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Reviewed by:
  • Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan ed. by Gill Steel
  • Anne Stefanie Aronsson (bio)
Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan. Edited by Gill Steel. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2019. x, 275 pages. $80.00, cloth; $25.00, paper.

Over the past decade, a swath of writing has emerged that hones in on women and gender roles in Japan; the most notable of these contributions are Too Few Women at the Top by Kumiko Nemoto (2016), Nancy Rosenberger's Dilemmas of Adulthood (2013), Susan Holloway's Women and Family in Contemporary Japan (2010), and Torben Iversen's and Frances Rosenbluth's Women, Work, and Politics (2010), each of which offers a voice to [End Page 140] Japanese women across all social, political, and economic backgrounds. Joining these influential analyses of the modern role of women in domestic, political, and business spheres—and the influences that have shaped them—is the edited volume of Gill Steel, Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan (2019), a succinct yet powerful book involving the close interplay between detailed, contextualized understanding of gender inequality across various topics and theoretical ideas emerging from that understanding.

The opening chapter of the book's first section comes from the editor, Gill Steel, and revolves around both modern and historic interpretations of women's working roles in society—in the home and as part of the labor force. While acknowledging the pervasive gender inequality present in Japan's work roles, Steel manages to concisely convey the book's overriding message: refuting the notion that women in Japan have witnessed a total lack of progress regarding the opportunities and attitudes available to them. Through briefly outlining the viewpoints of scholars featured later in the book (not all of whom can be mentioned in this short review), Steel neatly stitches together a compelling analysis of the modern female's situation, asserting, "Despite the inequity in a system that places an 'unsustainable burden on women,' most Japanese women do not feel that they are 'struggling'; they do not feel powerless and frustrated" (p. 1). That is, regardless of the fact that Japan has yet to achieve full equality between genders—with visible wage disparity, fewer higher-tier corporate opportunities for women, and a significant number of women still choosing the role of housewife—women now have comparably far more freedoms and opportunities than in the past. Nevertheless, a paradigm shift of structural reforms is required to overhaul the intractable corporate world and assure more women that toptier job roles and rewarding careers are not incompatible with childbearing and familial responsibilities. For equitable and sustainable change to take place, domestic and working attitudes as well as public policy need a much more radical overhaul.

The remaining chapters of section 1 explore perspectives on the world of Japanese women outside the labor force, with the initial chapter functioning as essential contextual background. In her contribution, Kumiko Nemoto explores the views of women regarding the postponement of marriage in Japan. She argues that the decision to postpone or avoid marriage is directly influenced by the continuation of gender inequality in Japanese society, utilizing data to persuasively assert her perspective and identifying the source of women's increasing sense of incongruity with the institution of marriage. Current policies and initiatives designed to increase the role of men in the domestic sphere, thus encouraging improved employment prospects for married women, are not wide-ranging enough to generate significant change, leading to the necessity of finding individual solutions. [End Page 141]

Yuko Ogasawara identifies the key barrier here to finding such a solution not as a lack of transformative measures but as a reluctance among people in general to redress and alter the traditional roles laid out for each gender—traditional roles that encourage men toward work and women toward the home. That is not to say that men and women refuse to take on new roles, just that upon the acceptance of a new role, there is a broad reluctance to shed the cloak of previous roles: "Japanese people tend to approve of men and women assuming roles that are nontraditional to their gender more easily than of men and women abandoning their traditional roles...