Women in Management Positions in Japan. Trends, Challenges and Opportunities

Diploma Thesis, 2008

127 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 The Japanese Culture – Characteristics and Influence on Women
2.1 Cultural Patterns
2.2 Religion, Society Economy
2.3 Legal Background of Gender Equality
2.4 Corporate Principles

3 Quantitative Trends – Current Representation of Female Managers
3.1 Japan’s Position in the World
3.2 Trends in Japan

4 Qualitative Trends – Impressions about and from Japanese Women
4.1 Interview Background
4.2 Interview Results Structured by Question

5 Challenges for Female Japanese Managers
5.1 External Challenges
5.1.1 Japanese Gender Roles, Stereotyping Prejudices
5.1.2 Legal and Governmental Determinants of Gender Inequality
5.1.3 Lacking Support of Female Managers within Companies The Male Corporate Culture Human Resource Management (HRM)
5.2 Internal Challenges
5.2.1 Lack of Education
5.2.2 Lack of Career Orientation

6 Opportunities to Improve the Situation of Female Managers in Japan
6.1 Culture Change Internationalization Tendencies
6.2 Governmental Change Actions
6.3 Organizational Change
6.3.1 Changing HRM Policies
6.3.2 Corporate Social Responsibility
6.4 Personal Changes by Women
6.4.1 Discover Female Strengths
6.4.2 Learn from Female Role Models

7 ConclusionOutlook


Appendix A: Questionnaire – Eriko

Appendix B: Questionnaire – Etsuko

Appendix C: Questionnaire – Junko

Appendix D: Questionnaire – Makiko

Appendix E: Questionnaire – Michiyo

Appendix F: Questionnaire – Mutsuki

Appendix G: Questionnaire – Steffen

Appendix H: Questionnaire – Tomoko

Appendix I: Questionnaire – Naoko

Appendix J: Questionnaire – Maho

List of Abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1 Introduction

The representation of women in management is a globally and frequently discussed phenomenon. According to the International Labour Office ILO (2004), the worldwide number of female managers is continuously increasing albeit progress is still slow and full of barriers. These obstacles are often described as an invisible glass ceiling: Negative attitudes and prejudices within organizations prevent women from climbing the career ladder and reaching higher management positions (Wirth, 2001). However, culture seems to be an important factor of influence for female management opportunities. For example, female managers tend to be generally less accepted in Asia than in America or Eastern Europe (ILO, 2004).

Among Asian countries, Japan is very special: Although the country is one of the most developed and richest economies in the world, gender equality is extremely low there (United Nations Development Programme UNDP, 2007; Fackler, 2007). In general, Japan’s female labour force participation is remarkably low and unusual for developed countries (Goldman Sachs, 2005). Women are often hired for administrative tasks only and not allowed to pursue own management careers. Despite growing attempts to strengthen gender equality, Japanese females are still discriminated against and expected to stick to their traditional duties as mothers, wives, and “office flowers” – attractive female employees who are responsible for serving tea and picking up the telephone (Faiola, 2007; Ogasawara, 1998). Female under-representation is notably high for management positions and seems to increase with the level of seniority (Wirth, 2001). Consequently, the Japanese glass ceiling is also known as “concrete ceiling” reflecting the enormous level of gender discrimination (Wahlin, 2007; Penketh, 2008).

Japan’s rigid and outstanding gender inequality is strongly influenced by the national culture which has a major impact on the societal role of women. On the one hand, the Japanese are known for their ability to change but on the other hand, they always try to maintain their special Japanese identity within every aspect of life. Thus, fixed gender roles of men as breadwinners and women as housewives persist even in spite of growing internationalization (Haak Haak, 2006). Nevertheless, environmental changes like an aging and decreasing population force Japanese companies to accept females as part of the talent pool (Fackler, 2007; Otake, 2008).

According to these facts, female managers turn out to be an exciting field of research: They are needed but also discriminated against at the same time.

The objective of this diploma thesis is to examine current trends concerning female managers in Japan and to analyze challenges and existing opportunities to improve their situation. Thereby the term manager is understood as a position with certain leadership responsibilities and the power to make decisions for the company (McNamara, 2008).

For different reasons, this thesis shall be focussed on female managers only: Firstly, their already described situation is especially difficult in Japan; and secondly, the internationally acknowledged glass ceiling phenomenon (Wirth, 2001; ILO, 2004) shall be studied under the premises of a definitely incomparable culture. The last argument is supported by Levey and Silver (2006) who explained that national cultures outweigh sole gender influence on value orientation and described nihonjinron as traditional Japanese values permeating all layers of society.

As all Japanese women have to face discriminatory treatment regardless of their profession, research concerning female managers has to draw special conclusions from a general situation. Within this context, national culture might play a major role and could offer a starting point to approach the objective of this thesis. Hofstede (1991) says that culture is “...always a collective phenomenon, because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment... ” (p. 5). Thus, culture might explain Japan’s extreme gender inequality unusual for developed countries. Moreover, acceptance and persistence of traditional gender roles also require a common and perhaps culture-bond understanding. Consequently, the first hypothesis to be examined is the following:

H1: Female managers in Japan as well as their career prospects are strongly influenced by their own cultural background.

In order to get an impression of cultural influence, the following second chapter will introduce several fields of the Japanese culture like religion, society, gender equality laws, and corporate principles. To enhance these findings with data and trying to find out if Japanese women still have to face a glass ceiling, the third chapter will illustrate an interrelationship between culture and female prospects on the labour market by examining existing trends. In the first part, Japan’s gender equality position in the world will be illuminated before the second part will deal with analyzing national statistical data. These quantitative findings shall be enhanced in chapter four by considering qualitative information from interviews with Japanese locals and own impressions about the situation of Japanese women. If Japanese women in leadership positions are really influenced by culture, possible reasons which prepare obstacles for their management career might be derived. For example, one point might be a lack of proper Human Resource Management (HRM) while another one could be a too low educational level. The first step for ambitious women and diversity-oriented companies who want to implement changes is to recognize these barriers and to treat them as modifiable and breakable challenges. Thus, it is possible to propose the second hypothesis:

H2: Japanese women have to face external and internal cultural challenges if they want to pursue a management career.

These hypothesized challenges will be regarded in detail within the fifth chapter by explaining their existence and emphasizing their importance for women who are keen to climb the career ladder. However, the successful identification of challenges alone – that is, problems with a certain solution potential – is not sufficient to better the chances of female managers in Japan. In order to establish changes, the next necessary step to be examined in the sixth chapter is to find out and to analyze specific opportunities not only for career women but also for modern companies. For instance, integration of gender diversity measures within Japanese HRM principles could improve the situation of female managers in the same way as personal motivation and striving for better education. Knowledge about existing opp]]ortunities might not only motivate Japanese women to pursue a management career but also could influence corporate cultures. Especially traditional companies might be convinced to accept gender equality in employment by introducing exemplary benefits female leaders can offer. Consequently, the last hypothesis is concerned with possible ways to overcome previously examined challenges:

H3: Despite a strong culture, opportunities exist to work on existing challenges and to improve the situation of female managers in Japan.

All three hypotheses will examine the Japanese glass ceiling step by step concerning cultural influence, specific challenges, and opportunities to foster female managers. As a result, the last chapter will offer a conclusion and give some hints for further perspectives and research.

2 The Japanese Culture – Characteristics and Influence on Women

Hall says: “there is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture” (Samovar et al., 1998, p. 34). Thus, culture is visible everywhere and cannot be neglected within academic research. Hall’s statement can even be reinforced with regard to the Japanese culture which is known to be very special and remarkably challenging for women (Haak Haak, 2006; Ogasawara, 1998; Ziegler, 1999). The Japanese hold and share incomparable traditional beliefs and values (Levey Silver, 2006) which will probably influence every aspect of life. In order to understand the influence of culture on women in general and female managers in particular, different sectors of the Japanese life and corresponding cultural impact will be introduced in this chapter for answering hypothesis H1: Female managers in Japan as well as their career prospects are strongly influenced by their own cultural background.

2.1 Cultural Patterns

To reach a first understanding of cultural patterns and possible implications for women, Japan shall be examined by studying an integrated model like Hofstede’s internationally acknowledged cultural dimensions (see Table 1).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Note. The scale ranging from 0 to 100 measures the significance of each dimension for national

cultures; a high score indicates a high correlation.

Source: Based on Hofstede, 2003.

Japan does not seem to be that different when it comes to power distance which examines whether unequally distributed power is accepted within society (Hofstede, 2003). The first dimension shows that the Japanese indeed tolerate leaders and a certain power inequality above average, yet the mid-level score also signalizes that there might be persons – for example discriminated women – who disagree. Individualism tests whether people are bond to strong in-groups instead of following own interests only (Hofstede, 2003). Japan’s score implicates a rather collectivist society where people value group interest more than individualistic needs. Thus, people want to be group-members and contribute to societal expectations although the middle-score shows again that personal matters might count, too. Most significantly is Japan’s international leadership in the masculinity dimension which measures gender role existence and importance of masculine values (Hofstede, 2003). As a matter of fact, Japanese gender roles are very rigid and male characteristics like achievement and status are appreciated values (Sama Papamarcos, 2000). Uncertainty avoidance, which is defined as tendency to prefer well-known situations and rules, shows similarly high values. Thus, the Japanese are comfortable when they know what to expect. If females represent any risk, they might have to face disadvantages. Last but not least, long-term orientation is especially important in cultures that follow Confucian norms, appreciate the face-protection approach, and value traditions (Hofstede, 2003). Japan’s high score symbolizes strong traditions; so if women were discriminated against in history, these methods might still have an impact on current times.

In order to test hypothesis H1, the following sub-chapters will analyze cultural influence on Japanese females and their career prospects. Moreover, explaining different aspects of culture – like religion, law or corporate principles – shall help to assess Japan’s cultural dimensions according to Hofstede.

2.2 Religion, Society Economy


When speaking about Japan, separation of religion and daily life is hardly possible: Religion has been a cornerstone in the economic and historic development of the country and is still very important today (Nato, 1986). For example, people integrate rituals pragmatically in their everyday life (Conrady Hosokawa, 2001). Generally speaking, the major tendencies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism are not clearly separable. Instead, they form the fusion-like Japanese teachings and characterize the commonly shared Japanese spirit (Nato, 1986).

Origins of Confucianism can be traced back to China and reached Japan in mid-sixth century together with Buddhism. As important principles of the Japanese identity, Confucianism should rather be defined as philosophy than solely as religion (Stanford

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008). Key of this ethical system is a hierarchical structured society with fixed places for each individual and expected loyalty to superiors. Women were subordinated to men and had a very low rank within this patriarchal environment (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002). Without any self-determination, they had to obey and were only allowed to live as wives and mothers (Matsui et al., 1999). Morimatsu even describes that women were taught correct behaviour and serving men at female universities (Münch Eswein, 1992). These former officially accepted ideals have also been transferred to the modern economy: While men often dedicate their lives to work, women are responsible for their families and household chores (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002).

As mentioned above, Buddhism reached Japan at the same time and preached that all natural creatures were impermanent and free from ego or personality (Nato, 1986). According to Austerlitz-Blesch, reincarnation could only be reached by liberation from all sins whereas women were considered to be inferior and unclean creatures that tempted men in their striving for enlightenment (Ziegler, 1999). Females were associated with bad traits like jealousness, vanity, and deviousness (Morell, as cited in Jnanavira, n.d.). Additionally, Buddhism was generally dominated by men and limited personal evolvement of Japanese females (Simonton, 1992). Similarly to Confucianism, Buddhist principles still exist in present Japan and foster male-dominated thinking and ideas about female inferiority (Jnanavira, n.d).

In comparison to the already mentioned approaches, Shintoism is genuinely Japanese and originated as a nature religion. Typical beliefs represent the Japanese spirit and reflect the well-known sense of community and belonging (Haak Haak, 2006). Shintoism is widespread and strongly integrated in Japanese life today – many people pray daily for success, health, and protection (Conrady Hosokawa, 2001). Although women originally have been equal and even played major roles as spiritual leaders, Shinto later adopted less female-friendly ideas from Confucianism and Buddhism (Simonton, 1992). Due to menstruation and birth, for example, women were again blamed to be unclean and had to stay away from holy places (Austerlitz-Blesch, as cited in Ziegler, 1999).

All these facts prove that Japanese religion and philosophy rather influenced gender roles of women in a negative way. Consequently, Japanese religious beliefs not only regard women to be inferior but also defined their gender roles and limited existing opportunities. Gender separation has been introduced as an accepted necessity in economy, society, and education and mastered every possible aspect of life (Ziegler, 1999). Simonton (1992) suggests: “So maybe the best prediction is that all three ideologies are inversely related to the emergence of feminine genius” (p. 105).

The religiously valued hierarchies and traditions that still count today demonstrate Japan’s deeply rooted power distance and long-term orientation. The next sub-chapters will deliver further evidence for the country’s different cultural dimension scores according to Hofstede.

Society: Gender Roles Values

The Japanese society has not always been hostile against women. Indeed, early societal structures were rather matriarchal and mirrored a myth of the Japanese as direct successors of sun goddess Amaterasu[1]. Patriarchal tendencies rose with the increasing prevalence of Confucianism and brought uncountable privileges for men (Münch Eswein, 1992). Some years ago, women even suffered from arranged marriages, so-called omiai, and had to walk three steps behind their men in order to show obedience (Crump, 1993). Although modern women are more independent in their choices, other forms of discrimination remain.

Obviously, religiously influenced gender roles still count today: Japanese women shall stick to their traditional function and sacrifice their careers for being house-keeping mothers and wives (Morinaga et al., 1993). As a rule, power depends on gender: Men usually dominate business life and devote themselves to work while women manage family, household and their husbands’ salary (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002). Lucky housewives often used to say: “A good husband is healthy and absent” (Kaminski Paiz, 1984, p. 285). This statement illustrates how the Japanese separate their life into a public male-dominated sphere and a private female-dominated sphere (Münch Eswein, 1992). According to societal concerns, working women might neglect their caring-function concerning maternal duties and care for the elderly, a generation that is growing in Japan (Krupp, 1996). Nevertheless, rigid gender roles and power spheres also lead to contradictions: On the one hand, the Japanese woman is considered to be powerless and inferior when it comes to business life, but on the other hand, she has complete control at home over totally dependent men[2] (Ogasawara, 1998). But does such a sharp gender separation mean that women do not work at all?

Of course not; the number of women entering the workforce is steadily increasing. The reasons responsible for a low female labour force participation become visible at the second glance: Firstly, many women quit work after childbirth and marriage and secondly, Japanese men dominate the labour force and are preferred candidates for leadership positions (Ogasawara, 1998). Japan is relying only on the male part of its labour force and offers women fewer possibilities to be recruited (Pesek, 2005a).

Patriarchal mind-set is also illustrated by the Japanese value system. Japanese men are both family- and career-oriented, but at the same time they see no need to participate in family life. Females are crucial to keep a family together (Levey Silver, 2006); albeit family members will spend only little time together as long as men are loyal life-time employees giving their company the first priority (Kaminski Paiz, 1984). Adopted from Confucianism and later warrior ideals, loyalty to authorities and altruistic commitment make up the most important Japanese values (Münch Eswein, 1992). Now one might understand why the Japanese do not only appreciate commitment to career but also to everyday life duties (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002): Separated gender roles require both women and men to dedicate themselves to their clear responsibilities.

When speaking about Japanese ideals, education cannot be left out as most important driver of status, promotion, and social recognition (Haak Haak, 2006). Whitehill describes the continuous striving for education and personal improvement as deeply rooted Confucian principle to measure an ideal society according to educational standards (Pudelko, 2000). Thus, high motivation and discipline are typical Japanese characteristics (Krupp, 1996) and necessary to enter highly valued prestige universities as essential preparation for management careers (Edwards Pasquale, 2002). Pre-selection and competition is moved up to secondary education in order to avoid interference with expected performance in professional careers (Teichler, as cited in Münch Eswein, 1992).

Apart from masculine values like competitiveness and striving for power, face-saving tendencies are also essential. Honne Tatamae name the double-structured identity that is already learned during early childhood: Individual interests are always hidden between group motives that reflect societal expectations (Nakane, as cited in Sugihara Katsurada, 2002). One should always avoid speaking directly about personal needs without considering group census (Haak Haak, 2006). During their whole life, the Japanese learn to derive their own identity from group relationships and to fit in vertical hierarchies (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002). When entering male territories, career women and working mothers may be confronted with their biggest fear of becoming outsiders (Haak Haak, 2006). If females really gain access to management levels, in-group status will only be maintained until their loyalty becomes doubtful, for example when they have to interrupt employment for starting a family (Sama Papamarcos, 2000). Due to face-saving, the Japanese also dislike public struggles and law suits. Therefore, Japanese women would barely enforce their claims by legal actions (Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training JILPT, 2006).

The face-saving strategy reflects Japan’s long-term orientation and the striving to fit into in-groups. Additionally, masculinity is an integral part of society: On the one hand, male values like achievement are preferred; on the other hand, gender roles are extremely fixed[3] and prevent women from climbing the career ladder.

Economy Population

Japan has been isolated from foreign influences for a long time before American allied forces initiated first international business relations in the middle of the 19th century (Haak Haak, 2006). Despite years of separation, the opening of national borders led to an enormous and fast economic growth which was soon treated as “Japanese miracle” and admired by the rest of the world. In 1990, however, the situation changed when Japan was confronted with the end of the bubble economy and decreasing growth rates towards a recession (Katzner, 2001). The former miracle was now known as deflation accompanied by high national debts and economic stagnation (Goldberg, 1999). Although the situation relaxed slightly during the following years, future prognoses remained guarded (Goldberg, 2003). The 21st century finally brought an economic recovery with new growth rates supported by government measures, increasing exports, and corporate investments (Haak Haak, 2006).

Today, Japan ranks the second place among the richest world economies[4] (Lewis, 2007; United States Commercial Service, 2008) and belongs to the leading global powers. As only Asian country that has successfully introduced a market economy, Japan is comparable to Western economies (Levey Silver, 2006). Nevertheless, official sources currently speak of a recession and even downgrade their annual GDP growth forecast (Lewis, 2007). While public debts are high, consumption levels are too low and accompanied by limited employment opportunities (BBC News, 2008). Japan is still growing slowly, but runs the risk of not being able to keep up with the faster and higher worldwide growth (Kitazume, 2007). But what consequences can be derived from these economic facts for women?

Regardless of the business cycle, female employees and managers in Japan always have to face more obstacles than their male counterparts. Under the current economic situation, these problems will probably be boosted: If employment opportunities and growth are stagnating, chances for female minorities on the labour market are likely to decrease further. Benson et al. (2007) argue that even the smallest growth rates will foster gender income gaps as well as female discrimination on the labour market. At the same time, the under-utilization of Japanese women is part of the country’s economic problem due to waste of talent and constrained growth. Without higher participation of females on the labour market, important sources of income and consumption are missing and make the reduction of the high national debt impossible (Pesek, 2005a).

Additionally to the mentioned economy issues, Japan has a serious demographic problem. The world’s oldest population is characterized by rapid aging due to outstanding high life expectancy and low fertility rates (Haak Haak, 2006). In 2006, the Japanese population amounted to 127.77 million people and stagnated in growth. The beginning population decrease leads to a shrinking labour force whereas this problem will accelerate within the next decades (Statistics Bureau, 2007d). If current downward trends will continue, the Japanese population is expected to halve until the end of this century (Renshaw, 1999). However, lacking talent will not remain the only consequence of this development. As population and long-term growth are closely linked, a shrinking Japanese society will lead to productivity reduction, additional national burden, and limited competitiveness in the future (Duesterberg, 2007). Again, women could be the key to improve this situation as a higher utilization of females could close the increasing labour force gap. Goldman Sachs (2005) coins the term womenomics by arguing that females are imperative to bring back Japan’s economic miracle. Other countries like Norway even show how fostering female labour force participation correlates with increasing birth rates (Atoh, 2007). But obviously such ideas have not yet been fully adopted in Japan. Recently, Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa referred to Japanese women as “baby making machines” and made them responsible for low fertility (Walsh, 2007b). Some politicians even want to refuse governmental support for childless women and blame them for their independence (Nakata, 2007). Unfortunately, such attitudes are widespread and not a single case. “Parasite single” is a typical expression for young women who have not started a family yet and shows which societal standing unmarried females have (Pesek, 2005a). Thus, Japanese women are openly encouraged to sacrifice their careers for marriage and child rearing (Walsh, 2007b; Nakata, 2007).

Despite economic and demographic problems, Japanese companies and politicians still neglect female talents who might offer solutions. Instead, they adhere to the absolute truth of traditional gender roles and prove the nation’s high uncertainty avoidance score as found by Hofstede (see Table 1). In order to completely verify hypothesis H1, the next sub­chapters deal with legal and corporate principles.

2.3 Legal Background of Gender Equality

Previously discussed findings about national culture reveal that Japan is not comparable to other industrial countries due to exceptionally unequal gender roles (Chiavacci, 2005) whose cultural embedding becomes also visible through existing legal principles. Therefore, Table 2 (see below) illustrates selected legal milestones for Japanese women from which the most discussed shall be explained briefly.

Obviously, elementary rights were granted relatively late to Japanese women. While tertiary education was already open to American women in 1776, Japanese females gained the right to enter universities not until 1946 (Renshaw, 1999). Foreign influence, however, often fostered Japanese gender equality: After World War II, American allied forces initiated the right to vote for women (Kelsky, 2001). Similarly, the United Nations Convention of Discrimination against Women was signed in order to raise international acceptance (Renshaw, 1999). Even Japan’s most discussed and revised gender equality law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL), required external pressure from ILO officials before it came into effect (Benson et al., 2007). Originally, the EEOL from 1986 was initiated to prevent gender discrimination in employment due to lacking legal standards and loopholes which enabled employers to recruit only men for management positions (Nakakubo, 2007). The solution seemed to be the introduction of a dual career track system which allowed new recruits of both genders to choose between a management career track and a clerical career track (Nakamura, 1996).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Only the first track enabled candidates to work on complex tasks and to pursue a management career, but also required unlimited mobility, loyalty, and career commitment. In contrast, the clerical track required less mobility, but also did not include promotions or an adequate salary (Krupp, 1996; Wirth, 2001). However, this innovation was highly criticized; only few women selected a management career and employers were now officially entitled to focus personnel development on few and often male employees (Nakamura, 1996). Indirect discrimination continued and companies preferred male applicants or were only willing to recruit female managers in case of too few male applicants (Lam, as cited in Ziegler, 1999). Furthermore, the EEOL was described as a “toothless lion” because compliance to legal principles was voluntary and sanctions or penalties did not exist yet (Gross Minot, 2007).

In 1999, two years after its enactment, the first EEOL revision came into effect and prohibited discrimination in every aspect of employment from recruitment to retirement (Nakata Takehiro, 2002). Sexual harassment protection was strengthened and females were also allowed to work overtime and at night (Kinoti, 2008). Although real penalties were again missing, it was now possible to denunciate violators in public which would mean a loss of face (Sama Papamarcos, 2000). Nevertheless, the rather weak revision could not ban indirect discrimination like the dual career track system (Nakakubo, 2007; Kinoti, 2008).

After the United Nations again criticized Japan (Weathers, 2006), the latest EEOL revision took place in 2007. Clearer definitions of discriminatory practises and higher compliance standards shall finally bring equality (Gross Minot, 2007). In spite of stricter governmental controls, Nakakubo (2007) still describes the second revision as ineffective and regards court trials as the only way to achieve equal opportunity.

The Japanese government also enacted several laws for fostering childcare support like the new Next Generation Law from 2005. Implemented in order to advance work life balance, companies have to develop specific childcare support programs. However, as long as corporate cultures discourage women from making use of their rights, enacting childcare laws is not a panacea to support mothers (Weathers, 2006). Apart from proper implementation, childcare support programs also require public acceptance of both working mothers and fathers in order to work properly.

In summary, gender equality is considered to be an important topic in Japan and major legal progresses have been made. However, compliance is affected by weak definitions and lacking penalties. Western gender equality principles are not implemented yet and courts still agree with discriminatory employment practises and discretion (Faiola, 2007). Despite existing laws, female managers remain a minority and the dual career track system has survived in varied forms (Weathers, 2006). Apart from corporate barriers and legal loopholes, even women themselves hesitate to choose the career path: “Now that I can have it, I am not sure I want it” (Lam, as cited in Kelsky, 2001, p. 94). Thus, also legal principles show Japan’s difficulties to abandon deeply rooted traditions and gender roles as indicators of its long-term orientation and masculinity.

2.4 Corporate Principles

Previous findings about correlations between the woman’s role and religion, society or law showed how Japanese culture permeates every aspect of life. As organizational values are also culture-bond (Morinaga et al., 1993) and female managers shall be one part of corporate human resources, the next sub-chapter will deal with important principles of Japanese companies.

Companyism Community

Career commitment is not only an important societal value, but generally expected from Japanese men. Work and work ethic are regarded to be the most important aspects of life (Pudelko, 2000). Long working hours, overtime, short vacations, collective after-work discussions, and permanent stress are typical for Japanese employment relations and coined the term karoshi which means death by excessive labour[5] (Haak Haak, 2006). In order to signalize commitment, hard work and unlimited mobility have to be the first priorities in life (Lam, as cited in Islam, 1997) and loyalty is essential for the Japanese working spirit (Münch Eswein, 1992). Thus, cases of karoshi will probably occur in future, too – whereas working mothers who also want to succeed in business but cannot neglect their family duties are likely to suffer most.

Baba developed the term companyism which describes the work-obsessed society and strong community spirits between employees (Osawa, 1994). Business people regard work as superior and collective target which requires altruistic commitment (Bellah, as cited in Münch Eswein, 1992). Apparently, corporate group spirit is commonly shared and reflects Japan’s typical collectivism whereas employers use several methods to create and maintain the right attitude: Apart from holistic benefit models and company events like the annual year-end party bonenkai, firms also apply active coeducation programs for teaching traditional values like loyalty and subordination (Münch Eswein, 1992).

However, strong inner-company groups are not open to all employees: Indeed , women are not only excluded from these male-dominated domains but should also support their husbands with household and childcare services. Wives are considered to be a major determinant for a successful male career (Osawa, 1994) and many women indeed obey social pressures and neglect individual career aspirations (Matsui et al., 1999). Thus, benefits like high salaries, comfortable working environments, and promotion are accessible to men only and discrimination of women is almost normal (Ogasawara, 1998).

Lifetime Employment Seniority

Japanese companies are not only economic but also social systems with a strong community spirit, emotional ties, and a wide range of personal benefits (Münch Eswein, 1992). Often called internal labour markets, career paths are already defined when new recruits enter corporate spheres that do not tolerate longer periods of absence (Benson et al., 2007): When companies hire graduates once a year, a labour contract defines mutually agreed long-term employment relations (Kopp, 2000).

Even during hard times employees will not be dismissed; employers will rather try to solve problems with community-friendly measures like job rotation or wage cuts (Münch Eswein, 1992). In the same way, also employees internalize life-long commitment and are therefore often compared with samurai descendants serving their authorities according to bushido, the warrior code (Alston, as cited in Pudelko, 2000).

One important principle for defining a recruit’s career path is the length of service that he or she is likely to offer. As women are expected to leave when getting married or pregnant, their length of service is usually shorter and is the major reason for excluding them from higher management positions (Nakamura, 1996). The underlying principle is an imaginary cost-benefit-calculation: Employers will only invest in their employees and prepare them for management careers if they can expect in turn payoffs for the company (Yuasa, 2005). Hence, only men receive corporate benefits like training and qualification measures and stay long enough for achieving a seniority status accompanied by high wages and promotion (Yamada, 1998). Companies, however, seem to ignore that disadvantages like lower salaries or only part-time options when re-entering work after childbirth (Haak Haak, 2006) might even drive women to stay at home.

In a word, women are neglected and considered to be risky investments – a prejudice that reflects the Japanese uncertainty avoidance tendency (Sama Papamarcos, 2000).

Hierarchies Management

Due to Western reforms initiated by allied forces, the Japanese management structure is comparable to American standards: On the top, the chief executive officer (CEO) and the board of directors are leading the company whereas the CEO is synonymously the chairman of the board (Pudelko, 2000). Together with presidents and vice presidents, these highest management ranks are only obtainable for seniors close to retirement age. Subordinated management positions[6] include ranks like plant managers, department heads, or section chiefs (Steinhoff Tanaka, 1987).

Comparable to Japanese families and society, strong hierarchies are elementary pillars of management ranks and whole corporate cultures. Employees perceive themselves as small parts of the company and accept strictly limited fields of responsibility (Haak Haak, 2006). Vertical senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relationships are build with regard to seniority and length of service: “The senpai gets respect and status by having a lot of kohai, whereas the kohai receives a job, position, and promotion, as well as emotional support and care even for family members” (Nakane, as cited in Sugihara Katsurada, 2002, p. 451). Hence, only older and experienced employees are eligible to top management posts. Apart from age, gender is also an important career determinant: Potential female management candidates with excellent qualifications are actively ignored and have to face an unbreakable glass ceiling (Pesek, 2005a). Especially senior executive and board positions are often completely male territory (Pesek, 2005b).

Of course, strong hierarchies and group spirits require managers to have special leadership skills. Emotional ties want executives as well as employees to be sensitive for the needs of others (Sugihara Katsurada, 2002). Managers apply a rather soft leadership style; they integrate all subordinates in their decisions by discussing different ideas and finding a compromising solution (Münch Eswein, 1992). Although Japanese managers as modern samurai can also show implacability (Krupp, 1996), values like harmony and non-aggressiveness are appreciated. Egoism and exaggerated ambition might affect loyalty and are potential barriers for reaching commonly shared strategic targets (Münch Eswein, 1992). Furthermore, managers have to be visionary leaders who always are able to motivate and to foster group spirit and loyalty (Schneidewind, 1994). As long as Japanese companies believe that only men can offer these management skills, female talents will be further neglected.


[1] The Japanese country name Nihon (origin of the sun ) can also be traced back to sun goddess Amaterasu (please refer to Münch Eswein, 1992).

[2] In fact, the Japanese coined the term mi no mawari no sewa: A woman is responsible for her husband’s body care, has to fulfil serving tasks, and must change his summer into winter wardrobe (Ogasawara, 1998).

[3] Gender is even visible in the Japanese language: Men and women use different words for the same things and male vocabulary is expressing superiority. For example, men use the word omae either when impolitely referring to other men or when speaking with their wives (Samovar et al., 1998).

[4] In 2007, Japan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) amounted to 4,383.762 billion US-dollars and was only exceeded by the United States (International Monetary Fund, 2008).

[5] According to estimates, about 10,000 persons die per year due to karoshi and many more show serious stress symptoms (Woronoff, as cited in Pudelko, 2000).

[6] According to common understanding, sub-section chiefs who are subordinated to section chiefs do not belong to management ranks. Nevertheless, these positions may include supervisory tasks and offer the first promotion opportunities (Steinhoff Tanaka, 1987).

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Women in Management Positions in Japan. Trends, Challenges and Opportunities
TU Bergakademie Freiberg  (Chair of Business English, Business Communication and Intercultural Communication)
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Verknüpfung von Ergebnissen aus Wissenschaft und Praxis. Mit Bestnote ausgezeichnete Diplomarbeit.
Japan, Japanese Culture, Japanese Women, Female Managers, Gender, Management, Frauen, weibliche Manager
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Heidi Günther (Author), 2008, Women in Management Positions in Japan. Trends, Challenges and Opportunities, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/135192


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