Author: Kevin Naylor FM Japan – GEC Country Principal
The early 1990s were often described as onna no jidai or “the era of women”. Women in Japan had not only attained a large measure of equality in a highly affluent society, but they could exercise freedom in choosing from a variety of options. At that time, it seemed they could aspire to lead fulfilling, happier, fuller, and more balanced lives than their male counterparts who were tied exclusively to their work. It was also the period of significant strides made by women in securing greater rights and opportunities in the home, workplace, schools, and the political field, particularly in the decade following the United Nations International Women’s Year in 1975.
The passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) in 1985 opened up the previously all-male career track within Japanese companies to university-educated women. The Child Care Leave Law of 1991 required companies to grant unpaid leave to either parent until the child reached the age of one. A number of professions and occupations previously open only to men now admitted women, many of whom were coming from four-year universities, and were perhaps affected by the growth of women’s studies courses on many college campuses. Local, regional, and national female politicians increased in numbers and visibility. Married women, including those with children, entered the labor force, and also participated in a wide range of activities outside the traditional confines of the home, including adult learning and community-related programs, volunteer work, and environmental, political, and peace movements. While these were tentative steps, the climate seemed charged with optimism. There seemed to be no end to women’s increasing ascendance.
Almost thirty years later, the picture is less rosy, for there is little progress to be seen. A number of simple facts tell the story: first, the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) rates the extent to which women participate in economic and political life by assuming positions of leadership and policy-making. In 2020, the GEM reported that Japan’s ranking was 121st out of 153 nations, in terms of gender parity, a decline of 11 places compared to its ranking a year before, when it ranked 110th, and a decline of 41 places compared to the 2006 report, the first year of the index when it ranked 80th. Based on the current ranking, Japan’s gender gap is the largest among advanced economies.
Trying to understand what is behind Japan’s persistent gender gap, means dealing with a delicate and complex subject. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of the topic, perhaps it is most appropriate to give credit and visibility to episodes that are signs of a better future in the field of gender equality.
One such relevant and deeply interesting episode occurred last month in Japan, the protagonist of which is a 22-year-old Japanese university student named Momoko Nojo.
As if the Tokyo Olympics didn’t have enough hurdles to leap over, what with the ongoing global pandemic causing people to question whether the postponed 2020 Games should still go on this summer, the former prime minister of Japan and president of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Yoshiro Mori, recently made a shocking statement about women on the global stage:
“You have to regulate [women’s] speaking time to some extent, or else we’ll never be able to finish.”
These were the words pronounced by Yoshiro Mori speaking to members of the Japanese Olympic Committee (with reporters present), when he was asked to comment on the plan to increase the number of female board members to more than 40%. This was not his first “slipup”, however this time it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
This is where Momoko Nojo came into play. Like many across Japan and the world, the fourth-year economics student at Keio University was deeply offended by the Prime Minister’s statements, so much so that she decided to launch an online campaign against the powerful Tokyo Olympics chief and the sexist remarks he made. Momoko Nojo would never have expected that her initiative could generate such huge waves in the media. In fact, in less than two weeks, her hashtag #DontBeSilent campaign (organized with other activists) gathered more than 150,000 signatures, galvanising global outrage against Yoshiro Mori. The sexist statements led to calls on Twitter for Mori to resign, with some readers noting that discrimination against women, or discrimination in any form, be it over race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation, goes against the Olympic Charter.
Nojo’s activism was born from a year studying in Denmark, a country that chose a woman (Mette Frederiksen) as prime minister in 2019. At that time, the desire and the need to do more for gender equality in her native country was born within her, so two years ago she started her nonprofit “No Youth No Japan“. During an interview, this brave young woman shared a little more about her position on the subject. She said her activism was motivated by questions she has often heard from male peers like, “You’re a girl, so you have to go to a high school that has pretty school uniforms, don’t you?” or “Even if you don’t have a job after graduating from college, you can be a housewife, no?.” Now you can understand where Momoko’s disappointment comes from.
What happened after her public intervention is unbelievable. Despite initial refusals to apologize or step down, under extreme public pressure, Yoshiro Mori eventually resigned as the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. His resignation came just over five months before the postponed Olympics are to open in the middle of a pandemic with public sentiment overwhelmingly against the games. The executive board did not immediately choose a successor for Mori, leading many to assume that he would eventually be replaced by an older man. A short time later, against all odds, Seiko Hashimoto was called to replace him. Ms. Hashimoto is a former Olympic champion and well-regarded politician, which represents a double victory for Ms. Nojo and for Japan.
It is also relevant to note that, in her fight, Ms. Nojo leveraged the power of social media, which can give voice to those who otherwise might struggle to step into the spotlight. In comparison to young people in other countries around the world, those in Japan rarely step out to protest injustice, especially in the face of the ruling, male elite. The success of Ms. Nojo’s campaign is another good sign for the future. She has shown that the younger generation can utilize digital tools to challenge the authority of the analog ruling class in Japan, a country which has significantly trailed other global economic leaders in digitization. For a young woman to successfully weaponize the power of the internet in a campaign against the paternalistic ruling class sets a powerful example for others.
While there is still far to go, this episode represents significant, positive change for Japan, which is witnessing important changes on the women’s rights front. In this sense, Momoko Nojo has become the latest example of women outside mainstream politics in Japan fighting to bring social change in the world’s third-largest economy, where, as said before, gender discrimination, pay gaps and stereotyping are rampant. In light of all this, it is vital to give credit to young women such as Ms. Nojo for speaking up against the “old boys club” that tends to dominate Japan. Momoko Nojo is a true warrior for gender equality as well as an example for young people across Japan and beyond.