Would a Japan win at the Women’s World Cup improve its rampant gender inequality?
As I walked around Tokyo this afternoon, I looked around for soccer fans wearing jerseys to promote the big game tonight between Japan and the US. It wasn’t shocking to find only one woman wearing a red jersey at the busy Shibuya train station, where thousands of people commute back and forth. My disappointment stems from the fact that women in Japan face a great amount of inequality in society, and despite their team making it to the FIFA Women’s World Cup final, the deep lack of enthusiasm in their country reflects the bigger fight Japanese women still have ahead — the fight to be seen as equal to men.
Across the board, how women’s soccer is received by the mainstream is a good thermometer to measure how the struggle for gender equality is doing. In the US, for example, women’s soccer continues to gain greater acceptance from both men and women. The sport is becoming more popular among girls and now they too can dream of one day playing soccer professionally. This break in to a predominantly man’s sport is parallel to the gains women in US society have made in general.
But back in Japan, a country that for the past 50 years has slowly but surely emulated the West in so many ways, the status of women in society continues to lag behind. Here, men believe that the place of women is at home, and for those who go to work, the glass ceiling is higher than the in the US.
According to the UN’s Gender Empowerment Measure, which measures inequalities across the world, in 2009, the country that offered the most equality to women was Sweden (#1), while Norway was #2, Finland was #3, and the US ranked #18. Japan, the 3rd economic power in the world, ranked #57, just slightly ahead of under developed countries like the Philippines, #60.
Gender inequality at the workplace in Japan was so bad that in 1999 the government had to intervene and pass the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society.” The law’s principles called on respect for women’s rights, inclusion of women in decision-making, and the sharing of home responsibilities. But women organizations in Japan have criticized how little the law has done to improve the problem and its lack of enforcement and follow up.
According to a 2001 government survey, women earned only 66.9% of what was paid to men. Lack of childcare has also made it difficult for women who want to work, to go to work. The tiny number of women in managerial positions and of women serving in parliament continues to raise red flags. And the list goes on.
Visitors to Japan could easily be fooled by the elegance of Japanese women’s fashion and the attention they get on advertisements and in the entertainment industry (including manga and anime), but the reality is quite hidden. Japanese women at the office have been accustomed to settle as secretaries and to serve as support to their male counterparts.
A win tonight or this afternoon, depending where you’re watching the game (it’s airing in Japan at 3:00 a.m.) could be the break Japanese women have been waiting for. Worldwide recognition of their efforts in the beloved sport of soccer could empower a younger generation and have a deep impact. For the first time in history, Japan would win a FIFA World Cup, and it would do so thanks to girl-power — a power that could be used to reverse Japan’s lagging economy, weak government, and depressed spirits.