HOW JAPAN’S LABOUR MARKET EXCLUDES WOMEN: A new perspective on ‘the economy that fell from grace’

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28 Mar 2015

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The institutions of the labour market in Japan effectively force women into a binary decision between career or family. That is one of the conclusions of research by Carmen Gruber presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference. She comments that much like the protagonist in Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, Japan itself seems to have fallen from being a post-war model of economic growth to being a warning of economic ills to avoid.

Within this, the Japanese labour system has seen a particular reversal in favourable opinion, from being praised up through the 1980s for its ability to induce loyalty in workers and provide a high degree of stability for both employer and employee, to near-constant criticism of inefficiency, unhealthy work patterns, and an underutilisation of the female labour force. Indeed, Japanese female labour force participation rates have remained consistently low in global comparison.

The reasons for and implications of this are the subject of this study. Japan’s labour system in the post-war period has been characterised by lifetime (or long-term) employment, seniority wages and job rotations. These labour institutions have historically excluded women, who have found themselves largely sidelined into part-time or temporary work.

The working patterns of women are also closely linked to their life stage, with women generally dropping out of the labour force after either marriage or the birth of the first child, only to return years later when household or childcare duties have lessened. This has resulted in a distinctly M-shaped curve of female labour force participation in Japan, albeit one which has flattened considerably in recent years (see chart below).

Rather than greater labour market integration of women into the Japanese labour market over the past decades, both labour statistics and on-site interviews with Japanese workers indicate that there has been increasing segmentation between and among female workers.

Thus, despite more women remaining in the labour force over the past years, which has led to a flattening of the distinctly M-shaped Japanese female labour curve, this has not been accomplished by structural reforms in employment practices but rather through intra-female segmentation into career-oriented and family-oriented women.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, the proportion of women who drop out of the labour force after the birth of their first child has actually increased rather than decreased over time; the increase in women remaining in the labour force reflects rather that a growing number of women are forgoing marriage and children altogether.

As such, structural barriers to female employment in Japan have not been broken down. Instead, women must choose to either adopt masculine work norms of long hours, job rotations, and limited leave from work or to drop out of the regular workforce either entirely or into non-regular work with its attendant instability, depressed wages, and lack of upward mobility.

Although lifetime employment has only ever covered something like a quarter of Japan’s working population, the system remains intact for a specific group of core (mostly male) workers, and the working norms upon which the system is based continue to permeate employment expectations in Japan.

Although female workers have played and continue to play an important role in the Japanese labour force, large structural impediments such as long working hours, difficulty of taking childcare leave, lack of kindergartens, and socio-cultural gender norms discourage women from greater labour force participation and impede upward mobility.

This imposes not only a drag on the Japanese economy but also has disquieting implications for Japan’s demographic decline, since women are effectively forced into a binary decision of either career or family.


Fall from Grace: Japan’s labour system

Carmen Gruber
Vienna University of Economics and Business

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