East Asia Today Features

The Rise of Female Deaths of Despair in Japan

An investigation into the far-fetching effects of the economic realities of working women in Japan.

An investigation into the far-fetching effects of the economic realities of working women in Japan

By Andreas Oeschger

Japan possesses one of the largest and highest developed economies in the world, yet its employment system has increasingly come under international criticism.[1] Due to preexisting discrimination of parts of the workforce, so called “irregular workers” – mostly women, the pandemic has hit an especially vulnerable segment of the population quite severely, contributing to a spike in female mental illnesses cases and even a rise in female suicides. This article sheds light on the economic realities behind.

From early on into the pandemic, the effects of Covid-19 on society were estimated to be rather gendered on a global scale.[2a] Now, more and more evidence is coming in on what the pandemic has meant for women. This case study analyzes Japan, where the effects of the pandemic on women have been especially severe. All in all, Japan seems to have handled the pandemic quite well, with not only Covid-19 cases and deaths but also unemployment remaining rather low, and no signs of mass scale korona kaiko (corona-related dismissal) as initially feared. However, official data only reveal parts of the reality since they hardly ever cover “underemployment”. This type of employment describes situations where individuals officially hold a position but may be forced to work in a job not reflecting their actual skill set, forced to work limited hours or not to be working at all, while being paid barely anything.[2b] This distinction is particularly important due to the structure of Japan’s employment system.

In Japan, a difference is made between “regular” and “irregular” employees: those who have a permanent position plus a constant income and are harder to fire, and those who do not have a permanent position, i.e. who have a temporary contract or a part-time job. The “irregularly employed” make up more than one-third of the Japanese workforce, at just under 37%.[3] Being classified as irregularly employed entails many things: Among others, existing studies indicate that irregular workers – predominantly women – earn significantly less, feel more stressed out, and are far less protected under labor law than regular employees, especially in terms of social and health insurances.[4] Furthermore, irregular workers have barely any means to influence the Japanese political landscape, as they do not have their own trade union, and even if it existed, it would not be politically recognized.[5] Irregular workers are thus not only working in underpaid positions for which they are actually overqualified for, but also legally severely disadvantaged. And if this all was not enough, most irregular workers are not only “underemployed” but also belonging to the “working poor,” those who perform important work, for example in Japan’s konbini (convenient stores) and fast-food chains, while having to deal with life at the existential limit on a daily basis .[6] 

At almost 70%, women make up the clear majority of those whose work is classified as irregular employment. If one does the maths based on the total number of female workers in the Japanese labor force, this means that out of all working women, about half are irregularly employed and have part-time or contract jobs. [7] So what happened to this segment of society when Covid-19 hit Japan? Hardly surprising, when the economy started to stagnate due to the pandemic, companies laid off these employees first. One example being restaurants and hotels, which have been forced to close and put their employees – mostly women – on furlough. As if this was not enough, layoff decisions  were only further exacerbated by traits of Japanese culture like seeing women traditionally as the main caregivers to their family. This makes women not only take up most of the unpaid work, like child-rearing and household chores, but also feel the most pressure in making sure that they and their families uphold compliance with pandemic regulations. Another trait, the notorious stoicism of society, makes talking about mental health issues, or seeking help, still rather difficult and victim blaming still widely practiced.[8]

The outcome of this is quite dramatic, as a white paper of the Japanese government published in late 2021 shows. In it, the government acknowledged that it was mainly “the deterioration of the work environment due to the coronavirus pandemic, which contributed to an increase in suicides (of women) in 2020”.[9] A look at the numbers casts an even more dramatic light on these “deaths of despair”: The number of women who commited suicide for reasons related to work rose to 34.8%. Of them, cases involving changes in the working environment soared to 98.3%, an indication that many of these women lost or changed their jobs. The only other population groups with similar trends in suicides were students and teenagers, while male suicides decreased. [10]

Japan is by far not the only example for the gendered effects of the pandemic, as other instances show[11], but a quite intense one. However, the outlook is not all bad, as some developments brought by the pandemic are projected to be here to stay, like teleworking, which may allow more flexible working styles to become more socially accepted and regulated. Also, there is an increasing number of examples where irregular workers have taken up their agency and newly found free time to coordinate targeted social media campaigns to put pressure on their employers.[12] Yet, it is up to the government to sustain efforts toward a move to a more inclusive post-pandemic society. But for that, the traditional gender norms, structural barriers, and institutional policies that have long placed many women in “underemployed” and as “working poor” must no longer be swept under the rug.[13]


[1] Sugimoto, Yoshio. 2021. An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 107.

[2a] https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_apr_2020_updated.pdf 

[2b] Oishi, Nana. 2021. Suicide, under-employment and poverty: the gendered impacts of COVID-19 in Japan. Melbourne Asia Review 5. https://melbourneasiareview.edu.au/increasing-suicides-pseudo-employment-and-hidden-poverty-the-gendered-impacts-of-covid-19-in-japan/?print=pdf.

[3] Statistics Bureau of Japan. 2021. „ b-3: Employee [by age group and type of employment]“. Labor Force Surveys 2013-2021. https://www.stat.go.jp/data/roudou/longtime/zuhyou/lt01-b30.xlsx [04.01.2021].

[4] Oh, Jennifer S. 2015. „Non-regular Workers in Japan“. In: Brendan Howe (ed.). Democratic Governance in Northeast Asia: A Human-Centered Approach to Evaluating Democracy.; Basingstoke, UK/ New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 93. Hirose, Toshio; Tada, Yumiko. 2006. „Occupational health services for non-regular female workers at a company in Japan“. In: International Congress Series 1294. 83.

[5] Oh, Jennifer S. 2015. „Non-regular Workers in Japan“. In: Brendan Howe (ed.). Democratic Governance in Northeast Asia: A Human-Centered Approach to Evaluating Democracy. Basingstoke, UK/ New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 95.

[6] The Economist. 2015. Struggling. Japan’s working poor. https://www.economist.com/asia/2015/04/04/struggling [28.01.2021].

[7] Statistics Bureau of Japan. 2021. „ b-3: Employee [by age group and type of employment]“. Labor Force Surveys 2013-2021. https://www.stat.go.jp/data/roudou/longtime/zuhyou/lt01-b30.xlsx [04.01.2021].

[8] Hida, Hikari; Rich, Motoko. 2021. As Pandemic Took Hold, Suicide Rose Among Japanese Women. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/world/asia/japan-women-suicide-coronavirus.html [05.01.2021].

[9] Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare. 2021. White Paper on Suicide Prevention, 2021. https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/bunya/hukushi_kaigo/seikatsuhogo/jisatsu/jisatsuhakusyo2021.html.

[10] Kyodo, Jiji. 2021. Suicides among Japan’s working women surged in 2020. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/11/02/national/social-issues/suicides-japan-working-women-2020/  [05.01.2021].

[11] Bateman, Nicole; Ross, Martha. 2020. Why has COVID-19 been especially harmful for working women? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-has-covid-19-been-especially-harmful-for-working-women/. European Parliament. 2021. Understanding Covid-19’s impact on women (infographics). https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20210225STO98702/understanding-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-infographics [05.01.2021].

[12] O’Day, Robin; Uno, Satsuki. 2020. Japanese Freelance Workers Struggle during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Media, Critique, and Political Resistance.The Asia-Pacific Journal 18 ( Issue 18.8). https://apjjf.org/2020/18/Uno-ODay.html.

[13] Oishi, Nana. 2021. Suicide, under-employment and poverty: the gendered impacts of COVID-19 in Japan. Melbourne Asia Review 5. https://melbourneasiareview.edu.au/increasing-suicides-pseudo-employment-and-hidden-poverty-the-gendered-impacts-of-covid-19-in-japan/?print=pdf.


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