The Gender Gap in Religious Perspectives:
World’s Trend and Japan’s Path

UENO Kagefumi

According to “the Global Gender Index 2021” reported in late March by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Japan was ranked 120th within 156 countries. At the root of the problems presented by the WEF, one could detect a tug of war taking place between “the Enlightenment” on one hand, which respects individual’s rights —- especially women’s rights, and traditional views of women on the other, be they Christian, Islam or Confucian.

●”Traditionalism” vs. “the Enlightenment”

I interpret the WEF’s list as comprising four layers of countries, according to the level of the gender gap, as below;

The 1st layer, countries of the smallest gender gap・・・・・・ Nordic and other very secular, least religious countries (Group A)

The next layer ・・・・・・ Fairly religious countries in the West and Latin America, including the US (Group B)

The 3rd layer ・・・・・・ East Asian countries with Confucian traditions (Group C), plus the South East Asian countries with Islamic traditions(Group D)

The 4th layer, countries of the biggest gender gap・・・・・Near and Middle East countries with conservative Islamic traditions such as Saudi Arabia (Group E)

In Group E, in particular, the two genders are even today segregated at religious ceremonies as well as at public education spaces, while in Groups A~C, the level of their gender segregation decades or a century ago was rather similar to today’s Saudi Arabia.

Then, how did Groups A~C depart from the Saudi Arabian path? In short, their traditionalism retreated, under the pressure imposed by the Enlightenment which advocates gender equality. Let me sum up what happened specifically at educational and religious spaces in each Group.

● Educational & religious spaces

In Group A, comprising major actors in the Enlightenment epoch, gender segregation-barriers were lowered during the course of the 18-19th centuries—-ahead of other Groups. Countries of this Group, traditionally mainly Protestant, are today highly de-Christianized, thereby valuing women’s rights while discarding the traditional views of women.

Group B followed a path similar to that of Group A, though with the delay of half or one century, due to their persistent traditionalism. This Group is composed by a number of Catholic countries plus the U.S.

Until the mid-20th century, Roman Pontiffs often stressed that gender mingling is undesirable, be that at school or at mass. At Catholic churches of that era, women were seated at the pews of the left side whereas men were seated at the pews of the right side; the two genders were thus separated on opposite sides. Around 1920 to 1930, however, the segregation-barriers at public schools started to be lowered, paving the way for coeducation.

Countries of Group C (Confucian) have a conservative view of women, similar to Catholics. They started to lower the gender segregation-barrier even later than Group B. In fact, in Japan, there are even today some gender-separating events like NHK’s very popular TV program “the Women (Red)-vs-Men (White) Singing Contest”

Countries of Group E (conservative Islam) remain very reluctant to accept the Enlightenment, and hence, even today, their gender segregation-barriers remain solid at educational and religious spaces. Some hardliners like the Taliban continue to make every effort to exclude women from the educational arena.

Countries of Group D (South-eastern Asian Islam) such as Indonesia, who are, unlike Group E, secularized to some extent, accept co-education at public educational systems.

● Gender equality in politics

In Group A, a female leader takes the helm of government in a number of countries including most Nordic countries, Germany, New Zealand. 30 to 50 % of executives at listed corporations in Europe are women.

Even in Group B, previously regarded as conservative, some of them
like Ireland and Spain lately have undergone a drastic transformation. Ireland had female presidents for some 20 years. In Spain, the Socialist Labor Party formed a new government in 2018 where more than half of cabinet ministers were female. In 2021, the US came to have its first female Vice-President in history. In the three countries, by the way, these changes took place when power shifted from the conservative to the liberal.

As I examined throughout Groups A~C, for the last one to two centuries, the gender segregation-barriers at educational as well as religious spaces were widely lowered, due to the admitted shift of people’s minds. Consequently, the normality of 100-150 years ago has proved obsolete today, except for Group E. Now, let me explore the gender gap of today at political spaces of each Group.

In Group C, people’s minds also steadily shifted due to generational changes. In Taiwan, they elected their first female president, while legalizing same sex marriage. The Republic of Korea introduced a gender quota system for parliamentary elections, imposing a quota in favor of female candidates.

Although, in each Group, gender barriers still remain persistent in such arenas as politics, administration, jurisdiction, business and various professions, pressures stemming from the Enlightenment are rising.

● Whereto is Japan moving?

In Japan, conservatives don’t look quite happy with the enhancement of gender equality, as they retain Confucian, traditional mind-sets. Against this backdrop, is the transformation of Japanese society plausible? A clue may lie in the precedents of the Catholics, as Japanese conservatives’ adherence to the traditional role of women appears to be somewhat parallel to Catholic conservatism.

As some previously very conservative Catholic countries like Ireland and Spain shifted their stance closer towards the Enlightenment, thereby lowering their gender barriers, similar shifts may well take place in Japan.

In fact, younger politicians of Japan became more aware of the seriousness of the gender gap issue. For the last several years, in Japan, various endeavors are being made in arenas such as jurisdiction, administration, legislature, local bodies and businesses, so as to promote paternal child care, de-facto marriage, same sex marriage, LGBT rights, dualization of married couple’s surnames, introduction of a gender quota system for parliamentary elections and so forth.

Unlike the West where confrontational approaches are common, passivity is preferred (i.e., waiting) in Japan to crude confrontation. People tend to wait until social environments in favor of compromise (i.e., consensus building) are fermented. It is imperative that they comprehend their rival’s posture in advance and wait for the favorable circumstances to emerge.

In this respect, it is worth noting that the domestic social environments of Japan are, though very little by little, changing. For instance, the governing party started to make studies over some of the aforementioned issues. Can younger politicians capitalize on this new momentum, be they in power or in opposition? We should watch this with scrupulous attention.

UENO Kagefumi, a Civilizational Thinker, is former Ambassador of Japan to the Holy See (2006-10).

Note: This essay is the slightly revised version of an essay which appeared at the online site of JITOW (Japan in Their Own Words) of the English-Speaking Union of Japan on July 15th, 2021.