- The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality
Researchers on Japan have been paying attention to women in that society for a few decades. Through numerous studies by anthropologists, sociologists, and occasionally economists, we have learned that Japan has arguably the highest degree of gender differentiation among more industrialized countries. With most men attending four-year universities and a large proportion of women in junior colleges, Japan’s level of gender segregation in higher education has been greater than that in countries of similar levels of economic development. Research has also shown considerable gender gaps in earnings, promotion opportunities, and employment status. As many have observed, Japanese women’s working lives generally diverge from men’s soon after entering the labor force. Whereas men expect relatively great job stability and opportunities for upward mobility throughout their careers, women frequently interrupt their labor force participation upon marriage or childbirth and shift to nonstandard (part-time, fixed-term) jobs after their employment interruptions. At home, women bear virtually all the responsibilities of child rearing and domestic chores, with their husbands frequently absent for work reasons.
Although there are some debates about the causes for Japan’s gender inequality, as well as its implications for women’s overall well-being, few would deny the severity of gender inequality in that country. This inequality is usually what attracts scholars to study Japanese women in the first place. Tachibanaki Toshiaki, however, argues that inequality among women in Japan is rising and deserves our attention. In his book, The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality, Tachibanaki uses aggregate statistics from surveys conducted by government and [End Page 208] private agencies to document changes (or lack thereof) in women’s educational attainment; views on marriage, divorce, and children; employment behavior; and labor market positions. He maintains that with the increasing educational opportunities for women in Japan, a larger number of them are now able to pursue elite higher education and, consequently, career trajectories similar to men’s, including entering the so-called managerial track and staying in the labor force throughout marriage and child rearing. At the same time, marriage and children continue to play important roles in shaping women’s career choices. This tendency, along with Japan’s prolonged economic downturns that encourage firms to utilize contingent, fixed-term employment, results in the majority of working women in the virtually dead-end clerical track, or, even worse, part-time and temporary jobs, which generally lack fringe benefits, long-term stability, and adequate returns to their skills. Thus, Tachibanaki argues, Japanese society today faces increasing disparities among women.
To be more specific, Tachibanaki’s book begins with extensive details about gender gaps in Japan (chapter 1). While many of the findings in chapter 1 are relatively well known, Tachibanaki has done a great job of putting together statistics across years and for a wide range of issues (e.g., marriage age, reasons for divorce, child custody, household composition, consumption, labor market positions, and time use). Following the description about gender disparities, in chapter 2, Tachibanaki discusses and summarizes existing research by Japanese scholars about how to determine women’s social classes, particularly for those who are not in the labor force. The issue of social class, however, is dropped almost entirely after chapter 2, with no mention of how it affects women’s mobility, behavior, or overall well-being in the rest of the book.
Chapters 3, 6, 7, and 8 contain most of Tachibanaki’s evidence for the argument that disparities among Japanese women are ample and increasing. Specifically, chapter 3 documents rises in women’s enrollment in four-year universities, particularly elite universities, hence confirming an increase in variation among women with respect to educational attainment. Chapters 6–8 present descriptive statistics about Japanese women’s employment patterns throughout the life course, including how they are distributed across different career tracks and different employment statuses. Overall, changes in women’s roles in the workplace, though...