In previous articles (The silver workforce, The world’s most homogeneous society is opening new doors) we have talked about the aging and shrinking working-age population in Japan and how Japan is taking measures to deal with the implications of this demographic issue, including extending retirement ages and welcoming migrant workers. This article focuses on another of Japan’s options to boost workforce: the large number of women that are held back or excluded from the labor market.
The idea that women should stay at home as primary caregivers is deeply seated in Japan. A 2016 poll revealed that this view is still held by 45% of men surveyed. When Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012, he and his government unveiled a comprehensive policy package, known as “Abenomics”, to revive the Japanese economy, of which “womenomics” – the plan to create a “Japan in which women can shine” – has been a key element. “Womenomics” aims to redress Japan’s ingrained gender inequality and to solve the labor shortages by encouraging more women to participate in the job market.
The Abe government passed legislation to extend parental leave and eliminate a tax deduction for dependent spouses. They also ensured rapid expansion of childcare facilities for working mothers including free and affordable childcare for low-income families. They have worked intensively with Japan’s business associations to increase hiring, promoting and empowering women, targeting 30% women in leadership positions by 2020.
How effectively has the program been carried out so far? According to last year’s report by the International Labor Organization, the proportion of Japanese women in management and other leadership positions was 12% in 2018, falling far short of the 30% target and well below the 27.1% global percentage. In the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Index from the same year , Japan ranked 110 out of 149 countries, barely moving up from the year before. In the 2020 report, Japan slid down to rank 121 . Faced with disappointing numbers, the Japanese government has had to push its target date 2020 as far back as 2030. 
Indeed, although the female labor participation rate reached 71% following the initiative of “womenomics”, outperforming the EU and US, critics claim this policy approach has been no more than surface shine. Multiple sources indicate the disproportional representation of Japanese women in part-time and non-regular positions. The Global Gender Gap report 2020 shows that more than a third of female employees hold these positions, compared with just 11.5% of male employees.
When part-time work began to emerge and expand in the 1970s, it was regarded as a manifestation of a more flexible and non-standard labor market. Compared to full-time jobs, they are ideal for working parents to combine work with family responsibilities. They can enable older people to prolong their work life and people with health issues to remain in the labor market. However, on average, many part-time jobs are of poorer quality: they are disproportionately concentrated in the lower-paid professions with poorer working conditions and less job security. In the case of Japan, economists at MIT and University of Tokyo found that 69% of female Japanese workers are active in sectors such as retail or food and accommodation, where traditional female-dominated service jobs are offered . The activities they perform are strongly associated with the informal sector and have the least regulatory protection; for many higher-paid and managerial positions, one can hardly find part-time opportunities.
Not only in Japan, but around the globe, part-time work is largely performed by women with family responsibilities. According to data from the OECD , the Netherlands have the highest rate of female part-time employees, with 58% in 2018. Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, UK and Germany are also among the top. However, even in these countries there are still many barriers that hinder the development of part-time employment into an option that truly ensures equal opportunities. This is not only the case in Japan, it is a phenomenon encountered across the globe.
Part-time employment is a proven means to increase the female participation rate in the labor market, contributing to a more flexible and productive workforce. For policy makers, it is important to ensure that wider measures are put in place to enhance the quality of this work, promoting part-time positions and job sharing in areas with better pay, better working conditions and higher job security, as well as actual career opportunities in part-time; and more generally, to design policies in a way that promotes gender equality.
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 WEF. 2018. Global Gender Gap Report 2018. URL: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2018/data-explorer/
 WEF. 2020. Global Gender Gap Report 2020. URL: https://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2020/the-global-gender-gap-index-2020/results-and-analysis/
 Kazuhiko Hori. 2020. Japan gov’t to push back 30% target for women in leadership positions by up to 10 years. URL: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200626/p2a/00m/0fp/014000c
 Shinnosuke Kikuchi, Sagiri Kitao and Minamo Mikoshiba. 2020. Who Suffers from the COVID-19 Shocks? Labor Market Heterogeneity and Welfare Consequences in Japan. URL: https://www.carf.e.u-tokyo.ac.jp/admin/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/F490.pdf
 OECD. 2019. Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. URL: https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/LMF_1_6_Gender_differences_in_employment_outcomes.pdf