As an American woman who has worked for decades advising Japanese businesspeople about cultural and human resource issues, I have mixed feelings about Caroline Kennedy's rumored appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. What I'm most concerned about is the media's suggestions that as Ambassador, it would be appropriate for her to "influence gender politics" in Japan. CNN recommended that Kennedy become a "champion of female leadership" and that "her cause should rightly be unleashing the power of women in Japan and the United States." Other articles were given headlines with similar themes, although the content itself was somewhat less interventionist. For example, Bloomberg News proclaimed that " Envoy Caroline Kennedy Could Challenge Japan's Gender Gap " while the Daily Beast mused, "Will Caroline Kennedy Close Japan's Gender Gap?" The sub-head for the article in Foreign Policy quoted above asked, " Can Caroline Kennedy shake up Japan's sexist politics?"
These articles carry the assumption that U.S.-style feminism is appropriate for Japan, which somewhat defeats their conclusion that Caroline Kennedy, with few qualifications beyond her name and political favors to Obama, is an appropriate choice for this position.
Behind the interventionist sentiment lies the belief, widespread among Americans, that Japan is a country where women are relegated to an extremely low status. Because the U.S. as a society values the notion of equality between the sexes, there is a tendency to look down on Japan as being behind the times for its treatment of women. And indeed, in comparison with the United States, there are far fewer women in management positions in Japan, and women's participation in politics there is also limited. However, to attribute this to a generalized "sexism" vastly oversimplifies the actual situation of women in Japan.
Many people in the U.S. assume that Japanese women lack economic opportunities. The fact is that they do have opportunities, but aren't pursuing them. Why not? This is a multifaceted, complex question, combining elements of social structure, tax and immigration laws, and culture -- all things that it would be difficult for an Ambassador to impact, assuming that it were appropriate for her to try to do so. (And with North Korea and the contentious TPP trade talks only the tip of the iceberg, the next U.S. Ambassador to Japan is presumably going to have his or her hands full with other topics.)
The key issue limiting Japanese women's workforce participation is the difficulty of balancing a career and motherhood in a society where there is a scarcity of daycare , immigration laws bar women from hiring foreign nannies , and professional jobs come with expected long hours at the office and lengthy commutes. Not to mention a tax system that favors full-time homemakers , which for many Japanese women can be the tipping point on deciding whether to stay at home or go to work after marriage or the birth of a child.
Then, once a woman has stepped off the career track, the inflexibility of the Japanese labor market and Japanese corporate HR practices make it difficult to step back into professional positions. Fewer Japanese women who wish to return to full-time jobs after career breaks succeed in doing so as compared to their American counterparts -- 43 percent vs. 73 percent. The rest are usually relegated to low wage and low status "part-time" positions. And because Japan doesn't have the same tolerance or admiration for reinvention that the U.S. does, starting a second career at midlife is virtually unthinkable. The American 40-something returning to school to become the lawyer, teacher, or journalist they always wanted to be doesn't have many counterparts in Japan.
One shouldn't forget as well that many Japanese workplaces are no picnic, with ample stress and lack of career self-determination in addition to long hours. In global surveys, Japan consistently shows the lowest level of employee engagement. One can hardly blame many Japanese women for opting out of the male rat race --in fact, many beleaguered Japanese "salarymen" feel quite jealous of women who stay at home.
Japanese women are also operating in a cultural environment that strongly values the role of women as homemakers and in child-rearing. More than 50 percent of respondents surveyed believe that women should stay home after marriage, and one survey cites more than 50 percent of single women respondents as saying that they would like to be full-time housewives after marriage -- a number that has increased recently. In line with these norms, even the Crown Princess, a commoner who had a high-powered career in the Foreign Ministry, gave up her career and dropped out of public life after she married the Crown Prince.
Due to these factors, planning to become homemakers and mothers and anticipating that they will end their professional lives at that point, many Japanese women decide to not "lean in" on their careers in the first place. They choose to attend a two-year rather than four-year college, or decide not to go to college at all. They choose a low-stress, no-overtime clerical position rather than a more demanding career-track one. Women who choose such paths are effectively self-limiting their potential economic contributions.
Those Japanese women who decide not to have children, or are lucky enough to find daycare spots or to have relatives nearby willing to provide childcare, and apply themselves to their careers, have the same opportunities in the workplace as men. And among those women there are many examples of successful managers and executives, who have been working their way up through the promotional pipeline since Japan adopted its Equal Employ ment Opportunity law in 1986. As the first wave of such women hits their fifties, women will be showing up in senior ranks in Japan more often.
If the U.S. wants to choose a female Ambassador to Japan who will serve as a role model to inspire Japanese women to pursue careers and stick with them, a better choice might be a woman who has put in her time and worked her way up the ladder at the State Department. But by choosing Kennedy, who earned a law degree and never practiced law, and has spent much of her life focused on raising her three children, the U.S. might in fact be choosing someone that many Japanese women can better relate to -- someone who has put motherhood before her professional life. She could be a role model in the sense of showing that it is possible to embark on a new career after taking time at home with the children. Unfortunately most Japanese women who step off the fast track for childrearing are lucky if they can ever again find full-time work and could never dream of landing such a high-powered and glamorous position.