When Hilary Holbrow was a high school student studying Japanese at a nontraditional school in Massachusetts, her teachers made a suggestion: travel to Japan and study at similar schools while staying with different host families. She loved the idea, and she was soon on a plane by herself traveling 7,000 miles away.
While in Japan, she stayed with more than 30 different host families across the country in a three-month stretch. “It was a very different look at Japan” than is typical for someone studying abroad, she says. Not only was she immersed in the subculture of alternative education in Japan, she was also able to observe and take part in many different family dynamics and experiences.
“Living with so many different families was very eye opening,” she says.
That experience in high school was foundational to her future career as a scholar and teacher of contemporary Japan. A new faculty member in the HLS Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Holbrow is looking forward to teaching a variety of classes, bolstering Japanese studies, and finishing her first book.
Growing out of her dissertation, Holbrow’s work looks at changing ethnic and gender stratification in Japanese firms under pressure of population decline. By 2100, Japan’s population is projected to be less than half of its peak, making it the forefront of a global trend of countries whose populations will begin to decrease.
Holbrow’s research on how Japan’s society will change as its population shrinks has implications for nations facing a similar future—South Korea, China, Taiwan, Germany, and France—and also for the field of sociology as a whole.
“All of our models about how societies function developed in a time of growing population, so how much of our understanding of the way that the world works is actually dependent on what turns out not to be universal condition?” she asks.
As long as the GDP shrinks more slowly than the population, then the GDP per capita will increase and people will get a larger slice of the pie.
“My research is about, who will actually get that larger slice and why?” she says.
Specifically, she is looking at whether Japanese women will attain greater parity as society reorganizes. Her research sits at the intersection of macroeconomics, gender norms, and business practices.
Holbrow uses quantitative data from twelve firms that gave her access to a range of employees for surveys, allowing her to compare Japanese men, Japanese women, and foreign men and women within the same firms and between firms. Looking at metrics like salary, how quickly a worker is promoted, and what position they obtain in the company can give a comprehensive view of how gender and national background affect career outcomes.
So far, she says, “Japanese women don’t benefit as much as highly skilled male immigrants from other countries.”
Interestingly, Holbrow has found that women are at a disadvantage if most of the assistant jobs at their firm are held by women, regardless of the gender of the managers.
“It’s a dynamic where if all assistants are women, all women are seen as assistants,” she says.
Holbrow’s methods are a challenge to traditional ways of studying gender parity in the workplace, which focus on the role of women managers in fostering gender parity.
“It’s not [just] what’s happening at the upper levels of management that’s important. Let’s look at what a typical woman is doing and how that affects other women,” she says.
This focus on a more “typical woman” in the workplace can more effectively capture organizational dynamics as they relate to gender. And it grows out of Holbrow’s foundational experiences in Japan—studying abroad there in high school, again in college, and while doing research—which put her in contact with a range of families from across the economic spectrum.
“I just got such a so many different glimpses of the diversity of Japanese society,” she says about her time studying in Japan in high school and college.
These kinds of gender dynamics come up in her current class, Japanese Politics and Society. “I love opening people’s eyes to the reality of Japan because so often in this country what we see is filtered by the US media,” she says.
Media representations of gender can provide a misleading picture of life in Japan. While many articles highlight high levels of gender inequality, Holbrow says, “What you really miss from those articles [are] the areas of life where Japanese women are more empowered and where rights for women are actually more robust or generous than in the United States.”
Generous maternity leave for all women workers, including temporary workers, is one example that tends to be left out, as are daycare subsidies and the ease of joining many different community groups.
“My older son was born in Japan, and a couple weeks after he was born, a public health nurse came to my house to check up on him and check up on our family and see if we needed anything,” she says about the robust attention paid to young mothers and families.
In the future, Holbrow looks forward to teaching classes on Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in Japan and Work and Economy in East Asia.
She is also launching a new project about attitudes toward foreigners in Japan, particularly how individual experiences shape people’s overall attitudes toward immigrant groups.
Through her teaching, research, and background, Holbrow makes clear her passion for understanding and communicating the fabric of contemporary Japan.
“I think that the study of Japan is more important than ever,” Holbrow says.