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Reaching for the Sky

Women workers have long been considered Japan’s neglected resource as the country continues to grapple with both hard economic times and the dwindling pool of potential employees to take over for retiring baby boomers in many fields. Japan has always been very slow to change and despite some progress in opportunities for women workers, the country still is entrenched in a male-dominated corporate culture where men fill many of the career positions and women are used more for short-term work and as OLs (office ladies). And those who have made it into career jobs still may find themselves fired for getting married or becoming pregnant.

So I was heartened to read a recent article in The Japan Times reporting that Japanese women are finding success in a career path where women are still rare all over the world—as commercial airline pilots. Apparently demand is so high for pilots that Japanese airlines cannot afford to shut out women. And with Tokyo’s Haneda Airport adding a fourth runway in 2010, flights are expected to increase.

So sometimes a dismal economy can offer a silver lining. Machiko Osawa, a professor and expert in labor economics and gender at Japan Women’s University contends that if the Japanese labor force continues to decrease, “it will promote gender equality in the labor market in general.”

I’ve never yearned to be a pilot (I find flying a necessary evil) but I was intrigued by this bit of information in The Japan Times article. It seems that many pilots do not have scientific or engineering backgrounds, with leadership and management skills being of prime importance. In fact, one of the women interviewed, Japan Airlines’ co-pilot Madoka Tachikawa, who flies Boeing 767’s, has a degree in English literature. It’s good to know that my MFA might put me in the driver’s seat at United Airlines.  

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Gender Equality!

Machiko Osawa, a professor and expert in labor economics and gender at Japan Women’s University contends that if the Japanese labor force continues to decrease, “it will promote gender equality in the labor market in general.”

What an interesting way to gain equality. I appreciate that you found this topic to illustrate the silver lining of an otherwise downtrodden situation. Do you think that gender equality will continue once Japan's economy evens out a bit?

Jamie Varon, redroom.com

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Gender Equality

That's hard to say, but I certainly hope so. What also is helping is the shortage of young workers because of the dwindling population. And now there are so many Japanese women who are refusing to marry and have kids so maybe reforms made in work-life balance issues to coax women into reproducing will actually result in more permanent positive changes for career women.

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Hope for more positive changes

It’s true that more Japanese women are not getting married. But I think dioxin exposure is one of the important reasons Japanese women are having difficulty in getting pregnant. In 1997, a young intelligent Japanese woman whispered to me about this. I was saddened and concerned.

The Dioxin problem is our collective shame. I’ve noticed Japanese don’t talk much about it. Once I asked a few Japanese women about it, they reacted as they were all unaware of it although they knew about the shrunken reproductive systems of fish around Japan’s lakes and rivers. I thought if they knew it was happening to fish, why they wouldn’t think about its effect on their bodies. I’m troubled by this.

On equality, In 1970, I was working for Japan IBM. Among about 700 employees in the building where I was, I believe there was only one female operation manager. I remember that because I was impressed with her. Yes, changes are coming slowly, but as you know, today, many women are working in management everywhere including the cabinet.

And on controlling overtime and karoushi (overwork resulted in death), the Japan’s government is enforcing the labor laws. About a year ago, I had an opportunity to work for a major Japanese company here. Their employees did not work overtime, and they took holidays off and took vacations. I was impressed by that. That company cannot have karoushi for sure. But I don’t think they can enforce that to all the smaller companies yet. Nowadays, large companies tend to outsource major part of their work-- maybe because of the regulations, so smaller outsourcing companies probably still demand overtime

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Hi Wendy. :)

I hope you are well. :)

I read your blog and went away before responding. I find the whole equality thing in Japan, and indeed all over the world, to be a highly distressing one so had to take a few deep breaths before coming back when I felt a bit more rational!

From a teenager's point of view, being brought up with English values, when I in was sent to Japan in the mid-80's I was absolutely horrified and disgusted with the way women were treated and their 'place' in society. Bearing in mind I was a child of 16, and a headstrong one at that, but the way that women were quite obviously second class citizens made me want to start a civil rights movement there and then!

I completely ignored the old saying 'When in Rome' and proceeded to alienate myself from most of my relatives in Japan as I paraded around my idealistic views of equality without any real knowledge or understanding of what I was trying to accomplish (which was not a lot!).

I am not saying that the English are perfect and I have yet to see a society that is completely equal towards women, but there are cultures where the divide is so much more obvious and the Japanese are certainly one of those.

To see this article brings me hope that if even Japan can start creeping forward in terms of sexual equality then maybe there is a glimmer of hope, although to be honest I won't be holding my breath for total equality in my lifetime.

I hope my response is not innapropriate to your blog. I enjoy reading your posts immensely. This subject just gets me going I'm afraid!

Wishing you the best as always,


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Glimmer of Hope

Ryoma-san and Keiko-san, thanks so much for your comments!

Ryoma-san, yes I agree that Japan making a small step toward gender equality offers a glimmer of hope for total equality even if they are dragged kicking and screaming to do so. :-)

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Hi Wendy, Jamie, Ryoma-sama, Keiko-sama and company

I lived in Japan from 1965 to 1967 and attended elementary school. I felt no discrepancies in treatment between boys and girls. My teacher, Hirabayashi Sensei was of the postwar generation and quite liberal. But I've often wondered how my life would have turned out had my parents decided to stay. I think the inequality would have become increasingly obvious. (My mother's family was adopted by a Japanese family who had no sons.) I know my aunt, who was working in an office as an translator and editor was expected to clean the bathrooms at the end of the day! Ugh.

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Very interesting

Very interesting observations, Belle. Thanks for posting!

On the subject of the falling marriage and birth rates in Japan, I just ran across these statistics at this Web site:


which also links to an older (2004) article from USA Today:


At any rate, the gist is that in 1985 31 percent of Japanese women in their twenties were single. That figure has risen to 54 percent today. The article goes on to say: "And about half of single women ages 35 to 54 have no intention to marry, preferring to pass on the challenges of catering to husbands who refuse to shoulder the household burden."

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Interesting comments from the article.

I found it even more interesting as I remember the angst and pressure that young women in their twenties displayed whenever the subject of getting married by the age of thirty (?) came up. I've seen similar reactions in the UK, Europe and the US but it was magnified ten-fold in Japan, as if the moment they hit thirty they would be outcasts of society. This was in the eighties so things may have changed by now, and judging by the comment you have quoted, they have.