Professor Molony on Gender Inequality in Japan

Barbara Molony is a Professor of Japanese History at Santa Clara University and the past co-President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (2020-2023), the past co-President of the Coordinating Council for Women in History (2016-2020) and the past-President of the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association (2009-2010). She specializes in research on women’s rights, transnational feminisms, and the construction and representation of gender in Japan and East Asia. She has published more than two dozen articles and chapters on these topics. Barbara has co-authored or co-edited Engendering Transnational Transgressions: From the Intimate to the Global (with Eileen Boris and Sandra Trudgen Dawson, 2020), Women’s Activism and “Second Wave” Feminism: Transnational Histories (with Jennifer Nelson, 2017), Gender in Modern East Asia (with Janet Theiss and Hyaeweol Choi, 2016), Modern East Asia: An Integrated History (with Jonathan Lipman and Michael Robinson, 2010), Asia’s New Mothers: Crafting Gender Roles and Childcare Networks in East and Southeast Asian Societies (with Ochiai Emiko, 2008), and Gendering Modern Japanese History (with Kathleen Uno, 2005). She is an associate editor of Women and Social Movements in Modern Empires since 1820 (on-line). She is currently co-editing (with Hyaeweol Choi and Janet Theiss) The Oxford Handbook of East Asian Gender History. Barbara has taken seriously the expansion and diversification of the field of global and gender history in the last several decades. Not only has she contributed as an editor and author of multi-regional, multi-ethnic, and transnational collections, she has also mentored students and rising scholars of varying ethnic and gender identities. For this, she has been recognized both on her own campus and in the profession. These awards include the 2020 “Rachel Fuchs Memorial Award for Excellence in Mentorship and Service to Women/LGBTQ in the Profession,” awarded by the Coordinating Council for Women in History, and the 2005 “Sisterhood is Powerful Award,” awarded by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SCU.
Yui Kurosawa '26 interviewed Dr. Barbara Molony on November 6, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Barbara Molony of Santa Clara University.

According to the latest gender gap rankings of the World Economic Forum released on June 20, 2023, Japan has dropped nine positions from the previous year and now ranks at 125th out of 146 countries. What do you think contributes to Japan’s gender inequality? 

For an advanced industrial country, this is bad. The U.S. rank is 43rd, which isn't so great. Most of the other advanced industrial countries rank higher than the U.S. But 125th is really not good, especially because it has gone down. This is not to say that leaders in Japan aren't concerned, because they are; they are concerned about trying to improve their international image and improving the life of people at home. In order to try to fix this, a very big ballyhooed type of program started in 2015, sometimes called “Abenomics” – Shinzo Abe being the prime minister of Japan at that time. 

But it failed to achieve its goals. Japan's position declined. Japan lacks in the percentage of women in management positions; it's just about 13% which is very low on a global scale. And in Parliament, it's just about 10%, compared to about 28% in the United States. There's a lot more work to be done in Japan. 

Where Japan is doing well – otherwise, they'd really be at the bottom – is two metrics. One is education -- there is a lot of equality between men and women in education -- and in health care. Health care for both men and women is actually much better than almost everywhere else in the world; we can see that in Japan’s impressive longevity. Historians have delved into the question about business – why are there so many discriminatory relationships in business? Mainly, it's the lingering belief that men belong in the workforce and women belong at home to take care of their kids. For this reason, the birth rate has gone down because there are a lot of women who would like to have careers. But when women do have children, they're discouraged by societal norms and sexist attitudes at work. The Equal Employment Opportunity law, passed in 1985 really did not give equal opportunity. So, more and improved laws had to be passed, such as maternity and paternity leave (and) laws to take the burden of elder care off the shoulders of young women. Historically, Japanese women have been expected to care for their parents, as well as their mother and father-in-law. So there have been laws that help that particular problem. 

In your collection “Gendering Modern Japanese History,” you posit that history must be understood as a gendered story, as gender is a critical feature in the way ideologies and institutions were formed. How can the gendering of modern Japanese history help us understand how we ought to move forward to promote gender parity in Japan? 

Gender is at the center of all countries’ histories. In the case of Japan, before the building of the modern state which started in the 1870s, they tore down the old class structure that had been a hereditary samurai ruling class on top and replaced it with one that based rights on gender and economic wealth. Japan had been divided before the 1870s in a four-class system with samurai being the only ruling class on top. After the 1870s, as new laws were passed, there began a lot of discussion about what the modern state should look like. Japan looked overseas where they saw gender and economics as ways that Western countries divided their societies. 

By the time the first parliamentary elections happened in 1890, the electorate was divided by gender, class and age. For Japan, the voting age was 25. You also had to be male. The richer you were, the more likely you would have the (right to) vote. By 1924, the women's suffrage league was established with people like Ichikawa Fusae at the top. 

Their goal was that you cannot have universal suffrage (普選, read “fusen”) without women’s suffrage (婦選, read “fusen”). Women were struggling for the vote, to say they should have full membership in society and be full citizens. This unfortunately came to a halt in 1931, as Japan moved into militarism during the early years of their militaristic expansion on the Asian continent. But women did get the vote after the war in 1945, and could vote for the first time in the national elections in 1946.

There are now five women (out of 19 ministers) in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new Cabinet , which is a record number for Japan. Amid Kishida’s sagging ratings, many commend his new focus on gender equality. How valuable is this female political representation? Does it create real change, or does it create the illusion of change that merely deters more long-term change? 

I'm not sure if it's going to deter it. But to a certain extent, it is symbolic. These five out of 19 are pathbreaking in many ways. In the United States, five of our 15 Cabinet members who are secretaries (heads) of departments are women. . But there are other members of the American Cabinet that are not heads of departments, but have Cabinet-level standing. There are 10 of them, six of whom are women. So the numbers are a little bit better in that regard. Japan has quite a bit to go. There has never been a woman who was finance minister in Japan. This position is more likely to lead to promotion to the prime minister; there have been more people who have been finance ministers who were then promoted to prime minister. So it could give hope to young women; that's a symbolic idea. 

Let’s say you assumed the position of the minister of state for gender equality of Japan, and were given a few minutes to make a speech with the undivided attention of government officials and Japanese citizens. What might you say? 

I will start with a government document called the “Basic Plan for Gender Equality.” Although the kinds of goals that are articulated in this have not yet been fulfilled, they’re very good.  

These basic plans for gender equality are based upon a very important law that was passed in 1999 called the Basic Act for Gender-Equal Society. Let me just mention some of the things that are in this. I will call for the expansion of women's participation in all fields, by raising the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30% by the early 2020s.

There's also a call in this (document) for an increasing importance of work/life balance. Women who might receive promotions in their companies find it hard to take more than part-time jobs, or full time that allow them to go home at 6 p.m. I’m calling on companies to take care of this, because women are taking care of children or elderly people. Fathers should take care of more of these functions, not only mothers. 

This document also calls for 70% of people taking their annual mandated vacations, because they're not. There is a law that was passed in 2019 that says everybody must have a mandated 10 days of vacation. But if they can get to five days, they'll be counted in that 70%. 

They're calling on more men, up to 30% of men, to take child -care, or parental leave. It should be 50%. However, a lot of men don't want to do it, because they're afraid that they will not look like they're serious. 

There's a lot of discussion about sexual harassment in the workplace, and they're trying to say, this must be eradicated. There was a lot of discussion about #MeToo in Japan, although the term tended not to be used, but rather “We Too.” This was used to say that women didn't want to stand out by asserting that “I am being sexually harassed, and I need help.” It’s a kind of a Japanese take on #MeToo. 

Also, development of more female executives. (And) a policy of aiming for all people in Japan to have a basic minimum wage, as women tend to get the lowest minimum wage. Other programs should include the encouragement of more women in STEM. Here's one that's unique to Japan: They say we need to study systems that do not inhibit motivation to work. In Japan, the income tax law is set up so that if you're a married couple, the wife cannot earn over a certain amount before her income is taxed at a higher rate. That is a disincentive to working more hours. They want to study to get rid of that. 

There's the question of separate surnames. Right now, the law states that the married couple has to have one surname. And most wives take the husband's surname. (But) there are a lot of professional women who want to be known by their premarital name. 

Let’s move to another document. The G-7 met in Hiroshima this past May. Japan continued the practice of previous G-7 meetings of creating a gender equality advisory council. This council produced a report entitled “Gender Mainstreaming for an Inclusive, Peaceful, and Just Society” that developed a series of proposals for all members. Here are four of them. 

One is investing in gender equality, setting up offices in the government to encourage private-sector investment in women-owned, women-led businesses. There’s also one to promote gender through education. There are still economic barriers for some women, where families might say that they’ll spend the money for your brothers to go to four-year college, and that you can go to a two-year college. (Third), there's this idea that if you have more women involved in a variety of government and other activities, you can lead to greater implementation of international human rights law. Last but not least: data. You can't tell whether there's gender equality without data being collected. 

If I were giving a speech, I would say we should all try to advance these things. These are very large goals, and how to implement them really is the function of government. Kishida is a member of the LDP, which is not the most progressive. I don't see that there is going to be too much pressure to change things, except for the concern about the decreasing population in Japan. That concern is put on the shoulders of women. Unless things are made more equal for women, a lot of young women are going to say, “Having big families is not for me, or even getting married is not for me.” 

Ichikawa Fusae, a suffragist and legislator, is known to be one of the most notable feminists in 20th-century Japan. What are the implications of her work on modern day feminism? What can we learn from her? 

I actually met her when I was very young, and she was very old, before she died in 1981. I was just a grad student. I saw her as a very inspirational person. She rose from a farm background so she got as educated as she could, which was to get a degree in teacher's education, and then went into journalism and feminist activism. During the war, she tried very hard to keep the feminist movement going. It was very difficult after the war; she was not allowed to be in government positions by the American occupation. She was only one of two women out of 200,000 people who were purged by the American occupation for working with the Japanese government during the war. After the end of the occupation, she went into government (and) was elected to the House of Representatives, and again for several terms., and then was not elected one year. She then wrote her autobiography. During that time, she went back and was elected to the House of Councilors, which was like our Senate. In her last election, she got more votes than any other candidate till that time, and maybe even till now in Japan. 

But there is one kind of problem that came out in the 1980s: younger feminists who were born after the war came to criticize her for not having spoken out aggressively against the militarized government, especially when the idea of “comfort women” in Asia came to the forefront. Why didn't she speak out? Some who spoke out went to jail or ceased public activities. Wanting to be a member of your own society with full citizenship rights means that you have to figure out when you can say no to your government, and when you just need to go along with it. 

Some argue that misogyny is deeply woven into the Japanese language, especially in kanji (kanji is a Japanese writing system, originally developed in China, that combines visual symbols to create a word). For example, “slave” () is a combination of “female” () and “hand” (). Husband (主人) is synonymous to “lord” and “master”. To draw parallels to the U.S., it’s similar to the controversy around words like “mankind.” Do you think such conversations are valuable? 

Yes, I do. Changing words is done in many countries. Japan is no exception. For example, looking at the word husband “shujin” (主人), for example, it's used by older people to refer to their own husband. Younger people, many of them, not all of them, have started to use non-sexist or neutral terms like “otto” (夫) because that's used in government documents. That means husband, as opposed to “the Boss” (shujin). It’s the legal term. The same thing goes for wife terms, too. Old-fashioned terms, like “kanai” (家内) means “inside the house person.” Maybe people have changed; sometimes people use the term “aikata” (相方), which means my companion, my beloved. “Tsuma” (妻) is the legal term for wife. 

Fun story – when I was 18 years old, I started to take a Japanese language course. There were female and male students in my class. All the teachers were women, and so when the young men in my class would study abroad in Japan after their sophomore year, many said that when they got to Japan, they found a lot of people laughing because they were using female language. They told the men they were talking like a woman. 

How optimistic can we be about the future of gender equality in Japan? 

I'm a historian, I study change over time. Things are still a long way from perfect. But I can be optimistic for two reasons. One is that enormous change has happened. over a long period of time, a century or so, there has been change. For that reason, where some people express some pessimism is that things go in cycles. In the early part of the 21st century, after the Basic Act for a Gender Equal Society was passed in 1999 and first implemented as the Basic Plan for Gender Equality in 2000 (there have been five Basic Plans since then), there was a lot of euphoria in Japan about making new laws that would make women more equal to men in society. Then, more conservative governments came in. As that happened, you had a reversion to things that were more conservative. One area where I think much change still needs to be done is in LGBTQ rights. At this time, same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan at the national level. Same-sex “partnerships” are legal in many places in Japan, but a partnership is not the same thing because a marriage allows inheritance, it allows your spouse to visit you in the hospital, etc. There have been numerous court cases, and it's moving in the direction toward greater rights, but it's not quite there yet. So, incremental change is still necessary.

Yui Kurosawa '26Student Journalist

首相官邸ホームページ, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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