Women’s Roles Shift in Japanese Society


The perception of women’s role in society has experienced drastic changes over the past century in most countries. Shifting from patriarchal principles to the idea of gender equality, a range of states have accepted and supported women’s entrance into other spheres such as the workplace, political relationships, and similar domains. However, in a variety of societies, the process of cultural change has been hampered by persistent stereotypes.

Japan is one of such countries, with women being relegated to a second-class population with a significantly restricted number of rights, both in the workplace and in their social interactions (Robins-Mowry 16). Although the observed phenomenon is rooted in both the traditional cultural values and economic considerations, the existing status quo can be shaken by introducing Japanese society to modern values, including the principles of equality, equity, and gender nonconformity.

Problem Statement

Japanese society has been notorious for its stereotypical perception of gender roles and the constraints imposed on women in a wide array of areas, including employment and self-actualization in a broader sense. Based on the ideas linked directly to the philosophy of Confucianism, the described system of beliefs has set the expectations for women to perform mostly in the areas that are associated with the social roles to which they are assigned due to their gender (Qian and Sayer 385). The resulting increase in the levels of inequality among men and women in Japanese society has built the foundation for a major social conflict.

Progressive views concerning the expansion of the range of roles that women play in the society and the creation of equal opportunities for both genders in every domain. Nevertheless, women remain in inferior position to men in the Japanese social environment. The observed problem takes place in every facet of interpersonal interactions in the target environment, including especially workplace and other institutions. While activists create and support women liberation movements, the cultural core of the described inequality persist in the Japanese social context, affecting the relationships between men and women significantly.

Literature Review

Key Influences

To understand the nature of the Japanese philosophy regarding gender roles and especially the social role of women, one should study the key tenets of the Confucian philosophy. The principles of the Confucian philosophy were transferred to the Chinese cultural landscape with the introduction of the country to the Korean traditions and culture (Robins-Mowry 5). Due to the perceived simplicity of Confucian texts for the general audience, the ideas associated with the Confucian philosophy were quickly integrated into the framework of social relationships within Japanese society (Robins-Mowry 11). Consequently, the starting with the Edo period, which took place in the 17th century, Japanese people have been exposed to the values and principles based on which the Confucian philosophy was founded.

The latter, in turn, suggests that gender roles should be seen as intrinsic and, therefore, unquestionable, with the social position of a woman being fixed in the Japanese society. Confucianism is a combination of philosophical traditions and religious beliefs. Thus, the Confucian perspective states that women have to comply with the notion of the kafucho system, which set very rigid standards for women’s roles and responsibilities in the society (Robins-Mowry 15). Being disseminated among Japanese women with the help of Jokunsho manuals, the proposed worldview made it excessively difficult for Japanese women to advance in the society.

Traditional Perspective

In the Japanese society, the role of a woman was linked directly to her reproductive abilities, with a woman not being viewed as a fully autonomous human being. Instead, women were often seen as a valuable thing and a trophy that could be earned by a man. Consequently, a marriage was seen as a natural purpose of a woman, with the following childbirth and the performance of the functions of a housewife being crucial parts of the role of a Japanese woman (Robins-Mowry 18). The described tendency has had a powerful impact on the perception of women’s social roles in Japan.

Confucian traditions of gender relationships seem to have been hampering the development of gender relationships in Japan significantly. Even nowadays, the notion of a woman being expected to perform the functions of a wife and a mother first are implanted into every facet of the Japanese culture (Coleman 502). The deeply engraved notion of women having to conform to the expected perception of their gender has contributed to the rise in gender stereotyping. As a result, it is currently common in Japan to view the idea of women performing any other roles than that one of a wife and a mother have become preposterous in the Japanese culture.

Recent Changes

In the perception of gender and relationships have been taking their toll on the Japanese society and the roles of women therein. Despite the persistence of the described tradition, alterations in the functions that women are expected to perform in the Japanese community have been observed (Robins-Mowry 21). Specifically, an increasingly larger number of women have been employed in various spheres, thus proving that the perceived notion of gender and the concept of gender roles are not as rigid as one might believe them to be (Robins-Mowry 26). However, even with the recent changes, the presence of stereotypes remains very powerful in the Japanese social environment, which can be proven by viewing how the efforts of women are evaluated and rewarded in the workplace.


Effects of Changes to Women’s Roles in Japan

Although the changes that have been made so far to the perception of women’s social roles in the Japanese social context might seem minor, the observed breakthrough is quite impressive. With the expansion of the range of social opportunities for women to include work-related options, the social change is truly immense (Robins-Mowry 21). Nonetheless, the core of stereotypical perceptions of women in the Japanese society remains intact, with a significant portion of female citizens being deprived of control over their personal life.

For instance, the phenomenon of the arranged marriage as one of the core components of the gender philosophy associated with Confucianism leaves a tangible mark on women’s lives in Japan (Robins-Mowry 114). Similarly, even with opportunities for employment, women are evidently seen as lesser people, being severely underpaid and underappreciated in the workplace (Coleman 504). The extent of women’s efforts in the designated field of work is not taken into account, their gender being the pivoting factor in salary-related decision-making in Japanese HRM departments (Robins-Mowry 117). As a result, the perception of women in the Japanese society is devalued.

The effects of changes that the Japanese society has been experiencing can be seen as twofold. On the one hand, the emergence of new opportunities signifies that a positive shift has occurred. On the other hand, the fact that massive constraints block women’s way in professional development and career opportunities indicates that institutional alterations do not coincide with the social perception of women as primarily housewives and mothers. Thus, the overall impression of the described changes is quite mixed.

Possible Solutions to the Current Social Issues

Subverting gender stereotypes and the concept of gender normativity through exposure of Japanese citizens to the notion of diversity can be seen as one of potential strategies for changing the current status quo. Given the current stance of the Japanese society on women’s role in the society, one should note that the reasons for the described inequality to exist include not only sociocultural but also more rational reasoning.

The described characteristic does not make these arguments any more justifiable, yet, being grounded in what the opponents of women’s liberation in Japan believe to be sensible, they are easier to disprove. Termed as “womenomics,” the decision to encourage more women to work for a significantly lower salary than their male counterparts would has affected women in Japan significantly (Coleman 491) the Japanese government endeavors at solving current financial and economic concerns, boosting the levels of Japanese GDP and promoting the development of business (Coleman 493).

Thus, the introduction of the alternatives that will be less diminishing to women and that will offer equal opportunities to both genders is needed. As a result, one will be able to create better conditions for women as a vulnerable class and, thus, change the perception of their role in the Japanese society.

Similarly, changes will be required at a deeper cultural level. It is important to convey the idea that, while being worth appreciation as the bulk of the Chinese cultural identity, Confucian principles as the basis for gender relationships have not aged well. In addition, it is evident that evolution in the perception of women’s role in the contemporary society is inevitable. By exposing Japanese people to the notions of equity and gender equality, one will prompt a response that will help to broaden the range of social roles that women can explore.

Simultaneously, the proposed solution will set the stage for abandoning harmful practices such as arranged marriages in the Japanese society, increasing the extent of women’s agency in their own life (Robins-Mowry 21). That being said, one should bear in mind that the proposed changes will be rather difficult to implement. The promotion of culture change becomes viable once modern media is integrated in order to facilitate an intercultural dialogue. Sharing experiences and philosophies with other states that have managed to attain high levels of gender equality, Japan can borrow strategies from other cultures to promote a change in the public perception of women’s roles.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The current concept of women’s roles in the Japanese society leaves much to be desired, with women being seen as lesser human beings and deprived of a range of rights. Although several changes have been made, alterations in the social roles of women have been mostly used as an economic vehicle to boost the state’s GDP by using cheaper labor and underpaying women. In order to change the current social status of women in Japan, one should consider the notion of the cultural exchange and the integration of equality- and equity-related values into the Japanese social context.

Thus, the principles of social justice in the Japanese society will be shaped to include more women-oriented, feminism-geared ideas and solutions. Consequently, a range of problems related to women’s rights being marginalized in the modern Japanese community will be handled effectively. Although the process of shaping the public opinion and values may be tedious and exhausting, the expected results promise to be rewarding, with a number of people turning to a more progressive view on gender. With changes in the system of special justice, alterations to the existing legal standards for economic and business relationships, as well as any other sphere in the Japanese society, will become possible.

Works Cited

Coleman, Liv. “Japan’s Womenomics Diplomacy: Fighting Stigma and Constructing ODA Leadership on Gender Equality.” Japanese Journal of Political Science, vol. 18, no. 4, 2017, pp. 491-513.

Qian, Yue, and Liana C. Sayer. “Division of Labor, Gender Ideology, and Marital Satisfaction in East Asia.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 78, no. 2, 2016, pp. 383-400.

Robins-Mowry, Dorothy. The Hidden Sun: Women of Modern Japan. Routledge, 2019.