On the face of things, Japanese women appear to have achieved as much equality as women elsewhere in the West.
There were almost 60 million women in Japan in 1980 enjoying a literacy rate in excess of 97 percent, among the highest in the world and surpassing that of the United States. There were almost as many married women employed in Japan as in the United States at the 1980 census, but the birthrate for Japanese women was 15 percent below that of United States women. 1
The Japanese Constitution contains a women's equal rights provision from 1947, prohibiting political, economic, or social discrimination on grounds of gender. 2
Women form 88 percent of all junior college students, receive more schooling than men, and outnumber them as voters. During the 1980 general election in Japan, 75.4 percent of all women voters turned out to cast their ballot compared to only 73.7 percent of male voters. 3
Yet women are the housekeepers of Japan. They are a minute percentage in the Japanese Diet or parliament. They walk behind the men. They serve the men and they feed a great deal of Japan. In fact, some 62 percent of Japanese farmers are women. 4 True, women have been coming into the labor market in increasing numbers, but as Barbara Bergmann observed, "Japanese women are almost invariably shunted into marginal positions. . . . Women in Japan remain frankly inferior, their condition an ugly blot on Japan's brilliant economic success."5
There has been vast improvement in women's status in Japan in many ways, but only because their position prior to 1947 was so utterly devoid of any status or protection. Japanese women were as much subordinate to men as in any Muslim state. In 1940 the average Japanese woman died at the age of 50. Today she lives to over 80 years -- the longest life expectancy for women in the entire world.
In Japan discrimination against women was, and largely remains, a way of life. It took seven years, from 1978 to May 17, 1985, for the Japanese parliament to approve a bill "encouraging" employers (as from April, 1986) to end discrimination on the basis of sex in their hiring, assignment and promotion policies. Today 40 percent of the labor force of Japan is made up of women, and 59 percent of those women are married. Experts point out that "typically . . . the woman does the lower status work. Today a mere 6.2 percent are managers or officials." 6 As recently as 1978 about 91 percent of all companies