On Wednesday, January 26th, the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative (21JPSI*) hosted Professor Mary C. Brinton (Harvard) for a virtual seminar about Japan’s challenges increasing married women’s labor force participation and raising the country’s very low birth rate. A global audience of at least 100 faculty, students, and community members from across the United States and the world participated in the live event.
In her opening remarks, which were based on her forthcoming Japanese-language book from Chuo Koron, Professor Brinton highlighted “twin dilemmas” that Japan’s leaders face in the 21st century: (1) demographic challenges as a rapidly aging nation; and (2) economic challenges due to slow economic growth, low productivity, labor shortages, and large national debt. One major cause is Japan’s very low birth rate.
To confront these challenges, Dr. Brinton argued, Japan’s government has sought to design policies aimed at (1) alleviating current labor shortages by raising the labor force participation rate of married women (especially mothers), and (2) mitigating future labor shortages by increasing the birth rate. Though Japan has succeeded in raising women’s labor force participation even above that of the U.S., continuing gender inequality in Japanese workplaces and households remain major issues. For example, many women who are employed work “non-regular” jobs, while the percentage of highly-educated women who are employed is relatively low among Japan’s international peer group.
Dr. Brinton argued that Japan’s policies have fallen short of their goals because they have insufficiently emphasized “dislodging gender-role specialization in the home and in the labor market.” Workplace conditions and social policies continue to assume a “male breadwinner-female career” family model and do not sufficiently support a dual earner-dual caregiver model. Unless this changes, and unless Japan’s government supports its policies with more effective carrots and sticks (and mandates)—rather than merely encouraging certain actions that go against strong social norms—birth rates are unlikely to increase. Dr. Brinton offered the example of the very low percentage of Japanese fathers who take childcare leave despite Japan’s relatively generous policies, noting that “having men’s childcare leave be optional stigmatizes the men who take it.” Accordingly, very few do. This is one example of a policy “without teeth.”
Professor Brinton concluded her prepared remarks with policy recommendations in four areas (which appear in her forthcoming book): increasing the availability of public childcare and major reforms to tax policy for married couples, the Childcare and Family Leave Law, and the workplace based on a “reconceptualization of gender equality.”
After concluding her remarks, Professor Brinton engaged in a brief exchange with 21JPSI Faculty Affiliate Hilary Holbrow and Director Adam Liff. This exchange was followed by a lively Q&A entailing more than a half-dozen questions from our global audience.
*The 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative (21JPSI) was launched at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies in 2018. Under the leadership of Founding Director and HLS faculty member Adam Liff, 21JPSI aims to invigorate and expand research, teaching, and programming on contemporary Japanese politics, society, and international (esp. U.S.-Japan) relations, and to educate, raise awareness, and debate policy responses to the various political, social, and foreign policy challenges that Japan faces in this extremely dynamic era of 21st-century change. Supported by a generous $900,000 grant from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, in its first five years 21JPSI has enabled a new tenure-track faculty line contemporary Japanese politics and society; launched four new courses on contemporary Japan and a multidisciplinary speaker series on Japanese Politics and Society; hosted national conferences and webinars on U.S.-Japan relations; and funded graduate fellowships and faculty travel grants to support research in Japan. For more information, please see https://jpsi.indiana.edu/ or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.