A day after former Tokyo Olympics boss Yoshiro Mori made global headlines with his sexist comments, Momoko Nojo, 23, helped start a petition calling for action against him. “The aim wasn’t his resignation,” says Nojo, whose petition – co-created with 10 other women – took two days to collect 100,000 signatures. “I felt we needed to do something, because until now we, as a society, have accepted these kinds of comments.”
Mori – an 83-year-old former prime minister who had told a Japanese Olympic Committee meeting that women talked too much – resigned a week later (pictured above). When broadcasters and newspapers reported that he had handpicked another man in his 80s as his replacement, young women called for a transparent process, resulting in the appointment of Seiko Hashimoto – a much younger, female, former Olympics Minister – instead.
The move was seen as something of a victory for women. But Nojo, who is the head of a youth group called No Youth No Japan, says Mori’s resignation doesn’t come close to tackling the overall problem of gender inequality in Japan. “Companies criticised Mr Mori’s comments, but some of them have less than 1% female board members, and that needs to change,” she says.
Risa Kamio, an elected member of the Setagaya City Council in Tokyo, agrees. “To me, Mr Mori was only the tip of the iceberg. It was like a whack-a-mole game. People criticised him because he came out to be whacked, but there are many other moles,” she says.
The topic of gender equality keeps making headlines in Japan, for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, just a few days after Mori resigned, the ruling party hit the news again by announcing that, while it was willing to allow women to attend its all-male board meetings, they would not be allowed to speak.
These high-profile incidents come despite well-publicised policies aimed at promoting women’s representation in society, including an ambitious target announced in 2015 for women to hold 30% of leadership positions by 2020. And the incidents coincide with a steady drop by Japan in global gender equality rankings; the World Economic Forum describes the country’s gender gap as “the largest among advanced economies”.
It was like a whack-a-mole game. People criticised him because he came out to be whacked, but there are many other moles – Risa Kamio
As Nojo’s actions demonstrate, there are some signs of activism among young people. Yet statistics show that most people believe genuine change will take a long time. What’s behind these attitudes – and why isn’t Japan making better progress on gender equality?
‘Burden on women’
One key factor is the way traditional gender roles still prevail, significantly reducing the pipeline of women into leadership positions.
“Historically, after World War Two, the combination of a hardworking husband who devotes his life to his company, and a stay-at-home mother, was encouraged,” explains Hiroki Komazaki, founder and CEO of Florence, a non-profit organisation which advocates for solutions that help working parents.
This encouragement has led to a norm in which husbands work very long hours, while housework and childrearing still fall mainly on wives. The government’s latest national survey in 2020 showed mothers still do 3.6 times more housework than fathers. Because of these norms – as well as hiring biases in some companies, and the change-resistant working culture – many women stop working after having children, or opt for part-time or contract work that generally does not lead to promotions.