Making the Case: The Women's Convention and Equal Employment Opportunity in Japan

By Liu, Dongxiao; Boyle, Elizabeth Heger | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Making the Case: The Women's Convention and Equal Employment Opportunity in Japan


Liu, Dongxiao, Boyle, Elizabeth Heger, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Dongxiao Liu (*)

Elizabeth Heger Boyle (**)

ABSTRACT

International treaties have had an important impact on national policies affecting women throughout the world. This is true despite women's marginalized status in most national political systems and the treaties' lack of specific formal sanctions. Using the case of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity Law, and lawsuits brought by Japanese women against the Sumitomo corporations, we develop an explanation of how international treaties can effect change, even for groups with little economic or political power. First, international treaties provide normative resources that allow local activists to describe their actions in terms of moral imperatives rather than selfish interests. Secondly, international treaties provide structural resources to activists, such as periodic reporting requirements that provide opportunities to embarrass slow-moving governments.

The United Nations presented the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ("CEDAW") to the world in 1979. As of March 1998, 161 countries had ratified the Convention. Nonetheless, some commentators believed that CEDAW is even less enforceable than typical international treaties and that it "cannot provide legal redress and can do little more than attempt to raise awareness of women's issues" (Minor 1994:153; see also Funder 1993). We disagree. In the case study here, we demonstrate how CEDAW provided normative and structural resources to local actors far beyond its specific terms. These resources fundamentally altered power relations within Japan, significantly affecting the course of national politics.

Briefly, Japan's passage of an Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986 (pursuant to CEDAW) appeared to be a largely symbolic gesture decoupled from actual practice. Notably, the 1986 EEOL only required that employers "endeavor" to treat men and women the same in terms of hiring and promotion. The 1986 EEOL also had no enforcement provisions. Thus, Japan's law was very much consistent with claims that national action taken under CEDAW was not meaningful. By 1997, however, Japan had revised the EEOL to actually mandate equality in hiring and promotion -- women's ability to find recourse for discrimination was greatly enhanced. Our focus here is the normative as well as structural resources that CEDAW has provided for Japanese women to participate in Japan's employment policy debates and contest what and how changes should be made for women. We focus on the specific case of CEDAW and Japan to provide a thorough context for understanding the interaction of a particular international norm and national change. We expect that our findings are generalizable to other cases in which international norms and local practices are at odds.

Given the proliferation of international human rights treaties and nongovernmental organizations since World War II (see Boli and Thomas 1997), the processes we demonstrate for CEDAW are likely to exist for many other cases as well. The original positivistic conception of law imagined a tight link between formal sanctions or sovereign rule systems and legal compliance (see, e.g., Hart 1975). Social scientists have since moved away from this model, recognizing the power of symbolic legitimation in shaping attitudes and behaviors (see, e.g., Gusfield 1986; Edelman 1992; Lessig 1995). Symbols are significant not only in individual interaction but also in the interaction between international organizations and nationstates (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997; Boyle and Meyer 1998; Keck and Sikkink 1998). Nearly all nation-states make some effort, through symbolic policy-making or concrete action, to comply with basic international norms, such as banning landmines (Price 1997), prohibiting female genital excisi on (Boyle and Preves 1998), giving women the vote (Ramirez, Shanahan, and Soysal 1997), signing environmental treaties (Meyer, Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 1997), etc. …

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