New York, February 27, 2014—Despite extensive lobbying for western-style reforms promoting women’s equality in Japan, lingering social attitudes about the division of roles between the sexes may still pose an obstacle to women’s professional advancement, said Columbia Law School International Visiting Professor of Law Yuji Iwasawa, a professor of international law at the University of Tokyo, in a Feb. 19 talk hosted by the Center for Japanese Legal Studies.
“The status of women is one of the most pressing issues of human rights in Japan,” said Iwasawa. “We have an equality provision in our constitution, but it doesn’t apply to private relationships, so it’s not so helpful in the private sector.”
Iwasawa described the slow evolution of women’s rights in Japan from the period following Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in the mid-19th century through the establishment of Japan’s postwar Constitution in 1946 and the emergence of a Japanese women’s movement in the 1960s that challenged mandatory retirement upon marriage or childbirth.
“Women in the workplace were called ‘office flowers,’ that could assist men but ‘needed to be replaced sometimes,’” Iwasawa said. “There was a need for a law in the employment area to achieve equality between men and women.”
In 1985, in part to conform with treaty obligations from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Japan passed an equal employment law that many citizens opposed. Iwasawa noted that many Japanese men and women believe that men should go to work and women should stay at home.
“The enforcement of the equal employment law is not very strong,” Iwasawa said. “It requires mediation and is very Japanese in its approach emphasizing voluntarism and gradualism. The effect has been appreciable if not substantial. Some progress has been made but discrimination in employment is not rare.”
Iwasawa also addressed the development of Japanese laws regarding nationality and surname selection.
Curtis J. Milhaupt ’89, the Parker Professor of Comparative Corporate Law, the Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law, and director of the Center for Japanese Legal Studies, suggested that Japanese views on gender roles must be considered in the context of Japan's economic order.“The structure of firms after the war has supported and reinforced the social forces of traditional arrangements,” Milhaupt said.