Racism vs Sexism in Japan

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles, Asia

Racism versus Sexism in Japan

John Feffer


All the business journals are talking about the revival of the Japanese economy.  For the last four years, the economy has been steadily growing.  Toyota is hiring, consumers are spending, and the government of Junichiro Koizumi is consequently enjoying high approval ratings.


Japan’s economic renaissance is not without blemish, however.  The rising price of energy makes the country increasingly reliant on outside suppliers, such as Iran.  The economic growth has been lopsided, and Japanese society is no longer as egalitarian as before.


But perhaps Japan’s greatest challenge is demographic.  The country is shrinking.  Its population fell in 2005 for the first time in 60 years.  The fertility rate – the number of children produced by a woman during her lifetime – has dropped to the historic low of 1.25.  This is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children.


A shrinking population means a shrinking workforce.  An economy can’t keep expanding without workers.


Japan has three ways of dealing with this problem.


It can overcome sexism.  Japanese women participate in the economy at rates far less than other industrialized countries.  Roughly 55 to 65 percent of Japanese women in their thirties are employed, compared to 85 to 90 percent of U.S., Swedish or French women.  Despite the declining birth rate, which implies that more women are available to work more of the time, female labor participation as a whole actually fell from 1994 to 2004.  Women’s wages remain 67 percent of men’s wages.  And Japan’s Gender Empowerment Index – which reflects the number of women in high political and economic positions – is well below that of the United States and Europe.


Sexism is not simply a cultural issue.  It is institutional.  The Japanese government has launched several programs to encourage women to work.  But maternity leave and child-care benefits remain inadequate, and the labor market is not flexible enough to accommodate working mothers.


Japan’s second method of dealing with its labor problem is to overcome racism.  Among the top 25 economies in the world, Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers in its workforce: only 0.3 percent compared to Canada and Switzerland’s 20 percent.  Japan’s Justice Ministry recently proposed doubling the number of foreign workers, but that still won’t meet the demand.  A spokesman for the Justice Ministry has said, “Some countries accept 5 or 10 percent, but that would be absolutely impossible for Japan.”


Why would such an increase in the number of foreign workers be impossible for Japan?  Japanese citizens say that they’re worried about crime, but this is not the real issue.  After all, the Japanese mafia and its white-collar allies are indigenous and pose a greater threat.  No, most Japanese really fear that foreigners would dilute their society’s national (and thus racial) purity.


Which intolerance will win in Japan: sexism or racism?  Who will keep Japan’s economy afloat in the future, women or foreigners?


Japan is not the only country facing such a dilemma.  Fertility rates are dropping in many European countries (Germany 1.4, Italy 1.3), and yet they too maintain ever-stricter border policies.  In the United States, women continue to face job discrimination and earn only 75 percent of men’s wages, and a disturbingly large number of American politicians want to build a huge wall along the border with Mexico.


I haven’t forgotten the third possible way for Japan to deal with the problem.


Japan is the world’s leading developer of robots.  Its latest robot, ASIMO, can recognize written text, carry a tray of drinks, and run six kilometers an hour.  Will Japan become a land of salarymen-robots?


Sexism and racism are very human faults.  To overcome them requires courageous politicians willing to focus on matters of human dignity.  It would be a terrible irony if Japan or any other country relied instead on non-human proxies to resolve their demographic problems.


Munhwa Ilbo, June 6, 2006


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