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Economy

Japan sees record number of women working, but challenges remain

Labor crunch manages to open seams in notoriously rigid corporate cultures

Students walk to a job interview in Tokyo. A growing number of women are joining the workforce in Japan. (Photo by Tsuyoshi Tamehiro)

TOKYO -- A record number of women have joined Japan's workforce, which is good news for a country struggling with a labor shortage. But many women are taking part-time jobs, reflecting the difficulty of getting Japan's highly educated female workers into productive positions.

There were 30.03 million women working in June, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced on Tuesday, the first time that figure has risen above the 30 million mark. Last month, 530,000 people joined the workforce, about 90% of which were women. The unemployment rate was 2.3%, down 0.1 of a percentage point from the previous month.

Japan's workforce totaled 67.47 million people, 44.5% of which were women. That is up 2.6 percentage points from 2009. The labor forces in most major Western countries were about 46% to 47% female in 2018, according to the World Bank. In South Korean and China, the numbers were 42.1% and 43.6% respectively.

Japan has been grappling with the so-called "M curve," in which graphics showing the female labor participation rate by age form an M as women around 30 leave work to get married or give birth before returning later on. But that dip in female participation looks to be disappearing, thanks in part to efforts to strengthen parental leave.

Breaking female workers down by age, the increase in employees aged 65 and older stands out. In June there were 3.59 million such workers, up from a monthly average of 1.45 million in 2009.

But as a percentage, only 17.7% of women 65 and older were working, compared with 34.3% of male seniors. As Japan's population continues to age and the labor shortage continues, more senior women are likely to enter the workforce.

Among women aged 15 to 64, 71.3% were employed, a record level and up 1.9 percentage points from June 2018. 50.5% of women 15 to 24 were working, a higher rate than men the same age. 78.1% of women 25 to 34 were working, and 77.8% of women 35 to 44 had jobs. Those figures are up more than 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

But while more women are joining the workforce, many of them are entering part-time or non-career jobs. Among female employees, 55% are in "irregular" positions, which are typically not career-track jobs. That figure is 23% for men.

Women also occupy a small share of executive positions compared with other countries. In Japan, women held 12.9% of management jobs in 2016, according to the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, a government-affiliated research organization. That compares with 43.8% in the U.S. and 32.9% in France.

Lifelong employment and long working hours are still common in Japan. Women who need flexibility or shorter hours to give birth and raise children are still at a disadvantage when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.

But as the population continues to shrink, more diverse ways of working will be necessary to deal with labor shortages and ensure stable economic growth. Promoting workers based upon ability rather than seniority will also help talented women compete with men.

Nikkei staff writer Connor Cislo contributed to this report. 

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