Scenario of Female Workers in Japanese Labor Force


When we discuss about labor structure in one country, we normally could not avoid commenting on the issue of certain labor practices related to women. The usual cases about women participation in the labor force would normally relate to the issue such as sex discrimination, equal employment opportunity, career development, office treatment and lots more. Some studies have shown that such practices happened to occur due to cultural orientation of that particular community. Hence, this paper will make a brief survey about the condition of the Japanese women in the working sectors by making a little bit comparison about the past and present labor practices. In addition, this paper will try to explore and observe whether social culture that lies in the Japanese community has some impacts especially on the treatment received by the female workers.

Background: Family Pattern

In the agricultural age, the household pattern in Japan could be categorized as extended family, which related to the condition where several generations would live and work together on cultivating the land. But such pattern had slightly changed during the industrial age where family members were decline in number.

In the industrial age, the family pattern was known as nuclear family. It referred to a condition where the man played a greater role to manage the family and he was responsible to seek a better job to maintain the family. In this case, the women would responsible to handle the family by becoming a full-time housewife. Normally in this family pattern, the number of children was very few. It may have one or two children to be raised. This scenario would be best described in the middle and upper class society.

In the contemporary information age society, the household pattern reflects to a multiple family pattern. By general definition, it refers to a condition where there is no perfect model to follow in order to be socially accepted. They may not be bound to marriage relationship and may have no children at all. They could also be single parents to reflect their household pattern. From this scenario, we will now observe the working scenario of the Japanese women.

Overview of Female Workers in Japan

Women participation in Japan labor force could be seen growing in a faster rate and playing an important role since the break of the Second World War. The war industry had encouraged the women to support the nation because human resources were badly and crucially needed to balance up the role played by men who had to take other responsibilities in the war frontier. If during the pre-war, the Japanese women were pretty much attached to the patriarchal system (obey the father and the husband), the post war era was very much exciting and interesting. Such cultural trend tended to be loosening up and women had a bit of autonomy to get involved in the working sector independently.

Reasons for the Increasing Trend of Female Workers

From a study made by Ministry of Labor, women participation in Japan labor force has increased in numbers; for instance, in 1985, the percentage was 35.9%. Then it increased to 38.8% in 1994. In 1995, the percentage reached to 50% and such increment had definitely reflected to certain significant reasons. In 1995, the age group of 25 to 54 represented the highest group in the female workforce. Even in the part-time work, the trend seemed to follow the same incremental flow. In 1985, it was estimated that women represented 22% of the total female workforce and this figure rose to 35.7% in 1994. In term of women's share in part-time employment, the percentage was 67.5% in 1994.

Some analysts indicated that the increase of women workforce was due to higher education attainment for women that gave them a solid academic credential to seek for a better job. The increase of job opportunity during the "bubble economy" era and the process of urbanization throughout Japan had also affected the positive participation of female workers. Another reason was related to the decline of birthrate. Hence, this would create ample time for women to get involved in the working sector. Off course, the desire for economic affluence would be one of the best indicators and indeed, there was changing consciousness of female workers. In addition, there were actually a legislative movement and minor authority concern on employment opportunity for women that fostered the growing rate. In 1985, Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed (effective in April 1986) and since then, women have right to be employed equally with men that requires also fair treatment for them in the working place.

Status of Female Workers in the Working Sector and Management

The given information above is relatively interesting; however, there are issues that need to be explained in further observations. By making comparison of education levels between male and female especially at university level, most females tend to enroll in fields such as literature and social science. This observation would therefore reflect the working sector scenario.

In 1996, the trend of female employment structure was distributed as follow: 15.1% of female workers were professional and technical workers; 1% as managers and officers; 34.4% as clerks and related works; 12.3 % as workers in the transportation and communication occupations; 0.6% as agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers; 17.6% as craftsmen and production process workers; 5.9% as laborers; and 12.2% as protective service and service workers (source: Ministry of Labor). This trend was quite similarly reflected the female working scenario since 1975. In fact, there were more female upholding positions related to clerical job function.

Things to Ponder

From the above scenario, it seems to reflect that the career development for women may raise some more additional questions to ponder. Based on the survey made by Ministry of Labor in 1994, there were only 3.8% share of female workers in the managerial positions or sometimes referred to as "sogoshoku" in companies that had more than 100 employees. Based on that shared proportion, only 1.4% was department heads; 2.6% was section heads; and 6.4% was subsection heads. These trends were relatively similar to that of 1984. By looking also at the ratio of the part-time employment for women, they were pretty much higher than male (1994: 35.7% female, 11.4% male). Such pattern was different in the regular employment service where in 1996, out of total regular staff (37,790,000), there was 30.7% female and 69.3% was male. Although the female workforce represented 50% (in 1995) of total labor force in Japan, the statistics showed that the female workers did not seem to play more executive functions or even higher role in the management. Indeed, they were more women in the part-time services. WHY?

Issues of Female Workers

After scanning little information about the statistical representation of female workers in Japan, it is time to understand the real scenario of female workers in the real term of Japanese working life. Female workers in Japan are frequently known as "Office Lady" or "oh-eru (OL)". In Japanese, it is known as "ippanshoku". Today, nearly 96% of female office workers hold such title in the Japanese office environment. Such identification reflects to a condition of a female white color worker. Strangely speaking, they are the backbones of the Japanese corporate life. However, more contradictions against the ideal working philosophy will be notified at the later stage of this write-up.

Some labor and social practices in Japan have given great impact on female working life. The lifetime employment system, the seniority base system which are considered as the remnants of the traditional Japanese employment practices have brought obstacles for women to seek better career development especially in the regular employment services. To make it worst, the cultural orientations that uphold the old traditions and conventional ways of the society are still very prominent in the contemporary working culture. Women are still expected to get married and breed up children and such social pressures tend to influence the behavior of the female workers. It is quite embarrassing if women were not getting married at the age of 25. In fact, many Japanese employers create their employment policies based on these cultural norms.

Based on the survey, female workers earned 62% of menís salary although they have same academic qualification. Such phenomenon occurs because women would break their service especially after getting married or getting a child. Hence, this would loose up their seniority priority. That is why, in the process, we could see where the graduate female workers will have lower salary compared to males' high school leaver who have earned a better seniority prestige. In the eye of the management, they tend to avoid investing female workers for career development because those workers are interested in a short-term employment. This phenomenon is related to the principle so called the self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, female workers are pretty much favorable to stay in one job location for a longer time rather than being transferred elsewhere for better career position. Such offer would give them more difficulties if they were to be transferred elsewhere, so it is a status-quo circumstance.

To some of female workers, since there is "little room to grow" in the working place; therefore, their enthusiasm to work seems to be affected. Hence, most female workers tend to favor flexible working system, which is widely accepted in the part-time services. As a result, the percentage of female workers in the part-time service is higher than the male.

As a consequence, such labor practices, as mentioned above, have raised some efforts to improve the working life condition of the female workers. In fact, the government has taken up effort to correct such situation by passing the law related to the equal employment opportunity, hoping that the future will be blossom for female workers.


In short, the behavior pattern of Japanese working life is pretty much reflected to its own cultural orientation. In term of legislation, The Equal Employment Opportunity Law has been passed and amended time and again to curb certain practices related to sex discrimination and sex harassment. Yet, the movement was not made from the general population (unlike the United States) but it was based on the model from other countries. It was not initiated through the demand from the workers themselves. Hence, in reality, the improvement of the female working life will take time to change and depend on the deviation of the cultural perspective of the Japanese community toward womenís worker.

However, in more positive view, female workers in Japan are considered to be very lucky compared to many countries because they are pretty well paid and always happy with their working environment. For the writer, the face of the Japanese female workers has never shown their frustration but more likely they are very efficient and helpful in giving better assistance and always smile to win the heart of their management and clients.

Azman Mohd. Yusof

Labor Policy,

Graduate School of Policy Science, Saitama University

September 11,1998