Why Japanese Women Don’t Stay in the Workforce

Japanese Woman in Ginza Tokyo

For years, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, has been trying to increase female labor force participation and reduce workplace discrimination in the country. Abe hoped that convincing more women to stay in the workforce might help jump-start Japan’s struggling economy.  The country’s official goal was for 30% of leadership positions to be filled by women by the year 2020.  So far, the project is not going well, and a few weeks ago, the government announced that they were reducing that target by quite a lot—to a mere 7% by 2021.

While Japanese women are extremely well-educated, the country’s unforgiving work culture means that many women leave their jobs after having a child, and never return.  “Female participation in the labor force is 63%, far lower than in other rich countries,” wrote The Economist in an article last year. “When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America. Quite a lot of those 70% are gone for good.”

A 2005 paper in Demography by Wei-Hsin Yu examined why so many Japanese women exit the labor force after getting married or having children.  To conduct her analysis, Yu compared labor force exit patterns in Taiwan and Japan, which both underwent significant economic development in the latter half of the 20th century.

Yu’s analysis demonstrates how Japan’s work culture, particularly at prestigious firms, affects female labor force participation.  Interestingly, women in high-status jobs were actually more likely to exit the workforce after marriage or childbearing, likely because those types of positions are more demanding and incompatible with a family than public sector or blue-collar jobs, or jobs at smaller family businesses.

“Japanese women who worked in larger firms, those who held clerical jobs, and those who worked in the private sector were more likely to discontinue their employment careers around the time of first childbirth,” wrote Yu. In Taiwan, by contrast, the opposite narrative is true—Taiwanese women in “higher occupational status jobs,” jobs which also required higher initial investments of time and money, were less likely to exit the labor force after having children, and less likely to stay away for a long period of time.

Yu’s research demonstrates the role of both policy and culture in women’s decision-making around work and family.

“Although historical changes in women’s educational attainment and occupational options increase their earnings opportunities, these changes do not always bring about increases in women’s job continuity after marriage and childbearing,” concluded Yu. “The findings from this research suggest that the contextual constraints that affect how women decide on the timing of labor-force participation in their life cycles need to be taken into account.”


JSTOR Citations

Changes in Women's Postmarital Employment in Japan and Taiwan

By: Wei-Hsin Yu

Springer on behalf of the Population Association of America

Dwyer Gunn

Dwyer Gunn is a freelance journalist. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, PSMag.com, and elsewhere. She was previously the editor of the Freakonomics blog.

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