British Columbia

Gender inequality driving wave of female Japanese immigrants to Canada

Nearly 14,000 women have emigrated from Japan to Canada over the past two decades — making up 76 per cent of all Japanese immigrants during that period, census data shows — for reasons including inequality in their home country.

76% of Japanese immigrants from 2001 to 2021 — numbering nearly 14,000 — were women, census data shows

A man looks at a woman and puts his hands on her shoulder while she's looking afar, with both standing in front of a railing with a river behind them.Credit *
Yuka Yamamoto Woods and her husband Chris Woods are raising two children together in New Westminster, B.C. Yamamoto Woods, who works as an early childhood facilitator, says she saw first hand how difficult it was to be a working mom in Japan. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Yuka Yamamoto Woods has loved travelling since childhood and began her dream career with an airline as a ground staff member in Tokyo at age 19. 

But after four years of working long hours, she realized she was unlikely to become a mother while keeping her job, let alone get promoted.

"I didn't see a lot of moms there, especially [among] the managers … managers were [mostly] male, [and] the ground staff who worked at the airport were women. Most people quit their job once they got pregnant," said Yamamoto Woods, now an early childhood facilitator who lives with her Canadian husband and their two young children in Metro Vancouver. 

Yamamoto Woods, 40, is one of the nearly 14,000 women who have emigrated from Japan to Canada over the past two decades. This accounts for 76 per cent of all Japanese immigrants during that period, census data shows.

And the entrenched gender inequality in Japan is a compelling reason for many to leave, according to some of those who have emigrated — including a University of Toronto social work professor.

Yamamoto Woods, who first came to Vancouver in 2006 on a working holiday and became a permanent resident several years later, says it's easier to be a working mom in Canada than in Japan. Most of her co-workers are mothers, and her husband helps with child-rearing and housework, she said.

"I feel more free in Canada," she said.

A woman stands in front of a building.
Yamamoto Woods says most of her co-workers in Canada are mothers, while her husband helps with child-rearing and housework. By contrast, many women in Japan give up work when they become pregnant, she says. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Sexism remains strong in Japan, prof says

Emigration numbers have made national headlines in Japan in recent months. 

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper says more than 550,000 Japanese citizens — 62 per cent of them female — live and work abroad as permanent residents mainly due to frustration with Japan's sluggish economy, fears of another natural disaster after the 2011 earthquake and, for women specifically, deep-seated gender inequality.

Japan hasn't progressed much in women's empowerment, according to the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Report, which has consistently ranked it around 120th among approximately 150 countries — and dead last among the G7 group of industrialized democracies — due to a declining female workforce and a low number of women in leadership positions.

University of Toronto social work professor Izumi Sakamoto, who moved from Japan to work in Canada in 2002, says women are as well educated as men in Japan, but the gender gap becomes obvious immediately after graduation.

She says Japanese society still places disproportionate expectations on women to rear children and manage household chores, making it difficult for them to stay in the workforce and advance their careers.

A bunch of people stand on the street.
Commuters wait to cross a street during morning rush hour in Tokyo. University of Toronto social work professor Izumi Sakamoto says Japanese society still places disproportionate expectations on women to rear children and manage household chores. (Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press)

Japan's economic downturn — which began in the early 1990s after an asset bubble burst — has forced an increase in precarious jobs, Sakamoto says, adding that women take up most of these roles due to pervasive male privilege in the workplace.

"Sexism at all levels of the male-dominant society is very strong," she said, adding that this might explain why many Japanese women have come to Canada as a working holiday visa holder or as a Canadian's spouse in order to get permanent residency.

Anecdotally, only a few have returned to Japan due to language barriers or being unable to find meaningful employment.

'Suffocating' culture

Mika Nakagawa Antonovic, who gained permanent residency in 2009 and works as a braille transcriber for visually impaired students in Victoria, says she immigrated to Canada to break free from what she describes as the "suffocating" aspects of Japanese culture, including its emphasis on women's physical appearance.   

One example of this, says Nakagawa Antonovic, 44, is that whenever she travels back to Japan she has to hide the tattoo she got in Victoria, due to the commonplace association of tattoos with gangsters in her home country.

That's not an issue in Canada, she says — not even in the workplace. 

"My bosses don't care that I have a tattoo," she said.

Nakagawa Antonovic said she feels more comfortable in Canada because she's an outspoken person and felt like she didn't fit in Japanese culture, which prefers conformity; and she generally feels more respected here because she was able to get professional qualifications in her field.

A woman sits on a table and holds a small glass with her right hand, with a plate of dessert and candle in front of her.
Mika Nakagawa Antonovic says she has to cover up the tattoo on her right arm whenever she visits Japan. (Submitted by Mika Antonovic)

Gender studies professor Jacqueline Holler of the University of Northern British Columbia, who taught in Tokyo a decade ago, says female emigration should concern Japan given the country's aging population and low birth rate. 

She says Japanese society should try to strike a better balance between its traditional communal culture and Western individualism in order to accommodate women's aspirations.

At the same time, Canada can take advantage of the trend, she said.

"Canada is doing a really good job of attracting highly educated immigrants in general, and these Japanese women are probably part of that broader trend," Holler said.

CBC journalist Winston Szeto takes a deep dive into the census data, which shows that 76 per cent of Japanese immigrants from 2001 to 2021 — numbering nearly 14,000 — were women.


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