To regain their influence, Japan’s labour unions will have to recruit more female members and become allies to working women in the fight for gender equality.

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Labour unions in Japan have traditionally been characterized by a lack of gender equality, if not outright discrimination. They have done little to address the concerns of working women, such as wage inequity and sexual harassment. As activist Keiko Tani puts it, “Unions are built around men.” Many Japanese women have given up on them. But one, Tomoko Yoshino, has held on for decades. In October she was appointed as the first female leader of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC), known as RENGO, Japan’s largest association of labour unions.

New leadership could bring about dramatic change, or lead to more disappointment. Yoshino is under no illusion about what she is up against—an establishment firmly set in its ways—yet she is confident that she will be able to make progress on behalf of female workers. “The fact that I want to make gender equality a part of all of RENGO’s activities has gotten a lot of attention,” she said in an interview, adding that RENGO has failed to pressure its member organizations to “demonstrate real results.”

Progress on gender equality would not only benefit Japan’s working women; it could be a matter of survival for the unions. While the number of women in the country’s workforce has expanded, their participation in labour unions has declined. So has participation overall. In the decades following World War II to the 1970s, unions represented over 30% of Japanese workers. This has dropped by nearly half, with only 17% in unions today, the New York Times reports.

Another development in the Japanese economy, concurrent with an expansion of women in the workforce and the dwindling power of labour unions, has been the rise of non-regular workers. Their ranks have more than doubled since the 1980s, to about 20.6 million in 2021. Nearly half of them are women. In order for labour unions to regain some of their power, they will need to recruit more women. Recruiting them from this contingent will be especially challenging.

This challenge falls to Yoshino, who believes it will require changing a fundamental characteristic of Japanese labour unions. Unlike unions in many parts of the world, Japan’s unions generally form around a specific company rather than a trade or industry. They most often focus on job stability, salaries and benefits for employees of that company. None of this is relevant to non-regular workers. Yoshino says that to engage with these workers, RENGO will need to strengthen unions that are based on industries, particularly those which hire large numbers of non-regular female workers.

Yoshino could find an unlikely ally in Masako Obata, who was appointed to lead the Japanese Communist Party’s labour union, Zenroren—Japan’s second largest—in 2020. Yoshino has been open about her anti-Communist views, putting the two at odds politically. Still, Obata has said that having women at the helms of Japan’s two most powerful unions is bound to produce some results. “I think we’ll be a powerful force for changing this country’s unchanging politics,” she said.

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