It Took Decades, but Japan’s Working Women Are Making Progress

When the future empress of Japan entered the country’s elite diplomatic corps in 1987, a year after a major equal employment law went into effect, she was one of only three female recruits. Known then as Masako Owada, she worked long hours and had a rising career as a trade negotiator. But she lasted just under six years in the job, giving it up to marry Crown Prince — and now Emperor — Naruhito.

Much has changed for Japan’s Foreign Ministry — and, in some ways, for Japanese women more broadly — in the ensuing three decades.

Since 2020, women have comprised nearly half of each entering class of diplomats, and many women continue their careers after they marry. These advances, in a country where women were predominantly hired only for clerical positions into the 1980s, show how the simple power of numbers can, however slowly, begin to remake workplace cultures and create a pipeline for leadership.

For years, Japan has promoted women in the workplace to aid its sputtering economy. Private-sector employers have taken some steps, like encouraging male employees to do more around the house, or setting limits on after-work outings that can complicate child care. But many women still struggle to balance their careers with domestic obligations.

The Foreign Ministry, led by a woman, Yoko Kamikawa, exceeds both other government agencies and familiar corporate names like Mitsubishi, Panasonic and SoftBank in an important sign of progress: its placement of women in career-track, professional jobs.

With more women in the ministry’s ranks, said Kotono Hara, a diplomat, “the way of working is drastically changing,” with more flexible hours and the option to work remotely.

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