David Weiss, Associate
Paul Hastings (New York)

Gender equality has moved to the forefront in Japan in recent years.  For example, the government, including under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has proclaimed support for working women through a variety of initiatives aimed at encouraging the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the workforce.1  For example, in 2015 Japan’s Financial Services Agency, in conjunction with the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE), passed a Corporate Governance Code that expressly encourages gender diversity in the corporate sphere. KEIDANREN, an economic organization representing approximately 1,350 companies in Japan, has been leading a movement to promote gender quota policies at corporations, as well as other initiatives to advance women’s status in the workplace.  Despite these efforts, as of 2018 only 3.7% of executives of listed Japanese companies are women, and 73% of Japanese companies have no women at the management level at all.

The Stats

Japan ranked 114th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Index, dropping 10 places since 2014.2  According to a 2017 study by Deloitte, the percentage of women serving on boards increased to 3.5% in 2016 from 1.6% in 2013, while the total board seats held by women increased to 4.1% from 1.2% in 2014.3  Women represented just 0.6% of board chairmanships and 0.4% of CEO positions across 589 companies that Deloitte analyzed in 2016.4

Data published by the OECD in 2016 showed that Japan had the third-highest gender wage gap of the 34 countries studied, at 25.7%.5  For comparison, the average across the 34 countries was 14.1%.6  Japan’s overall employment rate for women over the age of 25 is 66.1%, well above the OECD average of 59.4%.7

The Legal Framework

The current version of the Japanese Constitution, which went into effect in 1947, contains two provisions that touch upon gender equality:

  1. “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”
  2. “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.  With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.” 8

In 1986, Japan passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which prohibits discrimination against women workers in terms of recruitment, hiring, assignment, promotion, training, fringe benefits, mandatory retirement age, retirement, resignation, and dismissal.9 

In 1994, the Headquarters for the Promotion of Gender Equality was established within the Prime Minister’s cabinet for the purpose of promoting gender equality.  Five years later, the Basic Act for a Gender-Equal Society (the “Act”) was put in place.10   The Act stipulates that the government shall establish a basic plan to comprehensively and systematically implement policies to promote a gender-equal society11 (the “Basic Plan for Gender Equality”).  Following this provision, the government prepared an initial Basic Plan for Gender Equality in 2000.12  In 2005, the government issued a second Basic Plan for Gender Equality with the goal of “increasing the share of women in leadership positions13 to at least 30% by 2020 in all fields of society.”14  In 2009, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requested that the Japanese government adopt temporary special measures with clear numerical goals and timetables to increase representation of women in decision-making positions at all levels.15  The government released the Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality in 2010, which attempted to set clear goals and deadlines and to regularly monitor progress in order to meet the “30 percent by 2020” target.

The government set the following goals for each field, including politics, national and local civil services, private sector, education and research as follows:16

Proportion of Women for Each Item

Baseline Statistics

Target (Deadline)


Election candidates of members of the House of Representatives





Election candidates of members of the House of Councilors






National public employees through the recruitment examination


(fiscal 2010)

Approx. 30%

(end of fiscal 2015)

Managers (positions equivalent to or higher than the director of the division and the office in central government ministries)


(fiscal 2008)

(*as of January 2009)

Approx. 5%

(end of fiscal 2015)

Members of national advisory councils and committees



40% - 60%



Local public employees through recruitment examinations (advanced level examination) for prefectural governments



Approx. 30% (end of fiscal 2015)

Managers in prefectural governments (positions equivalent to or higher than the director of the division in local governments)



Approx. 10%

(end of fiscal 2015)

Members of prefectural advisory councils and committees





Private Sector

Section manager or higher in private companies



Approx. 10%


Education and Research

Managerial positions in primary and secondary educational organizations (assistant principal or higher)





University professors (presidents, vice presidents, professors, associate professors, and lecturers)





However, in 2015, the government’s Gender Equality Bureau acknowledged that the 30% female representation goal was unrealistic, and adjusted the target to only 7% female representation in senior jobs for both the private and public sectors.17

In the Third Basic Plan, the government announced that it would promote a variety of effective affirmative action measures including quota systems and other incentives to increase representation of women in decision-making positions.  The Third Basic Plan contains four “core concepts”: gender equality and freedom from gender-based stereotypes; respect for human rights and dignity; diversity; and international recognition for gender equality.18  Nevertheless, progress in Japan as a result of the Third Basic Plan has been slow, as the Act does not impose penalties and the targets are nonbinding.

The Fourth Basic Plan, passed in 2017, set specific targets and deadlines for key metrics of women’s participation and advancement in society.  The government sees not only increasing the percentage of women in positions of power as a goal, but also reforming “male-oriented working styles” and encouraging more men to take childcare leave in order to more equitably split childcare duties among men and women.19  The Fourth Basic Plan includes a target of 30% women in director positions of private corporations by the end of the 2020 fiscal year; as of 2016, that number was only 10.3, according to the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office.20  The Plan, however, still does not include penalties for corporations that do not meet the targets.

Other Government Initiatives

In addition to the various initiatives announced by Prime Minister Abe, the Japanese government has adopted recognition-based measures designed to encourage companies to become more female- and family-friendly.  Since 2012, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) have jointly conducted the “Nadeshiko Brand” initiative, which recognizes enterprises that encourage female empowerment.21  The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare also promotes gender equality in the private sector by recognizing companies for gender equality and work-life balance.

Private Sector Support  

According to Deloitte’s 2014 study, KEIDANREN recommended that member companies promote active participation by women and set quotas regarding the percentage of female managers.22 By December 2014, more than 300 member companies had revealed their initiatives, including quota policies, on both the KEIDANREN website as well as on their own.23 

In 2017, KEIDANREN launched “Society 5.0,” described as “full-swing Womenomics,” which seeks to advance women’s status in the workplace through five initiatives:

Corporate Governance Code

In 2013, the TSE changed its disclosure rulings to require listed companies to disclose the number/percentage of female board members in their corporate governance reports.25  Additionally, in response to a request from Prime Minister Abe, Japan’s Financial Services Agency and the TSE launched a joint panel in the fall of 2014 to discuss the establishment of Japan’s Corporate Governance Code.26  The panel announced its final draft of the Code in December 2014.27  The final proposal, published in March 2015, includes a provision specifically encouraging diversity and the promotion of women:

The new Code encourages an increase in the number of outside directors serving on Japanese boards to at least two.29  Given the Code’s express encouragement of gender diversity, companies are more likely to target female candidates for these positions.30  Effective June 1, 2015, the TSE again amended its listing rules to require all companies listed on the TSE 1st and 2nd sections to fully adopt the new Code.31  Interim measures extended the deadline for companies to submit their Corporate Governance Report, with comply-or-explain disclosures for each Code requirement until December 2015.32  These changes have led to an increase in the percentage of listed Japanese companies with outside or independent board members, from only 48.7% in 2010 to 95.8% in 2017.33  However, the percentage of women board members did not rise as dramatically during that same time period; in 2017, only 3.5% of board members were women, representing an increase of only 1.9% since 2013.


A 2015 Cabinet Office white paper revealed that “the percentage of female leaders in various fields — defined as lawmakers, highly skilled professionals, or corporate department heads and higher — remains much lower than the 30 percent target.”34  As of 2017, only 3.7% of executives of listed Japanese companies were women, and 73% of Japanese companies have no women at the management level at all.35  Although the Japanese government supports ideals of gender equality in the workplace, the government’s goals could be better achieved in the private sector if the legal framework had mechanisms to penalize companies that fail to meet targets for gender equality and/or reward companies that make strides toward gender equality.

1 Stephanie Assmann, Gender Equality in Japan: The Equal Employment Opportunity Law Revisited (日本における男女平等 雇用機会均等法再考), The Asia-Pacific J., Vol. 12, Issue. 45, No. 2 (Nov. 10, 2014), http://japanfocus.org/-Stephanie-Assmann/4211/article.html. Abe advocated “building a society in which women can shine” in his September 2013 General Assembly Address to the United Nations.  Id.  He pledged to appoint women to a third of all senior management positions in governmental agencies, to encourage private companies to recruit and promote more women, and to increase the number of women in the Japanese workforce by 530,000.  Id.  He also expanded the number of openings at child-care facilities by 200,000 between 2013 and April 2015, and promised to create 200,000 more openings by March 2018.  Id.; see also Shinzo Abe, When Women Thrive, So Will the World, Bloomberg View (Apr. 24, 2015), http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-24/when-women-thrive-so-will-the-world.  In addition, he appointed five female ministers as part of his September 2014 cabinet reshuffle.  See Assman, supra.

2 The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, World Economic Forum 11 (2017), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2017.pdf; The Global Gender Gap Report 2014: Japan, World Economic Forum (2014), http://reports.weforum.org/_static/global-gender-gap-2014/JPN.pdf.

3 Women in the boardroom: A global perspective, Deloitte 26 (2017), https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Risk/Women%20in%20the%20boardroom%20a%20global%20perspective%20fifth%20edition.pdf; Women in the boardroom: A global perspective,Deloitte (2015), http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Risk/gx-ccg-women-in-the-boardroom-a-global-perspective4.pdf.

4 Deloitte (2017), supra note 3, at 26.

5 Gender wage gap, OECD (2018),https://data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm (last visisted Sept. 13, 2018).

6 Id.

7 Reality Check: Has Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ worked in Japan?, BBC (Feb. 17, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42993519.

8 Christine Russell, The American Woman Who Wrote Equal Rights Into Japan’s Constitution,The Atlantic (Jan. 5, 2013), http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/the-american-woman-who-wrote-equal-rights-into-japans-constitution/266856/.

9 Each Prefectural Labor Bureau has an equal employment office to promote the equal employment policies, including consultation with employees with problems of discriminatory treatments.

10 In addition, a Council for Gender Equality was established within the Prime Minister’s cabinet (1) to study and deliberate on basic policies and measures, (2) monitor the implementation of government measures, and (3) survey the effect of government measures.  In particular, the Gender Equality Bureau was charged with promoting gender equality policies and measures across all areas.

11 Formation of a Gender-Equal Society (Article 2, Item 1 of the Act): Formation of a society where both women and men shall be given equal opportunities to participate voluntarily in activities in all fields as equal partners in society, and shall be able to enjoy political, economic, social, and cultural benefits equally as well as to share responsibilities.

12 The initial Basic Plan set aggressive measures to promote women’s participation in society, including in governmental decision-making processes, and access to equal employment, particularly in the private sector.

13 The leadership positions are (1) congressional deputies, (2) women whose titles are equivalent to or higher than section-manager level in private corporations or other bodies, and (3) women who engage in highly professional jobs among special or technical jobs.

14 This target was decided by the Headquarters for the Promotion of Gender Equality in 2003.

15 Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women /Japan, U.N. CEDAW Report (Aug. 7, 2009),http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/co/cedaw.c.jpn.co.6.pdf.

16 Expansion of Women’s Participation in Policy and Decision-making Processes in All Fields in Society, Gender Equality Bureau, http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/mge/process/index.html (last visited Sept. 13, 2018).

17 Steve Mollman, Japan cut its target for women in leadership positions from 30% to 7%, Quartz (Dec. 6, 2015), https://qz.com/567026/japan-cut-its-target-for-women-in-leadership-positions-from-30-to-7/.

18 Summary of Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality (Approved by the Cabinet in December 2010), Japan Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/about_danjo/whitepaper/pdf/3rd_bpg.pdf.

19 Measures for Gender Equality: The Fourth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, Japan Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office (2018), http://www.gender.go.jp/english_contents/pr_act/pub/pamphlet/women-and-men18/pdf/2-3.pdf.

20 Id.

21 Deloitte, supra note 3.

22 Id.

23 Id.

24 “Full-swing” Womenomics, KEIDANREN (2017), http://www.keidanren.or.jp/en/policy/2017/102_summary.pdf.

25 Id.

26 Japan’s Corporate Governance Code and ISS’ Director Election Policy: Frequently Asked Questions, Institutional Shareholder Services (2015), https://www.issgovernance.com/file/policy/faq-on-japan-s-corporate-governance-code-and-iss-director-election-policy.pdf.

27 Id.

28 Japan’s Corporate Governance Code [Final Proposal]: Seeking Sustainable Corporate Growth and Increased Corporate Value over the Mid-to Long-Term,The Council of Experts Concerning the Corporate Governance Code (Mar. 5, 2015), http://www.fsa.go.jp/en/refer/councils/corporategovernance/20150306-1/01.pdf.

29 Id.

30 Deloitte (2015), supra note 3.

31 Institutional Shareholder Services, supra note 26.

32 Id.

33 Deloitte (2017), supra note 3, at 6.

34 Tomoko Otake, Gender equality goal for 2020 elusive: white paper, Japan Times (June 19, 2015), http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/06/19/national/social-issues/gender-equality-goal-2020-elusive-white-paper/#.VbesBvlVhBc.

35 BBC, supra note 7.