Perspective, #12, 21 October 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies

The Involvement of Women in the Japanese Private Sector

Oindrila Mukherjee


The Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Japan witnessed extensive reforms taking place to catch up with the liberalist thought of Western Europe and the United States of America. Modern European thought as “the Enlightenment" promoted the equality of sexes and the practice of monogamy. However, the idea of “the Enlightenment” was brought about during the Meiji era in Japan. Special schools for women were established on a large scale, and women were now encouraged to pursue education. Yet, women were only educated in order to raise good children. Women lived by the phrase “Ryosai Kenbo”, which meant a good wife and a wise mother. Japan witnessed a large-scale transformation during the later phase of this period. This was the period of industrialization and modernization. In the early stages of industrialization, Japanese women were extensively exploited as they were expected to work in factories under poor conditions and were denied fundamental rights. Women in Japan were expected to serve their husbands and raise well-educated children. Nonetheless, Japanese women served extensively during the Second World War. The percentage of Japanese women in service was significantly less when compared to American women during the Second World War, yet their presence is significant in history. It is to be noted that most women employees before the 1960s in Japan were young and unmarried.

Women’s participation in the Japanese labour force during the late 20th century

Japanese women's employment is mainly categorised as non-regular in the contemporary period. Non-regular employment is when a worker is employed in part-time or other uncertain roles like contract workers or temporary workers. The primary reason behind women taking part-time job roles is due to the patriarchal society where men are not encouraged to contribute to the daily household chores. Actual women's participation in the Japanese labour force can be traced back to the early to mid-1970s when the country was going through a major economic crisis due to the first-ever oil shock. The Japanese social system has been patriarchal regarding providing financial support to families.

On the other hand, women were expected to be fully responsible for their households despite having a job. In the 1970s, only 55 percent of women participated in the Japanese labour force. The decade from 1990 to 2000 witnessed a massive rise in women's participation in Japanese workspace. By 1999, the participation rate in the labour force for college-educated Japanese women was 60 percent, catching up with advanced countries like the United States, France, and Germany, where the percentage was as high as 80 percent. Eight percent of Japanese women were in managerial positions, whereas the rate was as high as 42 percent and 33 percent in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. The average wage of women was only 63 percent of their male counterparts. The Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) of 1985 was one of Japan's comprehensive laws that prevented gender discrimination in all stages of employment, ranging from recruitment, assignment, promotion, training, wage, and termination of employment. However, this law only led to the hiring of full-time male employees who were university graduates and part-time female employees who were junior college graduates. The EEOL did bring significant changes in the Japanese market with increased female participation. Nevertheless, the discrimination against female employees was still very evident and even increased after the 1990 bubble economy. 

Source: Japan and Economics, Labor Force Update 2013

The above image shows that women’s participation is higher across the board (1975-2012), though the “M” for women persists. An exception is seen at 20-24, where lower participation reflects women attending college degrees.

Evolution of women’s participation in the Japanese labor force in the 21st century

The 21st century witnessed a significant rise in women’s participation. Between 2002-2016, women’s participation increased by 8.33 percent, and men’s employment declined by 2.17 percent. Women’s participation in the Japanese labour force resembled the letter M until 2017, when the M curve steadily started disappearing, as referred to in Figure 1 below. Women aged between 15-19 were seen participating in the labour force in large numbers, but women in their 30s leave the labour force for reasons which include marriage and childbirth and then again rejoin at the age of 40. However, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication’s Labour Force Survey Report (2017), working women in their 30s have been increasing in Japan since 2016. 

Women’s participation in healthcare services increased by almost 2.7 million in 2002-2018. The rising women’s participation in the Japanese labour market fueled household income and economic growth. However, Japan was still lagging as by the year 2000, women’s labour force participation was only 66.5 percent, below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average. The labour force participation of married prime-aged women was 59.4 percent in 2000, whereas the percentage of single women in employment was as high as 89 percent in 2000. While the numbers look promising, there has always been a significant wage gap between the two genders and the age differences of the same gender. Women typically aged around 35-39 had a lower income than those 25-34 years old, which signifies the difficulties Japanese women face in the workforce after marriage and childbirth. On a wage gap comparison between male and female employees, a 2016 study by The Labour Market in Japan, 2000-2016, shows that 48.8 percent of female workers were employed under a fixed-term contract. In contrast, only 17.8 percent of males were employed for the same. 

The Government has made several attempts to pass legislation that boosts women’s economic activities. However, there is no significant change. The primary reason behind no improvement is the significant gender wage gap. In 2018, Japan managed to rank 110 out of 149 in the World Economic Forum’s Gender wage gap, a slight improvement over 114 out of 146 ranks in 2017. However, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Gender Gap Index, Japan ranks 116 among 146 countries in total and last among G7 countries. According to a Japanese Cabinet Office survey, women represented only 11.4 percent of executives in major listed companies for the financial year 2022. So, few women are in executive positions because of Japan’s insufficient social infrastructure and the lack of nurseries and daycare.

According to Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training (JILPT), COVID-19 Pandemic had a more significant impact on female employees than males, especially for child-rearing women. According to a survey by the JILPT, 4307 women employees primarily aged between 20-64 in private companies who were employed on 01 April 2020, were asked about their employment situation in the month of May. A remarkable gender gap was found in terms of people who became unemployed. The percentage of male employees on furlough was 1.6 percent. However, for female employees, the percentage rose to 4.7 percent for females without minor children and 7.1 percent for females with minor children. 

According to an index compiled by The Economist in the year 2022, Japan has ranked second last among developed countries concerning women’s participation in the workforce. Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) analysis showed that Asia is falling behind its regional peers regarding female boardroom representation. According to the MSCI Report 2022, Japan held 15.5 percent of women executives and directors, which falls far behind the MSCI world average of 31.3 percent.


The gender gap in Japan can be narrowed if the country implements policies including quotas and wage equity targets. Implementing updated family policies that encourage parental equality can also be a vital step in narrowing the gender gap. The Government should also look upon reforms that emphasize childcare policies and implement policies that promote employment for single mothers. Businesses must encourage inclusive workplaces with diverse hiring, which includes flexibility and family-friendly policies. With a continuing larger gender gap in the country, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledges to have women in a third of top boardroom roles by 2030. He encourages Japanese private firms to take up diversity in employment for a better inclusive society and greater economy. While several policies have been taken up for lessening the gender gap in the country, the most recent being Shinzo Abe’s policy of “Womenomics”, it is yet to be seen if Japan can decrease the persisting gender gap, which has been prevailing for decades now. Moreover, the participation of women in Japanese politics will help advance gender equality. As more women are elected to office, there will be an increase in policymaking emphasizing women’s rights, and family policies, thereby promoting worldwide development goals and building strong democracies.

About the Author

Oindrila Mukherjee is a Research Affiliate at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS), Christ University, Bengaluru. She is pursuing her Master's from the Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her areas of interest include gender policies, Japanese foreign policy, and international trade and development.  

Perspective, #12, 21 October 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies