Beijing+30 Youth Blog: Seeking an alternative gender revolution in East Asia


Author: Maki Kumagai

A woman in glasses and a black graduation gown stands proudly in front of a building, celebrating her academic achievement.
Maki Kumagai, 24, is an Oxford University graduate student from Japan. Photo: Courtesy of Maki Kumagai

Despite its status as a developed country, Japan is ranked at the bottom of the 2023 Gender Gap Index in East Asia. Since the Beijing Declaration in 1995, the Japanese Government has strived to increase the ratio of women in decision-making positions to 30 per cent by 2020. Yet much remains to be done to promote more women in roles of political and economic leadership. Women in Japan still struggle to balance their careers with their family responsibilities.

At University, I am currently researching how increasing numbers of women in the workplace influence men’s engagement in unpaid work, including household chores, child-rearing and elderly care. My analysis draws on the Gender Revolution Framework, which outlines the process of attaining gender equality in both the public and private spheres. Recent research suggests that the pace of this gender revolution differs between countries; but while there is much research on gender equality in domestic work in general, little attention has been paid to East Asian countries, with their unique sociocultural norms.

Since the 1990s, in response to the prolonged economic recession and rapidly declining birth rates, Japan has implemented policies and frameworks to promote women’s participation in the public sphere. However, these efforts have failed to increase the number of women in decision-making.

Japan places strong emphasis on the family as a social unit, stemming from its historical development as a family-State since the Meiji period. The traditional Ie-system assigned men as the breadwinners while expecting women to be “good wives and wise mothers.” Although this system was abolished post-war, this entrenched ideology remains prevalent in Japan, hindering progress and resulting in a rigid idea of masculinity that still restricts men’s participation in unpaid work, which is seen as a woman’s role.

The Japanese Civil Code still mandates married couples to have the same surname, such that in more than 95 per cent of marriages, wives adopt their husband’s last name. The system reinforces the hierarchical and patriarchal norms between couples, which idealizes the male-breadwinner female-housewife family roles.

My current research posits that Japan is advancing its own distinct gender revolution. While there has been a surge in female labour force participation, men’s engagement in domestic work lags behind other countries. Although the Government has implemented several reforms, they have not eased the adversities women face in balancing careers and families. The Japanese Government should acknowledge that even if it promotes more female participation in the workforce, it is still hard for men to engage in domestic work, leading to women shouldering most of this unpaid work while pursuing their careers.

The government is grappling with significant challenges in its efforts to balance engagement in paid and unpaid work between women and men, while also facing strong international pressure. Ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 allowed Japan to rigorously promote women’s empowerment, although it has not ratified its Optional Protocol. The Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 led to the implementation of legislative support for women in vulnerable positions. At the upcoming 89th session of the CEDAW Committee, Japan’s progress on gender equality will be assessed for the first time in eight years. I firmly believe that further support and guidance from international organizations will compel Japan to make radical reforms.

Yet at the current pace, it will be difficult for Japan to achieve gender equality by 2030 – the deadline set out by both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and by the Commission on the Status of Women in 2015. Japan should recognize the need to involve men in promoting gender equality by encouraging them to participate in domestic work and creating an environment where women are fully empowered to engage in leadership and decision-making positions. While celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, I strongly advocate for my country to amend the Civil Code that is reinforcing patriarchal norms and implementing policies that can instigate men to participate in unpaid care and domestic work.

Maki Kumagai. Photo: Courtesy of Maki Kumagai


Maki is a graduate student at the University of Oxford researching how female participation in paid work influences male participation in domestic work in Japan. She is passionate about attaining gender equality and women's empowerment in East Asian countries. As a member of the NGO Asuniwa, she advocates for gender equality and the amendment of the Civil Code.

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