Saturday, May 09, 2009

A “Yes, But” to the Japanese Ranking for the “Mothers’ Index”

Asahi Shinbun claims that U.S.-based NGO Save the Children ranks Japan 34th out of 158 countries in a ranking of the “best places to be a mother”. Actually, according to the STC report, Japan probably did worse; it ranked 34th among 43 “more developed countries”. So you wonder where Japan would rank if “less developed countries” such as Israel, South Korea and Singapore were taken into account in evaluating Japan. It is even more embarrassing when you consider that the 34 “more developed countries” includes such paragons of development as Albania, Belarus (which outranks Japan), Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The “Mothers’ Index”, fittingly, turns out to be a composite of a “Women’s Index” and a “Children’s Index”, and it is in the former that Japan fails, where it ranks 36th, in contrast to the latter, where it holds down 8th place. A look at the data shows that what’s dragging Japan down is “ratio of estimated female to male earned income (42nd place, barely beating out Austria for the booby prize)” and “participation of women in national government (% seats held by women) (40th place, in a tie with Malta and barely ahead of Ukraine and Albania)”.

Fair enough. The barriers to women in the Japanese workplace are well documented and leave much room for improvement. More to the point of the survey, the extremely low birth rate here tells us that something is amiss where it comes to accommodating the sometimes conflicting needs of the contemporary woman and motherhood. Indeed, there are also so many things that Japan as a society can do to help women (and men) who have children. However, there’s something about the data that tells us that the survey is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

For that, first, let’s turn to “lifetime risk of maternal mortality”. According to the survey, Japan ranks 14th at 1 death per 11,600 women—not bad but not so great. But when Ireland clocks in at 1 per 47,600, nearly twice as good as second-place Bosnia and Herzegovina (which ranks 8th from the bottom in terms of infant mortality) at 1 per 29,000, you know that there’s something seriously wrong about the data behind the rankings. There’s something fishy about “educational status” too. For example, the “expected years of formal schooling for females” in Australia is 21 years, in contrast to Japan’s, at 15. My arithmetic may be a little off, but it looks like the average Sheila earns a PhD while her counterpart Yamato Nadeshiko only manages a junior college degree. Something is fishy here. The “percent (sic) of women using modern contraception”, where Japan ranks a mediocre 23rd is also open to question as well. The pill has been available as a contraceptive by prescription in Japan since 1998. Couldn’t the results have more to do with historical legacy—the widespread use of condoms in Japan for instance—than the current socio-economic status of women?

Finally, with all due respect to white folks, lumping all those East and Central European countries into the “more developed countries” category while leaving everybody else including all of East Asia in the “less developed” and “least developed” categories seems a little.1960s, don’t you think?

This highlights a problem for global comparisons in general; the data are just not mutually compatible, as I’ve demonstrated before. Yet the analysts are tasked, so they put it all together, winding up with a mishmash of apples and oranges. Another point: Did the Asahi reporter actually read the STC report? Just askin’.

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