Gender in Japanese Public Administration

  • Shugo ShinoharaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Division of status, roles, and opportunities between the two sexes in Japanese public bureaucracy.


Japanese governments have held considerably low levels of gender equality in their workforces. The 2016 Report of the Japanese Cabinet Office for Gender-Equal Society reports that the proportion of women workers who are division heads or higher was 3.5% in the central government and 8.5% in prefectural governments (equivalent to state governments in the USA), while that in the private firms which have over 100 employees was 9.8%. Unlike public sectors in most Western countries, the Japanese public sector, especially the central government, has been slow compared to the private sector to promote women to key decision-making positions. The theory of representative bureaucracy suggests that such underrepresentation of women will make a public bureaucracy unresponsive to women’s interests, opinions, needs, desires, and values in its policy making and program implementation. Particularly in Japan, holding a legacy from the pre-war imperial government, the national bureaucracy has been described as a remarkably powerful institution in the English language literature (e.g., Koh 1989; Tsurutani 1998). Further, given the relative homogeneity of race and ethnicity, policy arguments around diversity have been centered on gender issues. Thus, the influence of gendered public administration and policy on the entire Japanese society could never be negligible. The extant Japanese studies have addressed gender equality in workplace mainly from legislative, managerial, and cultural perspectives.

Legislation for Gender Equality

The pre-war Japanese legal system, including the Constitution and the Civil Codes, placed women at a subordinated position to men in the Confucian-style social hierarchy. The Japanese imperial government set the goal of women’s policy as confining women to good wives and wise mothers. Right after World War II, the American Occupation forces, the Supreme Commander for Allied Power (SCAP), identified the improvement of women’s status as one of the five main goals in its democratization policy for Japan. SCAP’s initiatives led the post-war Japanese government to grant suffrage to women in the new election law, guarantee women’s equal rights to men in the new Constitution, and create a policy agency for women, the Bureau of Women and Minors (BWM) in the Ministry of Labor, between 1945 and 1947. On the one hand, it was not until 1950 that Japanese women were allowed to take upper-class civil service examinations at both national and local levels. During the pre-war period, women’s positions in the public sector were limited to lower-ranked officials and school teachers. Even after 1950, there had been no upper-level women officials in the central government, except BWM for a while. Women who passed the civil service examination were rejected from hire at an upper-level position by the key central ministries, which held large policy responsibilities, such as the Ministry of Treasury and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Lebra 1981). Kobayashi (2004) describes that such male dominance in the key ministries prevented BWM, which was mainly comprised of women officials, from gaining sufficient financial resources and hence from implementing effective gender equality policies.

The enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) in 1986 was the first legislative effort by the Japanese government to minimize pervasive discriminatory hiring and promotion practices in both the public and private sectors. This had been, since its inception, a main policy goal for the BWM, renamed the Women’s Bureau (WB) in 1984. The United Nations (UN)’s International Women’s Decade (1975–1985) and the entailed ratification of the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1985 enabled the WB to facilitate the arduous legislation process that involved strong oppositions from domestic employers and political leaders (Kobayashi 2004). Some scholars argue that the EEOL, although criticized for the lack of enforcement power, made a contribution to raising awareness of gender inequality and increasing women’s entry into higher education and the labor market in the 1990s (e.g., Gelb 2000; Molony 1995).

The WB further pushed such key stakeholders as male political and business leaders to create a more comprehensive gender policy framework. The Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society (BLGS) was enacted in 1999 as the first basic law for gender equality in all aspects of society, including education, employment, politics, and social security. As a practical action plan for implementing the BLGS, the Basic Plan for Gender Equality was then formulated in 2000 by the central government and implemented at each government level. The Basic Plan was revised in 2005, 2010, and 2015. It has set up key priority fields, including (1) expansion of women’s participation in policy decision-making processes, (2) reconsideration of social systems and practices and raising awareness of gender inequality, (3) securing equal opportunities and treatment between men and women in employment, (4) men’s and women’s work–life balance, and (5) enhancement of education and learning to promote gender equality and facilitate diversity of choice. These expanded scopes of gender equality policy led to the establishment of the Council for Gender Equality and the Gender Equality Bureau within the Cabinet Office, headed by the Prime Minister in 2001. The WB in the Ministry of Labor was replaced with the Gender Equality Bureau, which has been in charge of not only gender issues in employment but also with overall coordination of policy design and implementation for creating a gender-equal society.

Gender Equality in Japanese Management

Partly due to the legislation for gender equality, women’s entry into the Japanese workforce steadily increased. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reports that the proportion of women in the entire national workforce grew from 35.9%, in 1985, to 43.5%, in 2015. Particularly in the central government workforce, the proportion of women rose from 17.4% in 1985 to 26.8% in 2015. Despite such progress of women’s entry into the workforce, women workers have been substantially underrepresented in decision-making positions. As shown in the introduction, the proportion of women who are division heads (director) or higher has been less than 10% in both the public and private sectors. Since the 1990s, a large body of scholarship has argued that Japanese management practices prevented women workers from climbing the career ladders in their workplace (e.g. Brinton 1993; Lam 1992).

In 1968, 20 years after World War II, Japan recorded the second highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan led the world economy. During this period, many Western observers regarded Japanese management practices such as lifetime employment, seniority wage and promotion, and collective decision-making as the best practices and hence worthy of emulation. In the 1990s, however, the Japanese economy experienced lengthy recession and stagnation, and some of the management practices, especially lifetime employment and seniority wage and promotion, were criticized as structural impediments. Government advisory bodies and business leaders raised the concern that these management practices were designed to sacrifice the values of personal life of the workers, and thus were not sustainable. In the context of gender, lifetime employment expects all regular workers, male and female, to stay at one organization from recruitment to retirement, with regular workers acquiring higher wages and positions mainly based on age and years of continuous service. However, due to childbirth and other family responsibilities, Japanese women workers have suffered high penalties for dropping out of this regular career track (Shinohara et al. 2016).

These management practices have deep roots in not only private firms but also public agencies. Gordon (1988) sees lifetime employment and seniority wage and promotion in part as by-products of Japanese wartime totalitarianism. In the late 1930s, the imperial Japanese government issued a series of regulations on wages and company welfare policies (e.g., wages should rise with age, the best single proxy for need; income should meet minimum livelihood needs and should therefore be stable; and incentive pay, subject to fluctuation and rate-cutting, should be reduced or eliminated). In both public and private organizations, the Japanese management system has put women at a disadvantage.

Male-Dominant Culture in Japanese Bureaucracy

Japan’s modern bureaucracy is structurally similar to many of its Western counterparts, while some of the group-oriented working protocols backed by traditional culture are distinct (Fiftal Alarid and Wang 1997; Jun and Muto 1995). Group orientation – or groupism – stems from ancient Confucian values and rice farming practices in close-knit village community, where harmonious group work was required in order to share water resources, maintain wet paddy fields, and fight with famine and natural disasters. Haitani (1990) identifies these key dimensions of Japanese groupism in a managerial context: (i) identity formulation and a sense of security through an affiliation of group membership, (ii) hierarchical relationship among its members based on seniority, (iii) stress on the relationships of harmony and cooperation, (iv) exclusivism, and (v) rank and status consciousness. While groupism can lead to a higher level of efficiency and effectiveness in a collaborative work setting, it requires group members to prioritize the entire group goal over individual needs. Particularly in a male-dominant work organization, women’s special needs, including maternity leave, would likely be largely neglected by the majority group – men. It is worth noting that groupism is highly integrated into such Japanese management practices as lifetime employment and seniority wage and promotion. These practices expect a continuous commitment of full-time workers to an organization to maintain its group cohesion and harmonious human relationships. Under the group-oriented management system, both public and private organizations have provided insufficient support and opportunities for women’s maternity leave and reentry to the workforce.

Jun and Muto (1995) argue that, since fewer public workers leave their organizations until retirement, the attachment of Japanese public workers to group cohesion and human relationships would be stronger than that of their private counterparts. Given a strong group orientation, one of the most important qualifications for a higher civil servant is to establish harmonious junior (kohai) and senior (senpai) relationships. Specifically, the qualification of a leader rests primarily on his/her locus within the group, rather than his/her personal merit; the loyalty other members feel to the leader also derives from their position as a subordinate to him/her (Nakane 1970). As described above, the pre-war legal system placed women at a subordinate position to men on the basis of Confucian social order and hierarchy: emperor and nation, government and people, manager and subordinate, senior and junior, and men and women. Such lingering legacies from the pre-war imperial government might still prevent women officials from becoming leaders in the Japanese public bureaucracy. Furthermore, many Japanese bureaucrats develop group values and common experiences through socialization processes, especially after-work drinking and weekend social events. Holding childcare and other family responsibilities, some women officials could not be active in these social activities, and hence might lose opportunities to gain a pivotal position in a group. In the Japanese male-dominant bureaucracy, an emphasis on groupism engenders the marginalization of women – despite their numbers in society – as a minority.


Although the percentage of women in the Japanese workforce has steadily increased over the past 30 years, women workers have still been substantially underrepresented in decision-making positions, especially in the government workforce. Responding to international pressure, mainly from the UN, the Japanese legislation and policy framework for gender equality have made significant progress in the recent years. After the enactment of BLGS, more Japanese full-time workers view the treatment of gender in Japanese workplace as fair/almost fair with no significant difference of this view between the public and private sectors (Shinohara et al. 2016). On the one hand, this empirical evidence suggests that both public and private workers have become less conscious of the existing gaps between men and women in Japanese workplace. However, there is still a long way to go to achieving consensus on gender equality, especially in the central government, where the proportion of women who are division heads or higher is only 3.5%. In this vein, it would be essential for future studies to examine whether the recent legislative and policy efforts for gender equality affect gendered management practices and male-dominant culture. Without changing gendered practices and cultural norms among public workers, a high level of representative bureaucracy cannot be realized. Arguably, the existing underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions could hinder Japanese governments from achieving the goal of BLGS, a gender equal society, through implementing more effective gender equality policies and programs.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rutgers University – NewarkNewarkUSA