“Many Japanese women still have to choose between having children or having a career”

“Many Japanese women still have to choose between having children or having a career”

Tomoko Yoshino (second from the right), vice-president of Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC)-Rengo, says that Japanese women are fighting against gender discrimination on multiple fronts, from precarious work to sexual harassment.

(ITUC/Meylin Aguilera)

Despite being one of the most advanced economies in the world, Japanese women face a multitude of obstacles as they attempt to climb the career ladder. According to the World Economic Forum, Japan’s gender gap is ranked as 114 out of 144 countries, down from 111 the previous year. The issue of ‘maternity harassment’ is one of the main challenges, along with long working hours, poor access to childcare, the unequal burden of care work, a lack of career opportunities and sexism. As a result, almost half of all Japanese women drop out of the labour market after having children.

Once children are of school age, many women who attempt to return to the labour market are met with insecure, low-wage and/or contract work. As a result, the issue of gender equality in the workplace is a key issue for Japan’s unions.

At the 3rd World Women’s Organising Assembly in San José, Costa Rica this October, Equal Times spoke to Tomoko Yoshino, vice-president of Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC)-Rengo, about what Japanese unions are doing to advocate for better work for women. She spoke about the need to create new laws to prevent harassment and the urgent shift in mindset needed to tackle gender-based discrimination.


For those unfamiliar with the term ‘maternity harassment’ can you explain what it is?

Maternity harassment is the harassment of women who are pregnant, on maternity leave or who have returned to work after giving birth. In Japan, women are discriminated against simply for having children. Many women still have to choose between having children, or having a career. A lot of women are forced to quit their jobs, while sometimes they are relocated or transferred to a different job or department. They cannot continue with their career, simply because they want to have a baby.

Why do you think this particular form of gender discrimination is so prevalent in Japan?

This is our model of gender harassment. The traditional Japanese mindset around gender roles remains strong in the workplace. People believe it is the men that should go to work while women should stay at home to do the household chores, raise children and look after family members who require nursing care. Another reason is that amongst employers there is a belief that if a woman leaves a company, it is a good thing as it will help them manage costs.

In 2012, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe launched his ‘Womenomics’ initiative to get more women into leadership positions. How successful has this been?

It is a challenge. The government and business are trying to increase women’s leadership and women in management positions to 30 per cent by 2021. We don’t know if Prime Minister Abe plans to continue this scheme but the real solution to this problem cannot be a temporary fix. As trade unionists, we look at this issue in a slightly different way to the government because the government sees increasing women’s participation as a way to improve the economy. But we do not think that women are a tool for the economy. We want decent work and good working conditions for all women.

Japanese women are going to university in higher numbers than ever before but fewer women are staying in the workforce. Are there other issues aside from maternity harassment that contribute to this situation and what can be done to keep women working?

Women find it harder to get a job as they face discrimination. This is particularly true if they have been through higher education, as companies think they are more expensive to employ. We have a Gender Equality Act, so by law, women should be given equal opportunities and equal employment. But in reality, this isn’t the result.

The International Trade Union Confederation is currently running its own campaign to increase women’s leadership within the union movement. How is JTUC-Rengo doing in this regard?

We have policies to raise women’s leadership, to organise more women than ever and to ensure their work-life balance. Every affiliated union has to adopt these policies. We also think it is important to keep working on more leadership positions for women to help them promote their careers. But we have to remember that most union officers have a term of office and this is only two terms of four years. So, we have to make sure that there are always qualified women available to take these positions over a long period of time.

One of the main topics of discussion here at the World Women’s Assembly has been about gender-based violence and the campaign to ensure thatthe International Labour Organization (ILO) introduces a convention to protect women against violence in the world of work. What are your thoughts on this?

The eradication of gender-based violence is a really important issue. In Japanese law we have a law to prevent violence against women, but there is no law to prohibit harassment so this is something that we would like to see happen. Japanese people have a strong consciousness about gender roles and we need to challenge this. The ILO convention will also help in this regard and Rengo is actively trying to develop a movement to support the campaign.