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The Superficial Feminism of Rapid Economic Development

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Edited By: Siya Kohli

When we start talking about the success stories of countries reaching the developed nation status in Asia, one is only ever met with awe and appreciation. It is unprecedented and mind-boggling how countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan- who were once at the brink of unsolvable poverty, have completely turned around the fate of their nations. These countries were war stricken, colonized and invaded, their people suffering one of worst living conditions in the world and yet, today they are world leaders- they are producers of cutting edge technology, manufacturing giants and their consumer goods are household names in the rest of the world. Samsung, LG, HTC etc are mere examples of the bigger picture- with intensive development plans and restructuring of their economy, they have almost managed to stand at par with the looming West and place themselves as global powers.

The case of Japan might be the most interesting one yet. Prior to the 1970s, Japan experienced a period of rapid economic growth facilitated by the imitation of Western developed technology. This resulted in Japan “catching up” with developed nations like the United States. However, a model of imitation would not lead to a sustainable growth path for a developed nation. This caused Japan's economic reforms to be centered around financial restructuring and the promotion of investment activities by the public sector which resulted in a large-scale focus on innovation by the government. The automobile sector flourished, giving rise to household names like Toyota, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Subaru. It also established itself as a technological giant with companies like Mitsubishi spearheading. It has an established export sector and a thriving IT industry, employing and developing human capital to furnish an already skilled population.

Evidently, the rapid development in Japan was not costless. Technological and economic development have hiked up standards (and costs) of living in the country. Despite the wealth of Japan, the per capita income does not reflect equitable growth. All of these factors combined have resulted in a major demographic transition in the country where the population is now aging with a below average fertility rate of 1.36 births as per 2020. Combined with a high life expectancy of 84.62, 29.8% of the population are aged 65 and above, which is reflected in the dwindling workforce of the country.

It would make it easier to understand the unique problem faced by Japan if we compare it to the case of dropping fertility rate in one of the Western countries. The United States, for example, is the largest economy in the world that has long since reached advanced status. However, it maintains a close to average TFR of 1.64 as of 2020 and has a constant population growth of 1%. The drop below the average rate of 2 indicates that women in the US are also postponing having children, but this effect is not really seen in the birth rate of the country, which is pretty high (Fehr, 2008). The steady flow of immigrants adding on to the population and the varied schooling and childcare benefits provided incentivizes having children, which is not as costly as in Japan.

Japan not only has different institutional provisions unlike the US, it also boasts an entirely different culture. Marriage and childbearing are synonymous in the country, with children born outside of wedlock being socially and legally stigmatized. Hence, if a woman wants to have a child, she has to get married. Additionally, there are strictly divided gender roles that come within the marriage package- the men would go to work and the woman was responsible for the upbringing, education and skill training of the child. The Japanese cultural context is one in which domestic tasks have been strongly regarded as unsuitable for men. Japanese wives spend an average of almost 30 hours per week on housework, whereas husbands spend between two and three hours (Tsuya, 2005).

However, if we take a deeper look into the country’s gender and workforce dynamics, not only do we see certain areas lagging, but also that the social development has not kept pace with the country’s economic growth. Japan hit its lowest fertility rate (TFR) in the year 2005 at an astounding 1.26. This decline is not a new phenomenon, but has been slowly coming to the forefront ever since 1974. Fertility is something that has been postponed in Japan- women who are unmarried and working, are called the “parasite singles” in the community. The Japanese aging phenomenon might not just be a result of technological growth but could also have diverse sociological factors such as delaying the marriage age, educational and labor market provision for women, high divorce rates and social stigma attached to cohabitation. These factors, combined with the rapid increase in income and standards of living, could have contributed to the drastic demographic changes facing the country.

The dramatic increase in the labor force participation by women has also contributed to delayed or negated pregnancies– an increase that is not exactly driven by social progress. The Japanese workforce is a highly competitive and skill heavy sector, which requires the brightest minds and the best education. This competitive nature is not lenient towards women temporarily quitting the workforce to give birth and rejoining at the same position as they were in before. The cut-throat competition provides a lack of job security for the Japanese youth, which is magnified and near impossible for young and married women. Adding to these, Japan experienced a surge in divorce rates, which contributes to delayed childbearing plans and an aging population.

Policymaking with the intention of raising the fertility rate of a country is intrinsically problematic because the burden of the task, in the end, falls upon the women in the population. Increased education and better access to job opportunities is one the factors of delayed childbirths in advanced nations and all of this starts with giving women rights. One of the most notorious examples of birth control and fertility related policies is China. It implemented the stringent One-Child Policy in order to curb its population growth which resulted in a demographic transition with the fertility rate falling from 2.54 to 1.18. Post this, it implemented a policy that incentivized having a second child by promising the mothers giving a second birth up to 100,000 dollars as monetary benefit. This not only results in wildly fluctuating changes and disregard of public sentiment, it also shows the country’s view of women as breeding stock, which is reflected upon its policies.

These methods cannot be adapted in Japan because 1) the women would not easily agree to vigorous pro-natal policies and 2) Japan would not be able to escape diplomatic reprimanding by the global community if it did force its women into childbearing. Pro-natal policies would place an additional burden on the working women who are already struggling to maintain a work-life balance in the Japanese social norms. The steep trade-off between motherhood and work is controversial in Japan, with the added incentives of childcare centers, educational and monetary incentives not doing much to increase the TFR. So the question remains- is there any other route that is not centric on the women being “incentivized” to marry and procreate?

Family-building is seen as a societal role rather than personal in order to keep in line with the country’s gender expectations. This is different from countries in the West that revised and changed their gender expectations as they developed economically. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Asian countries oppress their women more, it's just that once women get certain economic power in society they are less likely to continue with their biological expectations as the two don’t go hand in hand easily in East Asia. This immediately puts a block on policies like maternity leave and childcare support at work, because Asian culture at its root is not in line with these very western policies.

This can be better understood through the following example. There has been an empirical change in childcare spending in the US between 1970 and 2010 which has resulted in increasing fertility. Childcare almost acted like additional wages for a mother’s unpaid labor, which made having children worthwhile. However, in addition to the unpaid labor of a mother in the workplace, Japanese women also have to suffer the consequence of highly divided household work, for which they are not being compensated. In addition to the biological difficulty of having children, they face the societal pressure of doing household chores which takes a toll on their work-life balance.

East Asian cultures find it harder to adapt their culture to a developing economy at global standards. This results in their gender roles not quite progressing naturally, but forcefully. They now don’t have the option of discriminating against women as their labor force has to keep up with the rapid growth. This is one of the main reasons why western policies like childcare support are not having as much of an impact as their precedent. Therefore instead of pushing for policies that imitate the west, they need to design policies that are in line with their own pace of cultural change. Not only can they not introduce policies that a socially developed society has implemented, they need to push for change on a basic, domestic level– better gender role representation in media, cultural campaigns and workplace security for women would be the starting steps towards this much needed change.

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