Dear Japanese girls:
Sometimes life is hard for women. Though we often hear about the need for women’s empowerment, there seem to be many hurdles that need to be cleared to achieve that goal. But you don’t have to limit your behavior and aspirations just because you’re a girl. Here are some stories about girls who are trying to dispel stereotypes and become leaders.
Running a leadership development program
Miyu Yamanaka (19), a second-year student at Keio University, was shocked to hear a male professor say last year that “women aren’t suited to the legal profession.”
Yamanaka spent nine years in the U.S. from the age of three and used to dream of becoming president one day. She believed that “I can change the rules if I’m strong enough.” But after returning to Japan, she saw that “in reality I can’t change them even if I’m strong enough.” In the law faculty where she studies, more than half of the students are women but there are hardly any female professors.
Yamanaka realized that many women are forced to give up on their careers even before they try to achieve them. She is now involved in Leadership and Action for Determined Youth (LADY), a leadership development program for Japanese high school girls launched by Japanese and American female students last year. The program introduces girls to various women from diverse professional fields and backgrounds to show them that anyone can be a leader. “I want to convey the message, that ‘you can do it’ to all the girls in Japan,” Yamanaka says.
The statistics regarding female leaders in Japanese society paint a bleak picture. For example, women account for only 3.4% of board members at Japanese listed companies and just 6.4% of metropolitan and prefectural governors.
This reality casts a shadow over the mindsets of the young generation. According to the results of a survey targeting some 400 high school boys and girls by the Girl Scouts of Japan in 2014, 62.2% of the boys said they “want to be a leader” whereas only 44.1% of the girls said so.
Motivated by a sense of crisis, about 20 high school girls from across the nation participated in a LADY camp held in Chiba Prefecture in August. Yukiko Nukina [spelling not confirmed] (18), a third-year high school student from Tokyo, says, “I feel pressure to be a girl rather than just being myself.” She is hoping to get married and have children while pursuing a career in the future. But she was worried that she would be expected to have a certain kind of sensitivity that is particular to women. Her anxiety was eased when a female executive of a foreign financial firm told her, “99% of anxieties end up being groundless fears. Give it a try if you have a chance.”
Spreading messages through FM radio
Some high school students have taken action to change the status quo. At the end of August, four high school girls spoke on a community FM radio station in Konosu City, Saitama Prefecture. They said, “We want to maintain strong determination to solve problems by ourselves.” These girls are members of “Women’s Innovation,” launched by Yuri Oyama [spelling not confirmed] (17), a third-year student of a private high school in Tokyo, this spring in a bid to promote change.
Oyama’s father fell ill when she was a third-year junior high school student. Although her mother tried to find work, she was unable to. At the time, the Japanese government had compiled a “policy package that gives all women the opportunity to shine.” But Oyama says, “Even though the government uses the words ‘shine’ or ‘empowerment’, I realized that family circumstances are preventing women from working according to their desire.”
The four girls began by interviewing female business owners and politicians. They hosted an event titled, “What we can do now for women who will work in the future” in July. Oyama says she wants to make policy proposals in the future.
Shiho Otomo [spelling not confirmed] (15), a first-year student at Nagoya University Affiliated Upper Secondary School, spoke at TEDxNagoyaU, a talk event affiliated with TED Talks in the U.S., held at Nagoya University in July. Otomo decided to give a speech at the event after watching a speech on the internet by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and actor Emma Watson about “gender equality” at the UN headquarters three years ago. “I want to continue sending out messages to encourage my generation to realize that gender equality is our own problem,” says Otomo.
Embassy and companies pitching in
Companies, an embassy, and non-government organizations are also focusing on programs geared toward junior high and senior high school girls.
The U.S. Embassy in Japan has been offering programs to help girls to find goals and take action since last year. This year, the embassy will host six workshops through the “Girls Unlimited Program.” On the day of the first workshop held on Sept. 6, 35 students selected from about 200 applicants listened to a speech given by astronaut Naoko Yamazaki.
Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido, Hilton Grand Vacations, and the Girl Scouts of Japan also offered programs this summer to learn about the current gender gap situation and offer solutions.
Toshiyuki Tanaka, an associate professor (andrology) at Taisho University, says, “It is valuable to raise awareness among teens that gender is not necessarily important when taking leadership roles. This will also take the pressure off men to always have to lead women.”