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Court Ruling is Latest Setback for Japan's Working Women

FILE - Female office workers head to their workplace during morning rush hour in Tokyo.
FILE - Female office workers head to their workplace during morning rush hour in Tokyo.

A Supreme Court decision in Japan this week, widely viewed as a setback for women's rights and a victory for conservative family values, upheld a 19th-century law that requires married couples to adopt one surname for legal purposes. The ruling underscores the persistent challenges for working women in Japan, despite government rhetoric and some progress.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made “womenomics” a centerpiece policy, pushing to overcome a shortage of daycare spots and elevate women to leadership roles in government and the private sector.

Japan remains far from reaching his goals. An annual gender gap report released last month by the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101st out of 145 countries. The United States was 28th and European countries such as Germany, France and Britain were even higher.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy addressed the issue at a news conference Thursday, saying: “I think that this is going to take a sustained effort, and it's going to have to involve men, women, children, businesses, academia. And I think that this is certainly something that's in the long-term interest of Japan and the short-term interests of its families and workers.”

Describing herself as the first working mother to serve as U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, she acknowledged that gender equality remains an issue in America too: “We have not solved this problem. It is still too difficult to balance work and family in the United States. But I think by sharing our experiences, we all can do better.”

In a widely awaited decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a constitutional challenge to a law requiring one surname, which almost always is that of the husband. Five justices on the 15-member panel dissented, saying the requirement violates a gender equality article in the constitution.

An editorial in the liberal Asahi newspaper said, “The ruling deserves to be criticized as it goes against the times in that both gender roles and the norms of families have greatly changed over the years.”

Japan is falling far short of a goal to raise the share of government leadership positions held by women to 30 percent by April 2021, and is planning to reduce that target to just 7 percent for the central government, according to an Asahi report. A Cabinet Office survey released this month shows that women hold only 3.5 percent of leadership posts, and the Asahi quoted an official as saying the office wanted to set a realistic goal.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Japanese men do more housework than before, but it's still less than in some other developed countries.

A comparison by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Japanese men spend less than 30 minutes a day on household chores, while American men do well over an hour. For Japanese women, it's more than three hours, versus about two hours for American women.