Painting the Invisible Bridge: A Working Concept for Global Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging for Women in Japan

by Brandon Oliva



Japan’s declining birthrate poses uncertainty for its future (Onishi, 2017). World Bank data indicate the number of births in Japan is decreasing (World Bank, 2017). To curb this decrease, and to prevent an economic decline in Japan, including women in the full-time workforce is vital. This paper explores how Japan can bridge its employment gap through the inclusion of more women in the corporate workforce. The paper addresses the issues Japanese women face in joining the corporate workforce, as well as the ways leadership strategies and media can be useful recruitment tools for Japanese women in the corporate workforce.



A steady decline in births in Japan for the past decade has caused what appears to be a birth gap (World Bank, 2017). Due to the decline in birthrates and the age gap between the young and the old, experts predicted that, by 2060, Japan’s population will be 40% of its 2012 population (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2012). The nation once deemed to be an aspirational economic model for many developing nations in East Asia may experience financial collapse as a result of the gap in its workforce. The effects would be disastrous to Japan, creating a chain reaction of events affecting other world economies (Hirata & Warschauer, 2014). However, all is not lost.

In 2010, Japan’s prime minister announced the implementation of his strategy, called womenomics, to counter the negative economic effects of the growing age gap in the Japanese labor force (Sharp, 2015). Some critics have noted that the prime minister’s plan to increase female leadership to over 30% of leadership positions in major corporations and government positions and to increase the number of women working in the full-time workforce by 2020 has already failed (Arami, 2016). Without more women in Japan’s corporate and full-time work sectors to offset the decline of Japan’s birthrate, Japan’s economic future will be grim (Park, 2007).

Some argue that for Japan to overcome this impending economic disaster it will need to call on its female population (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). This paper will analyze the sociocultural and environmental restraints that account for why approximately 52% of Japanese women are absent from the full-time labor force (Ministry of International Affairs and Communication, 2016). The discussion will analyze how to shift these restraints by providing models of change adapted from John Kotter’s eight-step change model.


Historically, the number of women in the Japanese workplace was low and attributed to environmental factors in the workplace (Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, 2002). A white paper report from the Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (2002) indicated that, in comparison to their male counterparts, women accounted for less than 10% of junior management positions and less than 5% of senior management positions. The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (2002) also noted that women were less likely to remain in a position due to their sense of familial obligation. The notion of familial obligation is ingrained in women, who take part-time positions as a way to have more time to be nurturers, whether as mothers or as caretakers to their elderly parents (Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, 2002; (Mariko, 1989). The lack of women in the full-time labor force resulting from these factors prefaces a significant understanding for the reasons why they may feel deterred from full-time employment.

Lack of Female Empowerment

Sociologists and economists associate a variety of different factors to the reason why women in Japan are not represented in significant numbers in the full-time workforce, with some focusing on lack of social empowerment for women. The attributing factors have been suggested as coming from a lack of social empowerment for women in Japan that stems from both systemic and social problems (Doden, 2016), which is further sustained by Japan’s ranking of gender equality measured by the World Economic Forum in the Global Gender Gap Report in 2017. In the World Economic Forum’s report, Japan ranked 114th out of 144 countries polled. By not integrating more women in all leadership and full-time corporate positions, Japan’s birthrate problem will have an adverse impact on its economic standard (Park, 2007).

Leveraging Japan’s workforce to be more inclusive of women is necessary to minimize the effects of the workforce gap (Doden, 2016). Efforts to increase the number of women in the workforce have failed. Despite female labor force participation increasing over the past two decades, World Bank data indicated that participation was 48% in 2017 (World Bank, 2017). The data also indicated that fluctuations in women’s participation in the workforce resulted in an increase of approximately 1% (World Bank, 2017). When compared to other first-world nations, this increase was staggeringly low (Doden, 2016).

Sociocultural and environmental issues, compounded by a lack of empowerment, are some of the major reasons Japan’s female participation rate in the full-time workforce has not increased. Japanese women in the full-time workforce may not feel invested in their work due to a lack of promotions into leadership positions such as c-suite-level executive positions, and they feel relegated to professional roles that do not call for such levels of leadership (Doden, 2016). Although some experts have argued that the causes are cultural, and others have contended that they are environmental, collective research indicates that the answer neither one nor the other; rather, an amalgamation of said factors.

Sociocultural Challenges

Sociologists attribute Japanese women’s absence from the full-time workforce as related to traditional gender roles (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). Due to self-consignment and societal pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles, women in Japan have primarily sought employment in part-time positions (Gender Equality Cabinet Office, 2003; Mariko, 1989). Though the Japanese government detailed a program called Women in Development, the program has not strongly impacted the full-time labor market for women (Gender Equality Cabinet Office, 2003).

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also indicated a desire to integrate more women into the workforce through a program called Womenomics. The term Womenomics is a play on words based on the title of his Abenomics program, which highlighted his financial and political policies (Rafferty, 2015). Womenomics, a campaign under, Abenomics, seeks to entice more women to join the workforce (Rafferty, 2015). The plan emphasizes a goal of 30% of leadership positions to be filled by women (Doden, 2016). The expectation of Womenomics is to attract more women into money-driving corporations that drive the economy (Rafferty, 2015). However, the campaign has largely failed, as many of the same companies recruiting women into the labor force have not made strong efforts to accommodate them, especially working mothers with child-care needs (Arami, 2016).

Environmental Factors

Many environmental factors impact the ability of women to enter the full-time workforce in Japan, such as full time childcare (Park, 2007). Women who have children find it increasingly difficult to maintain a full-time career and take on the sole role as nurturer (Arami, 2016). A frequent complaint among working mothers in Japan is the lack of childcare available for their children during working hours, as some daycare centers for young children have waiting list in the realm of months (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). When this childcare option is available, it is extremely expensive (Arami, 2016).  As a result, some women will remove themselves from the workforce for as long as 10 years for child rearing (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). Other mothers leave the labor force altogether (Doden, 2016). The stress of the Japanese working environment, which sometimes includes as many as 80 hours a week, further deters participation in the full-time labor force among women in Japan (Park, 2007).

Literature Review

Sociologists have noted that Japan’s continued adherence to rigid social values of harmony have contributed to the lack of women in the full-time workforce (Hirata & Warschauer, 2014). In order to avert the collapse of the Japanese economy and increase the workforce, change must occur (Park, 2007). This change cannot simply provide more accommodation to women in the workplace superficially. The change must shift the cultural perspective on women in Japan, and Japan’s very social fabric. This section will provide a discussion on change rooted in the ideas of leadership theory and identify mechanisms for creating systemic and social change to dissolve the cultural, social, and environmental obstacles that deter women from entering the full-time workforce in Japan.

Theories of Social Change

To address the current circumstances, there must be a sense of urgency regarding these issues combined with action. Some argue that one of the best methods for change to happen is from fear of loss (Maxwell, 2015). Others argue that what sustains change is a sense of cross-cultural community participation to produce sustainable learning behaviors among communities or communities of practice (Wenger, 2008). Leadership expert John Kotter contends change must result from a series of successive steps (Kotter, 1996). Kotter catalyzed this idea in his eight-step model (Kotter, 1996). His model stresses the steps of change necessary to create and solidify a long-term impact.

Future Ready Learning

The power of media can shift or influence social perspectives. Electronic media, or digital media has become more pertinent in an age of technology, connecting people, often instantaneously (Nye, 1990).  The power of media possesses the ability to shape, shift, even transform society, and can be used as a driving force for social change (Halberstam, 2000). The power of media can be particularly useful in shifting the social and cultural perspectives of women in Japan, by compelling social perspective, whilst redirecting social narrative.  This section of the paper shall discuss how not solely in its digital forms, can engender shift in social perspective.

Media expert Susan Hayward indicated that there is a high correlation between the powers of media to influence cultural perspective and gender roles within a society (Hayward, 2005). Hayward’s (2005) idea relates to the notion that media is, in essence, an influential and defining voice of community (Hayward, 2005). Similarly, other experts note that the power of media to transform social behaviors can play a significant role in determining how society perceives itself or other social groups through visual representations and context (Curran, 2002). This can be compelling when using social media or televised media to spur a social shift (Popkin, 1995). For example, media specialist and sociologist David Halberstam asserted how media compelled the social perception of the war in Vietnam for its harrowing coverage of brutality (Halberstam, 2000). Collectively, literature on the power of media, social media networks, or televised media for social transformation is compelling not only in shifting social perceptions a valuable catalyst or tool to create a starting point for dialogue that inspires social change (Popkin, 1995).

Future Considerations

To aid in the effort of funneling more women into the full-time workforce in Japan, cultural and social change will need to transpire. Suggested models to inspire change and to bridge the gap of a lack of women in the workforce include structural change. This change must begin socially, including through the creation of special interest groups to engage in physical and digital organizations, as well as corroboration with Japan’s government to ensure future learning and a substantiated curriculum. This section of the paper will include a discussion on how future ready learning systems can be used to implement such change, as discussed through Kotter’s model of change.

To create change, a sense of urgency must be formed (Kotter, 1996). The status and rapid decline of birthrates in Japan have created this sense of urgency (World Bank, 2017). Furthermore, sociological and environmental factors have limited the percentage of women who participate in full-time employment in Japan (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). The sense of urgency that arises from these issues is that if the existing patterns are maintained, then an economic crisis in Japan’s economy and the world at large is inevitable (Park, 2007).

The next step to Kotter’s change model is to form a powerful coalition (Kotter, 1996). This step will be accomplished in two different ways: through private alliances and through coalitions sponsored by the government. The highly bureaucratic government of Japan maintains a very close relationship with Japanese residents through public relations (Burks, 2011). Almost every aspect of public life is measured by, or engaged with, one or more sectors within the government (Burks, 2011). Leveraging the preexisting structures of the Japanese government could be used as a way to form a powerful coalition, as the government is well funded, powerful, and influential.

Another way to build a robust coalition would be through calling on female leaders in Japan to create social groups of learning and mentorship through social networking sites via online chat rooms and websites. The construction of such social groups from diverse backgrounds would constitute a community of practice, or a group concerned with achieving common goals of learning, for the common purpose of putting an end to the looming economic threat of the labor gap (Lave & Wenger, 1996). In turn, this would solidify the powerful coalition of social change makers. Strategizing the vision would include changing the social perception of not only how women in Japan see themselves in society but also how society views itself through women advocacy groups, within organizations, thereby creating a stronger sense of female presence within these organizations.

Kotter’s third step of creating a vision will be applied to develop a vision for the future of women in the workplace. The concept to be used will present women in Japan as capable full-time contributors to society and will illuminate how vital they are to the future of Japan in their roles as leaders, social change makers, and mentors. This vision is meant to transcend historical and cultural barriers and to cause society to reimagine and recreate women’s social roles in Japan.

To implement Kotter’s fourth step of using vehicles to achieve the vision, multimedia will be used. In 2014, Cybozu, which is one of the largest organizations in Japan, released a video depicting the life of a single, full-time working mother. The video was significant in its realistic depictions. The video, titled “Are you alright Mama?” depicts the hardship that many full-time mothers face in Japan.  The video inspired other companies to change some of their infrastructural developments to create better environments for working mothers (Cybozu, 2014). Given the assessment that multimedia and visualization serve as a means to influence and compel change, Curran (2002) noted the depiction was compelling.

The fifth means to implement Kotter’s change model will be crucial in undoing the rigid cultural and social structures that women in Japan face (Hirata & Warschauer, 2014; Kotter, 1996). To resolve the issue of the lack of mobility that women face in full-time working environments, the government needs to create women-to-women mentorship programs, and helping them excel in leadership will incentivize companies to celebrate their female personnel. To alleviate the lack of affordable childcare available to women in the workforce, the government can also create government-run low-cost childcare centers in Japan. Lastly, the Ministry of Education can start building a curriculum in which young girls learn leadership skills to encourage them to move into leadership.

To incorporate Kotter’s sixth step, to prepare for the social change and implementation of more women working full time in the labor force and creating a credible work–life balance, awards will be given on a national level. Women leaders who have contributed to the community, women’s empowerment groups, and companies that empower women will receive recognition for the work that they do. Incentivizing and rewarding businesses for improving their workplaces for women will create the momentum for change to happen at a steady pace. Incentivizing companies will also assist in encouraging 52% of women not in full-time employment to get involved and be part of the social restructuring in a way that directly benefits them (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016).

To consolidate Kotter’s improvements and social change, more women must take on leadership roles in larger corporations in a full-time capacity and work to create opportunities for the advancement of other women. Full-time work for women in Japan will be a possibility and an attractive option in corporations if more accommodating environments are provided to working mothers and nurturers. In addition, more female leadership will help to sustain and shepherd ongoing shifts, changes, and policies in Japan, particularly those that affect women. Lastly, creating departments within corporations that advocate for, and on behalf of, women, whether for leadership, a higher level of tenure within the organization, or better environmental factors, will be instrumental.

Finally, to institutionalize these changes, the Japanese Ministry of Education would work in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor. The Japanese Ministry of Education would implement systems through which young girls can acquire applicable skill sets such as leadership training, entrepreneurship coursework, and management classes. These skill sets would prepare them for entering the workforce and taking on leadership roles. These skills will help to change infrastructural, sociocultural, and environmental barriers.


To resolve Japan’s birthrate decline and workforce gap, and to entice more women to embrace full-time employment, there must be change on a social and structural level. To sustain this change, both a cross-section of Japan’s female population and the government must work together. Digital multimedia, and media, can be used to shift the social perceptions of how women see themselves and how they are viewed in society (Curran, 2002). To inspire or motivate future leadership, participation in public education can be used as a means to provide a community of learning (Wenger, 2008). Alternatively, the government can incentivize and reward organizations to create better working environments to address the concerns of working women and mothers (Nomura & Koizumi, 2016). A diverse cross-section of society must unite for the common goal of learning and redefining their own social identities (Wenger, 2008).


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BRANDON OLIVA                      

Brandon is a multilingual organizational leader with global corporate experience and a passion for diversity, inclusion, and innovation. He is fluent in Japanese, Spanish, and English and conversational in Mandarin.

Brandon has lived and worked in Japan on the Japanese Exchange Teaching program where he had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience leading new program initiatives and training adult learners. After this experience he received his M.A. in Asian Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco.

Brandon is an experienced project manager, having worked with global teams, utilizing my multilingual and intercultural competencies.  He is currently completing his doctorate in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University where his work focuses on matters of global diversity, inclusion, belonging and technology to drive growth and innovation in organizations.