After international criticism and a bold social media campaign, Mr. Yoshiro Mori recently resigned from his post as President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee and was replaced by cabinet minister Ms. Seiko Hashimoto. The incident was an example of gaiatsu, pressure coming from outside of Japan leading to change. More importantly, there was also pressure coming from within Japan, from Japanese women’s collective power, giving new energy and attention to the cause of gender equity in Japan.
The incident began at an Olympic board of trustees meeting, when the former Prime Minister complained out loud that "meetings with lots of women take longer" because "women are competitive – if one member raises their hand to speak, others might think they need to talk too," according to Japanese media reports. In the country ranked among the lowest among industrialized nations in terms of gender representation in leadership, his sexist remark would usually have been quickly forgotten – perhaps met with nodding heads and a half-apology – before resuming business as usual.
Social Media Gives Women a Voice
Welcome, Mr. Mori, to 2021 and to the age of Social Media, or SMS as it’s called in Japan. Not only did his remark get picked up in the international media due to the Olympics being an international event, but it also came onto the radar of a certain Keio University Student, Ms. Momoko Nojo. Ms. Nojo had recently returned from study abroad in Denmark, a country which is among the highest on most gender equity indexes.
"In Japan, when there's an issue related to gender equality, not many voices are heard, and even if there are some voices to improve the situation, they run out of steam and nothing changes," Nojo said.
She was having none of that. She set up a #DontBeSilent campaign, and within a few days, gathered more than 150,000 signatures from around the world, galvanizing global outrage against Mori’s sexist remarks and demanding his resignation. Another prominent Japanese who drew media attention on this matter was Tennis Champion Naomi Osaka, who declared Mori’s sexist remarks to be “ignorant.” As she is highly admired in Japan and globally, is the highest paid female athlete in the world, and happens to be the most likely Olympic Gold Medal contender for Japan in Tokyo 2020, certainly her voice mattered.
Finding a Suitable Replacement for Mr. Mori
Replacing Mori wouldn’t be easy, especially given the fact that his hard work and connections played a key role in Japan being selected for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The committee found a more than suitable replacement for him in Seiko Hashimoto, former six-time both Summer and Winter Games Olympian and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) minister. Now fully in her role, she has been making some bold moves to include more women at the leadership level on the Olympics committee, with a target of 40% female representation.
Cultural Characteristics Influencing Japanese Gender Norms
Is there any truth to the idea that Japanese women talk too much in meetings? Dr. Makiko Deguchi, Professor at Sophia University and gender equity researcher brought up an important cultural point about and Japan’s “after five” business culture, where colleagues get together after work to communicate outside the formal meeting, such as at a bar or café: Women are often excluded. Known as nomikai, it’s in after-hours these meetings that the “action” often happens – particularly in traditional Japanese organizations, corporations, and government. Women are often “locked out of the more informal meetings such as nomikai and going to expensive ryotei restaurants, where the real decisions are being made. If women have to make their case, they only have the committee meetings to do it, whereas the men can afford to stay silent because they have leverage outside of those meetings,” according to Dr. Deguchi.
The reality is women are drastically underrepresented in Japanese leadership positions. Systemic inequities run deep in a culture which favors stable hierarchies, respects traditional family structure, and tends to value precedent and tradition over change.
A recent report found that women still made up only 15% of senior leaders in mid-market companies in Japan, compared with 41% in the USA and 48% in the Philippines.
One societal factor contributing to Japan’s lack of gender diversity in leadership is that women are still largely responsible for homemaking and child-rearing. Childcare options are chronically scarce, making full time career focus nearly impossible for mothers. As such, many young Japanese women do not see becoming a “career woman,” working long hours and constantly swimming against the tide, as an attractive alternative. On the contrary, Japanese men generally see dedication to work as paramount and are only recently starting to see role new models that go against this norm. And going against the norm is uncommon – as the Japanese saying goes, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
Though maternity and paternity leave are mandated by law, women are still often pressured to quit after having children, and men might be ostracized if they take time off. Japanese public television (NHK) recently aired a TV drama sitcom about an expectant couple as a pretext to explain workers’ rights and encourage balanced teamwork between the new parents. Change comes slowly in a culture that prefers small, incremental improvements (kaizen) to rapid societal and cultural change.
The Future of Women in Japan
Still, there is reason to hope. Dr. Deguchi says she was encouraged by Mori’s resignation and replacement by Hashimoto, a significant disruption to the norm. “To me, it was a promising sign. In the past, representation by women was too small and was easily ignored. This time, we may have reached a kind of critical mass that allowed a shift.”
Leadership consultant and Managing Director of C-Suite Executive Dr. Sapna Masih Advani agrees. She sees the Mori incident as “a milestone in the long march to gender equality in Japan, but it is a significant milestone. [Women] were able to prevail over a power figure in the Japanese structure. That matters in the big picture.” Women in Japan have plenty to say – it’s high time to let them do the talking.
Ms. Sue Shinomiya (USA), MBA, Founder and Principal Consultant of Global Business Passport / Connectedness of Portland, USA, empowers professionals to connect, lead and succeed across cultures and differences in an increasingly global, diverse and complex world. She is an expert and published author on Japanese culture and business, and updated the CultureWizard Japan pages. She delivers programs, consulting and coaching on a range of intercultural and inclusiveness topics, and uses the Japanese concept of Ikigai as a visual purpose-finding coaching tool.Ms. Shinomiya can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/Sue-Shinomiya.