Academic journal article Law and Policy in International Business

Glass Ceilings in the Land of the Rising Sons: The Failure of Workplace Gender Discrimination Law and Policy in Japan

Academic journal article Law and Policy in International Business

Glass Ceilings in the Land of the Rising Sons: The Failure of Workplace Gender Discrimination Law and Policy in Japan

Article excerpt

I. Introduuction

Nowhere in the industrialized world do women enjoy equal status with their male counterparts in the labour market. Sexual inequality in employment appears to be a universal phenomenon but evidence seems to indicate that Japan represents an extreme case among the advanced industrialized countries.(1)

In Japan, gender inequality in the workplace persists as in no other industrialized nation.(2) For the last decade, Japanese women have placed their hopes of employment equality in the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOA) of 1985.(3) Upon its enactment, scholars praised the EEOA for its innovative approach to ensuring gender equality, which emphasized voluntary compliance and gradual change.(4) The EEOA also received acclaim for being particularly sensitive to the unique aspects of Japanese social and business culture,(5) which prizes conformity, nonconfrontation, and maintaining harmony among fellows.(6) Yet nearly ten years after its enactment, Japanese citizens and women's organizations are calling for substantial revision of the EEOA(7) because it has been so grossly ineffective in eliminating gender inequality in the workplace:(8) Japanese women still occupy less than one percent of all management jobs,(9) and more than one third of working women in Japan are employed as clerks.(10)

This Note argues that the EEOA's highly-pralsed sensitivity to Japanese business norms is the greatest barrier to its effectiveness: the law has failed and will continue to fall precisely because it is tailored too closely to an inherently discriminatory Japanese business culture. Part II locates the issue by providing background information on Japan's corporate culture and women's role in Japanese society. Part III describes the current structure of Japan's gender discrimination law, including an in-depth discussion of the structure and enforcement of the EEOA, and evaluates the EEOA within the context Japan's economic and cultural environment. That analysis concludes with the argument that gender inequality persists in Japan because both the EEOA and the employment structure provide incentives for employers to continue to discriminate. Finally, Part IV suggests an alternative approach for achieving fundamental gender equality.


Analyzing the challenges that face Japanese women in the workplace is impossible without some understanding of the Japanese business culture, particularly as it relates to employment practices. Japan's current economic success often has been credited, at least in part, to its rigid and somewhat unique employment system.(11) The major components of the Japanese employment system are Shu-Shin Koyo (lifetime commitment practice),(12) Nenko Joretsu (the "merit of years" wage and promotion system),(13) and the core versus non-core employee distinction.(14) Each of these employment practices has specific implications for gender equality in the Japanese workplace.

A. "SHU-SHIN KOYO: Its For Life"(15)

The Japanese government and most large corporations hire new permanent employees only once a year, usually recruiting directly from high schools and universities.(16) Once an individual is hired, Japanese firms make a lifetime commitment to that employee;(17) permanent employees are hired for life and receive continuous firm-specific training.(18) Japanese employers invest significant resources in employee training and development at all levels, under the rationale that the benefits of such training will be continually realized over the career of the employee.'9 Since the employees are with the firm for life, most investments in training benefit the company for twenty years or more.

At least in part because of this system, Japanese employees are willing to devote their undivided allegiance to their employer.(20) Employees identify themselves with their employers more closely than with their particular occupation.(21) Employers and employees envision Japanese companies as large families:(22) Employee commitment and loyalty to the corporate family are essential for career success. …

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