It Took Decades, but Japan’s Working Women Are Making Progress

When the future empress of Japan entered the country’s elite diplomatic corps in 1987, a year after a major equal employment law went into effect, she was one of only three female recruits. Known then as Masako Owada, she worked long hours and had a rising career as a trade negotiator. But she lasted just under six years in the job, giving it up to marry Crown Prince — and now Emperor — Naruhito.

Much has changed for Japan’s Foreign Ministry — and, in some ways, for Japanese women more broadly — in the ensuing three decades.

Since 2020, women have comprised nearly half of each entering class of diplomats, and many women continue their careers after they marry. These advances, in a country where women were predominantly hired only for clerical positions into the 1980s, show how the simple power of numbers can, however slowly, begin to remake workplace cultures and create a pipeline for leadership.

For years, Japan has promoted women in the workplace to aid its sputtering economy. Private-sector employers have taken some steps, like encouraging male employees to do more around the house, or setting limits on after-work outings that can complicate child care. But many women still struggle to balance their careers with domestic obligations.

The Foreign Ministry, led by a woman, Yoko Kamikawa, exceeds both other government agencies and familiar corporate names like Mitsubishi, Panasonic and SoftBank in an important sign of progress: its placement of women in career-track, professional jobs.

With more women in the ministry’s ranks, said Kotono Hara, a diplomat, “the way of working is drastically changing,” with more flexible hours and the option to work remotely.

Ms. Hara was one of only six women who joined the ministry in 2005. Last year, she was the event manager for a meeting of world leaders that Japan hosted in Hiroshima.

In the run-up to the Group of 7 summit, she worked in the office until 6:30 p.m. and then went home to feed and bathe her preschool-age child, before checking in with her team online later in the night. Earlier in her career, she assumed such a job was not the “kind of position that would be done by a mommy.”

Some of the progress for women at the Foreign Ministry has come as men from elite universities have turned instead to high-paying banking and consulting jobs, and educated women have come to see the public sector as appealing.

Yet as women move up in the diplomatic corps, they — like their counterparts at other employers — must juggle long working hours on top of shouldering the bulk of the duties on the home front.

Ministry staff members often work until 9 or 10 at night, and sometimes much later. Those hours tend to fall more heavily on women, said Shiori Kusuda, 29, who joined the ministry seven years ago and departed earlier this year for a consulting job in Tokyo.

Many of her male bosses at the Foreign Ministry, she said, went home to wives who took care of their meals and laundry, while her female colleagues completed domestic chores themselves. Men are encouraged to take paternity leave, but if they do, it is usually a matter of days or weeks.

Some parts of the culture have changed, Ms. Kusuda said — male colleagues proactively served her beer at after-work drinking sessions, rather than expecting her to serve them. But for women “who need to do their laundry or cooking after they go home, one hour of overtime work matters a lot,” Ms. Kusuda said.

In 2021, the latest year for which government statistics are available, married working women with children took on more than three-quarters of household chores. That load is compounded by the fact that Japanese employees, on average, work nearly 22 hours of overtime a month, according to a survey last year by Doda, a job-hunting website.

In many professions, additional hours are much higher, a reality that prompted the government to recently cap overtime at 45 hours a month.

Before the Equal Opportunity Employment Act went into effect in 1986, women were mostly hired for “ochakumi,” or “tea-serving,” jobs. Employers rarely recruited women for positions that could lead to executive, managerial or sales jobs.

Today, Japan is turning to women to cope with severe labor shortages. Still, while more than 80 percent of women ages 25 to 54 work, they account for just slightly more than a quarter of full-time, permanent employees. Only about one in eight managers are women, according to government data.

Some executives say women simply choose to limit their careers. Japanese women are “not as ambitious compared to women in the global market,” said Tetsu Yamaguchi, the director of global human resources for Fast Retailing, the clothing giant that owns Uniqlo. “Their priority is taking care of their child rather than developing their career.”

Worldwide, 45 percent of the company’s managers are women. In Japan, that proportion is just over a quarter.

Experts say the onus is on employers to make it easier for women to combine professional success and motherhood. Career barriers for women could hurt the broader economy, and as the nation’s birthrate dwindles, crushing expectations at work and at home can discourage ambitious women from having children.

At Sony, just one in nine of its managers in Japan are women. The company is taking small measures to support working mothers, such as offering courses for prospective fathers in which they are taught to change diapers and feed infants.

During a recent class at the company’s Tokyo headquarters, Satoko Sasaki, 35, who was seven months pregnant, watched her husband, Yudai, 29, a Sony software engineer, strap on a prosthetic belly simulating the physical sensations of pregnancy.

Ms. Sasaki, who works as an administrator at another company in Tokyo, said she was moved that her husband’s employer was trying to help men “understand my situation.”

At her own company, she said, tearing up, “I don’t have much support” from senior male colleagues.

Takayuki Kosaka, the course instructor, displayed a graph showing the time invested at home by a typical mother and father during the first 100 days of an infant’s life.

“The dad isn’t doing anything!” said Mr. Kosaka, pointing at a blue bar representing the father’s time working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. “If he’s coming home at 11 p.m., doesn’t that mean that he also went out drinking?” he added.

After-work drinking parties with colleagues are all but obligatory at many Japanese companies, exacerbating the overwork culture. To curtail such commitments, Itochu, a conglomerate that owns the convenience store chain Family Mart among other businesses, mandates that all such parties end by 10 p.m. — still a time that makes child care difficult.

Rina Onishi, 24, who works at Itochu’s Tokyo headquarters, said she attended such parties three times a week. That is progress, she said: In the past, there were many more.

Drinking nights come on top of long days. The company now allows staff members to start working as early as 5 a.m., a policy intended in part to support parents who want to leave earlier. But many employees still work overtime. Ms. Onishi arrives at the office by 7:30 a.m. and typically stays until after 6 p.m.

Some women set limits on their work hours, even if it means forgoing promotions. Maiko Itagaki, 48, labored at a punishing pace as an advertising copywriter before landing in the hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage. After recovering, she married and gave birth to a son. But she was at the office when her mother called to tell her she had missed her son’s first steps.

“I thought, ‘Why am I working?’” Ms. Itagaki said.

She moved to a firm that conducts direct mail campaigns where she clocks in at 9 a.m. and out at 6 p.m. She declined a promotion to management. “I thought I would end up sacrificing my private time,” she said. “It felt like they just wanted me to do everything.”

At the Foreign Ministry, Hikariko Ono, Japan’s ambassador to Hungary, was the only woman out of 26 diplomats hired in 1988.

She postponed having a child out of fear that her bosses would think she did not take her career seriously. These days, she reminds younger female colleagues that if they want to have children, they are not alone.

“You can rely on the day-care center or your parents or friends,” she said. “Or even, of course, your husband.”

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