According to the Global Gender Index 2021 published at the end of March by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Japan ranks 120th out of 156 countries.
At the origin of the problems posed by the WEF, one can detect a standoff between the respect by the Enlightenment of individual rights – in particular the rights of women – and the traditional visions of women, whether they are Christian, Islamic or Confucian.
I interpret the WEF list as illustrating five types of countries according to the level of their gender gap.
The first type, which I call Group A, are the countries with the smallest gender gap, such as the Scandinavian countries and other largely non-religious countries.
Group B is made up of quite religious Western and Latin American countries.
The countries in groups C and D are East Asian countries with Confucian traditions (C) and Southeast Asian countries with Islamic traditions (D).
Until the middle of the 20th century, Roman pontiffs often stressed that mixing the sexes was undesirable, whether at school or at mass.
Near Eastern and Middle Eastern countries with conservative Islamic traditions, such as Saudi Arabia, are part of group E. Muslim countries in South Asia are also generally part of this group where the two sexes are separated. during religious ceremonies as well as in public education.
The level of gender segregation in AC groups decades or a century ago was quite similar to that in Saudi Arabia today. So how did they leave the Saudi path?
In short, their traditionalism is receding under the pressure of the Enlightenment, which advocates gender equality. Let me summarize what happened specifically in the educational and religious spaces of each group.
In Group A, made up of major players in the Enlightenment, the barriers to segregation between the sexes were lowered during the 18th and 19th centuries, earlier than in the other groups. They generally value women’s rights while rejecting traditional views on women. The countries of this group, although traditionally predominantly Protestant, are today largely de-Christianized.
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Group B followed a similar path to Group A, but with a delay of half a century or more due to persistent traditionalism. This group is made up of a number of Catholic countries as well as the largely Protestant United States.
Until the mid-twentieth century, Roman pontiffs often emphasized that mixing of the sexes was undesirable, whether in schools or at mass. In Catholic churches of this time, women were often seated on pews on the left while men were seated on the right.
Group C (Confucianist) countries have a conservative view of women, similar to Catholics in Group B. They began to lower gender barriers even later than Group B. Even today in Japan, there are has gender segregated events like the hugely popular NHK TV. program Song Contest Women (Red) vs Men (White).
The countries of Group E (conservative Islam) remain very reluctant to accept the Enlightenment and, therefore, even today, the barriers of gender segregation remain strong in educational and religious spaces. Some extremists like the Taliban continue to make determined efforts to exclude women from the educational arena.
The countries of group D (Islam of Southeast Asia) like Indonesia are, unlike group E, secularized to a certain extent and accept co-education in public education systems.
Women’s political engagement also shows variations across groups.
In Europe, 30 to 50% of executives in listed companies are women
While the barriers of gender segregation in educational and religious spaces have generally been lowered over the past two centuries, what was considered normal 100-150 years ago has turned out to be obsolete today, in the last two centuries. The exception of Group E. A similar process is at work in the political field.
In Group A, women have taken the lead in governments in Scandinavia, Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere. In Europe, 30 to 50% of the directors of listed companies are women.
Even in Group B, previously considered conservative, countries like Ireland and Spain have recently undergone a drastic transformation. Ireland has had women presidents for twenty years. In Spain, the Socialist Labor Party in 2018 forged a new government in which more than half of the ministers were women.
In 2021, the United States has its first female vice president. In all three countries, these changes took place when power shifted from conservative to liberal parties.
In Group C, the minds of people also regularly changed due to generational changes. Taiwan elected its first female president while legalizing same-sex marriage. The Republic of Korea has introduced a gender quota system for parliamentary elections, imposing a quota in favor of female candidates.
Although within each group gender barriers still persist in areas such as politics, administration, jurisdiction, business and various professions, the pressures from the Enlightenment are increasing.
In fact, young politicians in Japan have become more aware of gender issues.
What about Japan? Conservatives in charge of government maintain traditional Confucian mentalities and are not satisfied with the growth of gender equality. In this context, is the transformation of Japanese society likely? One clue may lie in the precedents of Catholic countries, as the adherence of Japanese conservatives to the special role of women seems to be somewhat parallel to Catholic conservatism.
While some previously very conservative Catholic countries like Ireland and Spain moved closer to the Enlightenment, lowering gender barriers, similar changes may well be taking place in Japan.
In fact, young politicians in Japan have become more aware of gender issues. In recent years, efforts have been made in areas such as jurisdiction, administration, legislature, local bodies and businesses to promote paternal custody of children, common-law marriage, same-sex marriage, LGBT, the dualisation of the last names of married couples, the introduction of gender quota systems for parliamentary elections, etc.
Unlike the West where confrontational approaches are common, the Japanese prefer passivity (i.e. expectation) to raw confrontation until social environments favor compromise (i.e. that is, consensus building) are ripe. It is imperative to understand the competing positions and wait for the right circumstances to unfold.
In this regard, it should be noted that the social environment in Japan is gradually changing. For example, the governing party has started to study some of the aforementioned issues. Can young politicians, whether in power or in opposition, capitalize on this new momentum? We should watch this with scrupulous attention.
Kagefumi Ueno is a former Japanese Ambassador to the Holy See. This is a revised version of an essay that first appeared on the Kyodo-47NEWS site on June 19. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.