Japanese Emperor Akihito's plan to retire in 2019 has brought global attention back to Japan's gender equality issues with the possibility of a woman assuming the throne.

Never before has a Japanese emperor stepped down from the throne before his death, and if the abdication is permitted by law, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, will succeed his father in 2019. Naruhito has no son and his only child, 15-year-old Princess Aiko, may ascend to the throne following her father.

It'll be decades before the country has to decide whether a woman can break its highest glass ceiling, but women have long been excluded from positions of power in Japan, where the gender gap exceeds that of 12 other East Asian and Pacific countries, according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report by the Women's Economic Forum. The report found that women continue to be impeded in their participation in politics and economics, social respect and feminist awareness.

Japan ranked 111 out of 144 countries in the 2016 report, below Malaysia and Brunei. This measure factors in ratios like labor force participation, education attainment and political participation between genders. Japan's low rank is attributed to low economic participation among women, especially in professions and technical trades.

When Reika Kijima, a USC undergraduate majoring in international relations, interviewed for an internship with a Japanese firm, she was surprised by one of the questions.

"You are a woman," a company representative said. "Why do you want to work?"

Kijima hadn't realized that many college-educated young women in Japan did not enter the workforce after graduation. Rather, they become full-time housewives.

Left to right: Japanese USC students Reika Kijima, Asako Ito, and Hidehiko Goto. (Raz Nakhlawi / USC Annenberg Media)
Left to right: Japanese USC students Reika Kijima, Asako Ito, and Hidehiko Goto. (Raz Nakhlawi / USC Annenberg Media)

Asako Ito, an exchange student at USC from Soka University in Japan, said her own mother had to overcome workplace discrimination to become a manager at one of the top construction firms in Japan. Of the more than 7,500 employees at the company, only 2.7 percent of women hold leadership positions, Ito's mother said. Men hold more than 90 percent of all management positions.

Across Japan, women only account for 8 percent of leadership roles in companies that employ more than 100 people, according to a 2015 report from Grant Thornton International.

"My mom saw her male colleagues get promoted naturally in their 30s while she was struggling for a promotion," Ito said.

And even when women achieve top positions in a company, they are often paid less than their male peers.

"This is common among many industries, because companies assume that women would be pregnant in a few years," said Hidehiko Goto, a sophomore exchange student at USC from Tokyo. "And women would devote less to their career once they get married."

The gap in pay and promotion is not all that holds women back. A government report shows that over half of women encountered casual comments about their appearance and age in the workplace, and almost a third were sexually harassed at work.

Kijima said that when she tried to leave another job as an intern, her boss, along with five male employees, formed a circle around her in a small conference room, scolded her and forced her into staying with the company.

"Women tolerate more inappropriate language and behavior because they have to, or they risk being ostracized and perhaps losing any career advancement path," said Nancy Snow, a public diplomacy professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

The traditional Japanese notion that males work as breadwinners and women should stay at home is still preserved by the vast majority. "Many of my friends in Japan do not dream about career success," Kijima said. "Their dream is becoming a good housewife."

In Japan, finding a daycare for kids is a difficult and expensive effort for ordinary families. BBC reported that in 2016 there were 72,000 Japanese children on waiting lists for daycare services. As a result, about 70 percent of women quit their jobs after having their first child.

Hidehiko said that for men, a major indicator of success is their ability to make money.

"Some males who don't earn enough money might expect their wives to work," he conceded, "[but] most men expect their wives to quit jobs and raise children for a couple of years."

Compared with those in the U.S. and Europe, Japanese males lag in terms of taking on housework responsibilities. According to BBC, Swiss, German and American husbands spend an average of three hours a day helping with children and household chores. In Japan, it's one hour.

"In the Japanese language, men only offer 'help' (てつだう) with housework instead of [being said to] 'do' (する) housework," Ito said.

It's not unusual for mothers to get up as early as 5:30 a.m. to prepare bento boxes for their children's lunches. Dropping off and picking up students are fundamental daily routines, and mothers act as tutors for their sons and daughters after class, attending to their kids until bedtime. Then it is time for them to welcome their late-night-working husbands back home.

But household finances have long been a woman's realm. Snow said that Japanese women often control family budget, and husbands need to get allowance from their wives.

"That causes some women here to view career advancement as more stifling than marriage," Snow said. "These women see more freedom at home."

However, Japanese students we interviewed at USC hold a different view towards their future. Ito plans to become a full-time businesswoman after graduation, and to take care of family at the same time, just as her mother does. Kijima will be returning to Japan this summer to work for an international marketing company, and has a long-term goal to set up her own fitness company in Tokyo.

Under nationwide "Womenomics" policies in place since 2013, many Japanese enterprises are on their way to create leadership opportunities for women. This is still happening at a very slow pace. Ito's mother's construction company is working to more than triple the percentage of female management positions to 8 percent by 2025.

But to create a society "in which women shine," as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, will require more than empowering women in the labor market through Womenomics. As Snow wrote in her book Japan's Information War, what's more imperative is for Japan to create a "genuine women-directed movement where women get to decide on their own how they wish to shine."

Reach Staff Reporter Dongyao Nie here.