TOKYO, March 8 (Xinhua) -- Yoshiko Ueno, 45-year-old, now works as a part-time cashier at a convenience store in Tokyo, despite her college degree and her work experience in a trading company a dozen years ago.
Ueno quit her job in the trading company when she got pregnant as it was customary to do so at that time. Now, after putting her youngest child to school, she tried to return to work to supplement family expenses, only to find herself stuck with a number of odd jobs.
This is not an isolated case. In the "country of housewives," having a career is still a luxury for some women after they voluntarily or are forced to give up their jobs in the face of Japan's endemic gender gap and glass ceilings for career women in society.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to tap women's talents and make increasing women's labor force participation a core component of his economic growth plan since 2013.
However, the so-called "womenomics" initiative seems to be failing to generate the desired effects, as the labor force participation rate among women aged 15 to 64 has only increased by less than 2 percentage points, from 65 percent in 2013 to 66.8 percent in 2015.
Japan has dropped to 111th place in the annual Global Gender Gap Report released in 2016 by the World Economic Forum (WEF), compared to 101st place in 2015.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to defend the government's efforts by saying that under the Abe administration, about 1 million jobs have been created for women, and the number of female board members of companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange has doubled.
However, the other side of the story is that despite the slow rise in women's employment rate, most of the women are stuck with irregular jobs that pay much less and offer less security, let alone giving women a role in decision-making and leadership.
According to the labor force survey by Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications as of Jan. 2017, among male and female employees aged between 15 and 64, 77.3 percent of the male employees worked as formal employees, while the number dropped to 44.2 percent for women.
Hiroshi Onishi, a professor of economics at Keio University in Tokyo, said that the reasons are multiple. "Japan has traditionally been a patriarchal society in which men are the bread-winners of the family and have a higher social status than women. The situation has changed a little bit in recent years, because only one person of the family working is not enough, and women also have to go out to work because of the economic pressure on the family," he said.
"However, many women resign from work when they are pregnant. When their children grow up, they want to go back to work. But at this time, they are not as well trained as their male counterparts in work, and companies tend to hire them as employees with lower status, or as irregular employees," he said.
"One way to solve the problem is that the society should provide families with better facilities and systems to take care of the children and the elderly. Such facilities and systems could help women have more freedom to go outside to work," he added.
He also called on companies and the government to take "affirmative action," which means to favor women during enrollment or promotion when the male and female candidates are equally qualified.
Other experts have also pointed out that prejudice against women is not the only thing that leads to the current problem. The nation's demanding corporate culture and long work hours also pose huge pressure on women, especially as most of the household chores still go to women in Japanese families.
For Ueno, besides her part-time job in the convenience store, she also has to do housekeeping, the laundry and prepare dinner for her whole family. Her former years in the trading company seem like a far-away dream.
For career-minded women in Japan, to have equal opportunities and equal pay as men, there is still a long way to go.