a handful of non-economists at the prestigious think tank, Yamaguchi found nevertheless that his own work on social stratification had important overlaps with REITI’s interest in Japan’s aging society and low fertility rate.

“The most important thing that I have been emphasizing is that the government should take a more positive role in disseminating the findings that firms that promoted gender equality have been very successful,” Yamaguchi says.

“Most Japanese firms still view balancing work and family as a welfare consideration rather than as a more egalitarian form of human resource management. Promoting diversity leads to more talented people being found and leads to higher productivity.”

Among his findings, Yamaguchi demonstrates that the major reason for low fertility rates in Japan is “the incompatibility of work and families, especially for married women, because there is strong gender inequality in the household division of labor, but also Japan’s workplaces are notorious for their long work hours.”

This initially led him to a focus on the lack of work-life balance in Japan, the major causes of which are deeply rooted workplace practices and gender norms in the home. However, this work led him to examine gender discrimination in the workplace, which he found was at the root of much of the incompatibility between work and home life.

In the award-winning Gender Inequality in  Japanese Workplace and Employment, which was first published in Japanese in 2017, Yamaguchi develops the insight that because the Japanese workplace is premised on lifetime job security and a seniority-based compensation system, firms make it particularly difficult for women to enter the workforce again after exiting, for maternity leave or childcare. Because Japanese firms also rarely fire their employees, there are few opportunities for those who want to re-enter the workforce after a long absence.

In order to adjust labor demand to the supply without laying off workers, firms instead concentrate on manipulating the number of hours worked across labor categories. As a result, even firms’ attempts to accommodate women’s family life have had adverse consequences for Japanese women.

Gender Inequality in  Japanese Workplace and Employment received a monograph enhancement award from the Center for International Social Science Research in 2017-2018 to enable the book’s translation from Japanese into English. Yamaguchi notes that specific terms used to describe the Japanese workplace do not have one-to-one translations into English and therefore the book provides both the Romanized Japanese words as well as translations of the original concepts.

In the book, Yamaguchi writes, “In exchange for exempting most women from long work hours and strong constraints, firms precluded them from human resource investment and utilization and assigned them to subsidiary work roles regardless of their educational background” (p. 18). These employment tracks, referred to as ippan shoku, are generally in clerical work without scope for promotion.

As a result, women face a “dismal” situation even while they are still in the workforce, in which they are often shunted into irregular career tracks. Therefore, when children enter the picture, many find it easier to quit working than fight the employment system.

Moreover, firms in Japan often invoke the idea that women will leave their jobs anyway, so it doesn’t pay to invest in their training and development. Yamaguchi argues that the oft-invoked notion of “rational statistical discrimination” does not capture the real reasons for gender discrimination in Japan’s workplaces.

“I came to the idea that statistical discrimination is really a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Yamaguchi says. In fact, he notes that firms that have made strides towards more equal workplaces reap the benefits in terms of higher employee productivity.

Nevertheless, laws to improve and promote gender equality have been in place in Japan since 1986. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Yamaguchi says, is highly motivated to improve gender inequality in Japan’s workplaces. However, private firms, in particular, have been slow to change workplace norms, especially those around long hours. Yamaguchi notes that this is baffling in part because Japan has the lowest labor productivity levels of the G7 countries and ranks 21st in labor productivity of the 36 OECD countries. This is an indication that the longer work hours are not improving the quality of work produced.

As a corollary to his work on Gender Inequality in  Japanese Workplace and Employment, Yamaguchi frequently consults as an expert on civil lawsuits in Japan related to gender discrimination. Through his contacts with attorneys in Japan, he has provided data analysis for cases related to discrimination against women in medical school entrance exams as well as in compensation in specific firms. He also is a frequent contributor to Japanese newspapers, which he says has allowed him to become a “public sociologist.”

Yamaguchi’s upcoming projects will also focus on gender inequality, but he intends to expand his investigations to other countries, especially South Korea, which faces similar demographic issues as Japan, along with some crucial differences, including the fact that nearly eighty percent of Koreans attain a college degree, while only about forty percent of Japanese do. This makes the cost of Korean women remaining out of the workforce even higher.