Ten years have passed since the basic law for a gender-equal society was enacted. This landmark legislation was aimed at creating a society in which both women and men can demonstrate their full potential. To what extent has the law's ideal become a reality?
According to the Cabinet Office, women account for a mere 9.4 percent of Lower House members. Compared with other nations, the figure is abysmally low. As far as policymaking is concerned, Japan is nowhere near to being a gender-equal society.
The awareness of men is slowly changing, however. The number of men who believe women should not give up their careers to raise children or for other reasons is rising. Still, when it comes to pitching in with housework and childcare, regardless of whether their partners work or not, on average, men spend only about 30 to 40 minutes performing such chores daily.
Apparently, they understand the general principles of washing dishes or changing diapers, but find it hard to get their hands wet.
Meantime, the percentage of nonregular employees, including part-time and temporary workers, is now higher among women in their 30s and older--exactly the time of life when many of them must care for their children. In fact, among women in their 40s and older, a higher percentage of women are nonregular workers than are full-time workers.
The truth is, it is hard for any middle-aged or older women to find stable employment.
So it is obvious that Japan has a long way to go before it can be called a gender-equal society under the law.
But that doesn't mean we should give up.
The law aims to eliminate gender gaps in various areas of life, thus resulting in equality. But that is not all it can do. The nation's trend toward having fewer children could in fact be reversed, for example. It is a fact that birthrates are proportionately higher in countries that provide good working environments for women and where men actively take on housework.
Following the spirit of the law, local governments run centers to promote gender equality and women's centers, places that have served both as education centers and counseling bases for residents.
Last fall, the government's Council for Gender Equality called for a re-examination of the roles of such centers and requested local governments to work on solutions to the concrete problems that face residents. Few women have stepped up to take on roles as leaders in their local communities and there are few opportunities for them to fully demonstrate their abilities.
In advanced approaches, some centers are organizing classes for single mothers to help them brush up computer skills, for example. Others hold cooking lessons for men to help them lessen their dependence on women performing such everyday tasks. Other centers are running successful programs that promote gender equality in cooperation with nonprofit organizations.
Morioka Josei Center, in Morioka, started a lecture series for aspiring female entrepreneurs in December. Fourteen women in their 20s to 50s are attending.
One, a homemaker in her 40s, wants to open a minshuku family-run inn serving organic foods in the city. "I want to make it an inn that only serves breakfast, similar to the kind I learned about when my husband was transferred overseas," she said. Another woman said she wants to start her own business using her qualifications as a certified social insurance and labor consultant, skills she gained while working as a dispatch worker.
Their ambitions are an example of what power women can offer to energize communities. Although economic troubles have led some local governments to scale down such centers, we must not miss the opportunity to take advantage of the skills women possess. More than ever, the nation needs such centers for women to expand their presence and effectiveness in everyday life.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 15(IHT/Asahi: January 16,2009)