Academic journal article Social Justice

The Reality of Equality for Japanese Female Workers: Women's Careers within the Japanese Style of Management

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Reality of Equality for Japanese Female Workers: Women's Careers within the Japanese Style of Management

Article excerpt


Recently in Japan in the face of current social and economic changes, the legislative environment for female workers has been gradually improving. However, many women workers are excluded from the path of professional careers by structural discrimination inherent in the Japanese style of management. Career tracks, job assignment, and promotion schemes have largely separated women from men in the job market.

For instance, although the labor force participation rate for women reached 50.7% in 1991, female managers constituted only one percent of all paid female employees (compared to 7.2% for males). Moreover, the wage gap has largely persisted. In 1991, full-time female workers earned on the average only 60.7% of male gross monthly cash earnings. Japanese female workers not only suffer the problems common to all women in industrialized countries, but they are also faced with problems peculiar to Japanese management, where permanent employment and seniority-based wages are the norm.

The purpose of this article is to discuss women's careers within the Japanese style of management and to see how new legislative reforms, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Law (1986) and the Childcare Leave Act (1992), have really effected women. This legislation is, in theory, aimed at improving women's working conditions by helping women workers balance the demands of work and family. In particular, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law could be an important turning point in the history of women's labor relations in Japan.

The seeming inevitability of labor shortages in an aging society should make the utilization and/or revitalization of the female work force an important strategy for Japanese employers. Moreover, the postwar baby-boom generation faces a lack of sufficient managerial posts. Therefore, the Japanese style of management needs to gradually change from a single-track one, based on traditional norms, to a double-track system based on ability irrespective of sex and age.

The first section of this article considers the relation between the Japanese style of management and women's careers. The second pays particular attention to female workers in the Japanese style of management. The third looks at new tendencies in women's careers, while the fourth and fifth examine legislative reforms (especially the Equal Employment Opportunity Law) and their effects on women in the workplace.

1. The Japanese Style of Management as a Source of Inequality for Women Workers

The first relevant issue concerns the structural mechanisms of women's careers within the Japanese style of management. Abegglen (1958) first identified the phenomenon of the Japanese employment system as clearly differing from the system dominant in Western nations. Over the past few decades, a great deal of effort has been spent developing a Japanese style of management that is remarkable for its high performance. In the most popular explanation of it, quoted in a 1977 OECD report, it is called "the Three Sacred Treasures": permanent employment, seniority-based wages, and company-based trade unions. In addition, there have been various explanations of these issues from sociological and economic points of view.

Although a large number of studies have been conducted on the Japanese style of management, little is known about women's careers in this framework. The main reason is that women, who are discriminated against on the job, have been "shadow workers" within the system of Japanese management. In short, the logic of the Japanese style of management itself was maintained by means of personnel management rules and practices that served to exclude the majority of women.

Thus, with regard to the problem of employment discrimination against women in Japan, the internal labor market approach is particularly relevant (Sano, 1989). Not only do the practices of internal promotion appear to be much deeper and more widespread in Japan (Koike, 1981), but this approach has also been more widely accepted. …

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