Women and the Economic Miracle: Gender and Work in Postwar Japan by Mary C. Brinton, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Women and the Economic Miracle: Gender and Work in Postwar Japan

Women and the Economic Miracle: Gender and Work in Postwar Japan

by Mary C. Brinton

This lucid, hard-hitting book explores a central paradox of the Japanese economy: the relegation of women to low-paying, dead-end jobs in a workforce that depends on their labor to maintain its status as a world economic leader. Drawing upon historical materials, survey and statistical data, and extensive interviews in Japan, Mary Brinton provides an in-depth


This lucid, hard-hitting book explores a central paradox of the Japanese economy: the relegation of women to low-paying, dead-end jobs in a workforce that depends on their labor to maintain its status as a world economic leader. Drawing upon historical materials, survey and statistical data, and extensive interviews in Japan, Mary Brinton provides an in-depth and original examination of the role of gender in Japan's phenomenal postwar economic growth.

Brinton finds that the educational system, the workplace, and the family in Japan have shaped the opportunities open to female workers. Women move in and out of the workforce depending on their age and family duties, a great disadvantage in a system that emphasizes seniority and continuous work experience. Brinton situates the vicious cycle that perpetuates traditional gender roles within the concept of human capital development, whereby Japanese society "underinvests" in the capabilities of women. The effects of this underinvestment are reinforced indirectly as women sustain male human capital through unpaid domestic labor and psychological support.

Brinton provides a clear analysis of a society that remains misunderstood, but whose economic transformation has been watched with great interest by the industrialized world.

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University of California Press
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California Series on Social Choice and Political Economy Series
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Women and the Economic Miracle

Gender and Work in Postwar Japan
By Mary Brinton

University of California Press

Copyright © 1993 Mary Brinton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07563-3

Chapter One


What do Americans and other Westerners think of when they hear the phrase "women in Japan"? For many people, the immediate image is that of kimono-clad, tea-serving, compliant women who do not play any role in the modern economy. This image is erroneous. Japanese women now participate in the economy at levels similar to women in Western industrial nations. Yet to conclude that there is equivalence between women's roles in the economies of Japan and the industrial West would be to replace one misleading image with another. The main goal of this book is to provide more realistic-and necessarily more complex-images of women's role in the postwar Japanese economy.

While Western impressions of Japanese women's roles may be poorly informed, Japan nevertheless represents a seeming contradiction: high rates of participation in the economy, yet sharp gender differentiation in wages, employment status, and occupational roles. The past few decades of experience in Western industrial nations, both capitalist and socialist, have suggested that a high female labor force participation rate does not necessarily mean the rapid extinction of sharply delineated sex roles in the economy or the disappearance of the male-female wage gap. But Japan demonstrates this more clearly than any other industrial society. No matter how we choose to measure gender stratification in the labor force, Japan represents the most marked deviation from other countries. This is true despite the fact that Japan has entered the ranks of advanced industrial economies. About 58 percent of Japan's people live in cities of over 100,000, compared to 76 percent of the U.S. population, and although the agricultural sector remains slightly larger than in the United States and a number of other industrial nations, the vast majority (over 90 percent) of Japanese workers are in the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy. The size of the service sector in Japan is comparable to that of West Germany and is slightly smaller than those of the United States, Great Britain, and France. But the contrast between the roles of men and women in the Japanese economy is greater than in the West. Why should this be of interest to Western social scientists, policymakers, and the public at large?

Japan's phenomenal rate of economic growth in the past quarter-century and its increasing dominance in world markets have transformed it into a model of a successful postindustrial society in many people's minds. So it is critical that we ask whether Japanese sex roles represent an epiphenomenon, a legacy of Japan's relatively late entrance into the industrial world. Alternatively, do the Japanese social and economic institutions so admired by Westerners for their cohesion and efficiency actually produce and maintain strong sex roles in the economy? Have these institutions produced an even stronger case of the contradiction, already apparent in the West, between high rates of female participation in the economy on the one hand and economic inequality between men and women on the other?

I argue that this is the case. Japanese women's roles are not the epiphenomenal result of late industrial development per se. Nor are these roles simply the product of a strong sex-role ideology in Japanese culture. Rather, they are closely tied to the development of social and economic institutions in postwar Japanese society. These social and economic institutions did not "just happen." They are the result of purposive action. As Robert Cole, a long-time scholar of Japanese industrial relations, points out in reference to Japan's infamous "permanent employment system": "Although there are some aspects of an unconscious persistence of custom in the evolution of permanent employment, for the most part it represents a conscious act of institution building" (Cole 1979: 24).

The proportion of the labor force employed in the service sector (industries other than agriculture, mining, forestry and fishing, manufacturing, and construction) is 59.6 percent in Japan, 71.2. percent in the United States, 72.2 percent in Great Britain, 66.2 percent in France, and 57.2 percent in West Germany (International Labor Organization 1988). Note that the statistics reported in this book are for West Germany prior to its unification with East Germany.

The Japanese educational system and labor market have developed historically in ways that disadvantage women in economic terms. This book is concerned principally with these institutions and with the family. Because my argument is about how these institutions structure the opportunities and constraints for Japanese men's and women's economic roles, the story I tell is not one based on a conspiracy of men against women or capitalists against workers. The story is about why Japanese institutions such as schools and work organizations operate in the ways they do, and how men and women respond rationally to the choices and constraints inherent in these institutions. The aggregate result is a high level of gender differentiation and stratification in the economy.

Japan and Western Industrial Economies Compared

Japanese women participate in the labor force at a similar rate to women in Western industrial nations, as the following percentages of participation (all for 1987 unless otherwise indicated) show: Sweden 81.1 Norway 63.7 Denmark (1986) 57.5 Canada 56.2 United States 54.2 Japan 48.6 Australia 48.3 United Kingdom (1986) 48.2 France 45.8 West Germany 42.0

With 49 percent of adult females in the labor force, Japan stands between the high rates of North America and Scandinavia and the somewhat lower rates of Western Europe. This apparent typicality masks three important phenomena that set Japan apart: (1) Japanese women, relative to men, are much more likely than their Western counterparts to be piecework laborers or workers in family-run enterprises; (2) there is a greater tendency in Japan than in other countries for white-collar jobs to be "male" and blue-collar jobs to be "female"; and (3) the male-female wage gap is greater in Japan.

Employment Status

Employment status is an important indicator of gender stratification that has generally been ignored in research in the United States because the overwhelming majority of the U.S. labor force consists of employees. In economies such as Japan's, employment status is a more salient aspect of work. Fully one-quarter (14,640,000 people) of the Japanese labor force are self-employed workers or workers in small family-run businesses. This is a greater proportion than in any other industrial country, although France and Australia also show high rates of self- employment. If men and women are distributed differently among the employee, self-employed, and family enterprise sectors, this is an important indicator of gender stratification. For example, working in a small family business involves more flexible working hours than working as an employee in a large corporation. But it also involves a dependence on the continuation of the family unit. It is typically unpaid labor, so it does not imply the economic independence that can arise from wage labor. Self-employment is also an important category to examine in and of itself. In Japan this category is comprised both of independent shopowners (the classic "petite bourgeoisie"), who tend to be men, and piece-rate workers who work out of their living rooms assembling modern or traditional consumer goods. The latter are overwhelmingly women.

Table 1.1 shows the sexes' distribution by employment status (employee, self-employed, and family enterprise worker) in a number of industrial economies. In all countries but Japan, female workers are more likely than male workers to be paid employees. For example, in the United States, 94 percent of employed women and 90 percent of employed men are employees. Japan displays the largest gap between the proportions of men and women who work as employees, and the gap is in the opposite direction: men are more likely than women to be employees. When industrial economies are compared, Japanese women make up the lowest proportion of employees relative to men.

The comparatively low percentage (69 percent) of Japanese women workers who are employees is complemented by the high percentage who labor as family enterprise workers in small family-run businesses or farms. Fewer than 3 percent of all Japanese male workers (and fewer than 2 percent of those not employed in agriculture) work in family-run enterprises. This proportion is slightly higher than in other industrial countries. But almost one-fifth of the Japanese female labor force work as family enterprise workers. This is about three times the rate in France and West Germany and more than twenty times the rate in countries such as the United States, Sweden, and Australia. The high rate in Japan cannot be explained solely by the presence of a larger agricultural sector. Table 1.1 demonstrates that even in the nonagricultural population, Japanese women exhibit a much higher rate of family enterprise employment than women in other countries. Japanese women also have a high rate of self-employment compared to women in most other industrial countries, and the difference between the proportions of Japanese men and women who are self-employed is not as great as in many countries. But the content of the work performed by the two sexes is radically different. Over one-third of Japanese female self-employed workers are laboring on a piece-rate basis (called "home handicraft" labor in the Japanese census). This involves tasks such as sewing or putting together electronics parts at home and delivering the work to a firm, often a subcontractor for a larger firm. This is hardly the image of an independent entrepreneur that the term "self-employment" brings to mind, in contrast to the high proportion of piece-rate work among the female self-employed in Japan, fewer than half of one percent of self-employed males are piece-rate workers. About one-third of male self-employed workers have employees working for them, but fewer than 15 percent of self-employed females do. Restricting the gender comparison to self-employment in the manufacturing sector presents an even sharper picture: 94 percent of self-employed women are piece-rate workers, as opposed to 3 percent of men.


The location of women relative to men in the occupational structure is also distinctive in Japan vis-à-vis Western industrial nations. Figure 1.1 shows the percentage female in each occupational group in six industrial countries. The most striking characteristic of Japanese women's participation in white-collar work (administrative and managerial, professional and technical, clerical, sales, and service) is their extremely low representation in administrative/managerial positions. Only 8 percent of managers are women. France also shows a low rate of female managers (9 percent), while the rates of other countries range from 17 percent in West Germany to 66 percent in Sweden. (Since figures for administrative/managerial and clerical workers are reported together in Sweden, it is misleading to place too much emphasis on the high proportion of female managers there.) Japanese women participate in professional and technical occupations at a rate similar to that in other industrial countries. In clerical, sales, and service occupations, however, Japan shows the lowest rates of female participation compared to other industrial countries.

Figure 1.1 also shows that Japanese women are more likely than women in other countries to be heavily involved in agriculture and manufacturing (production) relative to their male counterparts-48 percent of Japanese agricultural workers are women. This compares to much lower rates in the United States, Great Britain, France, and Sweden, and a slightly lower rate in West Germany. Japanese women are represented in production-related work (manufacturing, transportation, and other blue-collar jobs) at a rate approximately twice that of women in other countries. The unusual concentration of Japanese women in manufacturing is especially apparent when we consider part-time workers. The postwar increase in married women's participation in the labor forces of industrial countries is partially constituted by part-time work, and Japan is no exception. But it is exceptional in the industrial distribution of female part-time workers: nearly one-half of such workers were engaged in manufacturing jobs in 1980, compared to only 9 percent in the United States. In contrast, in the United States and other industrial countries, 50 to 60 percent of female part-time workers are employed in clerical or service occupations; in Japan, such occupations constitute only about 30 percent of the female part-time labor force. The proportion of Japanese female part-time workers in professional and technical occupations is also negligible, at 3 percent in 1980, whereas the figure for the United States is 15 percent.


International comparisons of wage data are notoriously difficult because of comparability problems, but a few illustrative figures may be given. The overall female/male wage ratio for full- time workers in the mid 1980s ranged in Western industrial nations from a low of 68.2 (weekly rate) in the United States to highs in the 84-89 percent range (hourly) in France and northern Europe (International Labor Organization 1988). Wages in Japan are typically reported as monthly rates, and the female/male ratio in 1987 was 57.6, substantially lower than in any other industrial country (Ministry of Labor, Japan, 1988). So not only are women more underrepresented as employees and as white-collar workers in Japan, but their wage levels lie farther below men's than is the case in Western capitalist economies.

Problems in the Comparative Study of Women's Economic Role

These international comparisons show that in considering women's participation in industrial economies, much is obscured by focusing only on the level or amount of participation as in the figures given on p. 3 above, where Japan appears typical in the context of other nations. When we examine the type of work women engage in relative to men-measured by employment status, occupation, and wage levels-the broad similarities among industrial countries become fuzzier and contrasts emerge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison between Japan and other industrial countries.

The economic and social institutions of capitalism exhibit variations across societies owing to historical and cultural disjunctures. American sociologists and economists have tended to ignore this in their studies of women's economic role.


Excerpted from Women and the Economic Miracle by Mary Brinton Copyright © 1993 by Mary Brinton. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Mary C. Brinton is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

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