ArticlesVolume 8, Number 2 (1999)

Don’t Awaken the Sleeping Child: Japan’s Gender Equality Law and the Rhetoric of Gradualism


Imagine a Japanese mother of two sitting in a law office for a job interview. Newly admitted to practice, she is eager to join the firm as an associate. “Sorry,” a hiring partner shakes his head. “It is our policy that we don’t hire married women with children. Our work requires long hours, and how can you prove that you have the ability to combine work and family?”

The preceding scenario is based on a letter to the editor published in Japan’s major newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, on July 1, 1994. Written by Yayoi Norii, a thirty-five-year-old aspiring female attorney, the letter revealed a harsh reality surrounding Japanese women in the legal profession. Out of eighty law firms in Osaka (Japan’s second largest prefecture) which had submitted help-wanted advertisements in the first half of 1993, twenty-three explicitly indicated their intent to hire male lawyers only. “People may automatically perceive that professional women have little difficulty landingĀ a job [compared to non-professional women],” Norii wrote, “but we fare no better.”

Japanese women have long struggled for gender equality. Shoku-ba no hana (“office flowers”), a phrase often used for female workers, aptly describes the traditional role of women in the Japanese workplace: Physically appealing women, fresh out of school, perform supplementary duties and help create a pleasant atmosphere in the office; once married or pregnant, however, they are forced to leave.