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Who’d be a working mother in Japan?

Who’d be a working mother in Japan?

For such an advanced country, it has surprisingly old-fashioned views

For such an advanced country, it has surprisingly old-fashioned views

Sarah Birke | November 16th 2016

I was five months pregnant when I landed in Japan this summer to take up a new posting as Tokyo bureau chief for The Economist. It wasn’t easy combining pregnancy with moving country and starting a new job. But where my colleagues and friends agreed with me that it was a manageable, if somewhat stressful, thing to do, it met with a very different reaction in Japan. 

People I turned up to interview were baffled that my company had appointed me to the job when I was expecting a baby. “But how is it going to work?” asked one. The reason, it soon became clear, was that they assumed I would not be returning to the job once I had the child. To them, sending me to a new country for a few months seemed like a strange and costly exercise.

I started to make a point of telling people I met that I would be returning to work after maternity leave. This tended to raise eyebrows, as did my explanation that my husband, who works freelance from home, would do the bulk of childcare. Japanese women I interviewed often shared stories about the difficult dilemmas they and their friends had faced. Some told me they hadn’t married or had children because they had thought it impossible to combine a family with their career. 

Despite its reputation as a place where robots run the show and toilets sing and dance, Japan is far more traditional than other rich-world countries. Men go to work and women look after the home, and that’s that. Around 70% of women leave the workforce for a decade or more to bring up their family, and few return. Conservatives, including members of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, see the traditional family as the foundation of Japanese society and culture, and any attempt to reform the status quo – by encouraging mothers to go back to work, for example – as the first step on a path to ruin. 

Practical obstacles to combining a career and motherhood abound. Childcare can be exceptionally hard to come by. Public nurseries are excellent – and cheap – but vastly oversubscribed: Tokyo currently has a waiting list of around 8,500 children. Private nannies are not an affordable option for most.

Society imposes its own constraints on mothers, with those who are deemed not up to scratch subjected to criticism. Even the contents and presentation of the bento box your child takes to school and your husband takes to work are scrutinised by teachers, colleagues and other parents. 

Corporate culture is not family-friendly, to fathers or mothers. People are expected to work long hours. Facetime is valued rather than performance. Flexible working is rare. Important decisions are often made in drinking sessions after work. One woman I spoke to who would like to return to work said a prospective employer had told her she could take an afternoon off to go to the school play, but that she would have to come back to make up the hours that evening. 

Japan clearly has a gender-equality problem. The country comes 101st of 145 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap index, below the likes of China and Kenya. Women are grossly underrepresented in business and politics. They make up a paltry 9% of current parliamentarians. It can be a struggle when researching articles to find women to interview because in almost every field the most important posts seem to be occupied by men.

Not only is the exclusion of women bad for women themselves, it is bad for the country. Japan educates its women to a higher degree than most countries. As it struggles with a shrinking and ageing population, it needs to use the skills.

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has been saying as much, as he attempts to reboot Japan’s stuttering economy. At a local level Yuriko Koike, who was elected in July as the first female governor of Tokyo, wants to put more funding into nurseries and persuade companies to send their employees home earlier.

So far there has been limited progress. Female participation in the labour force has been rising – it is now around 67%, similar to many other OECD countries. But the quality of their jobs is not improving. Women disproportionately work in part-time roles which are often insecure and offer few benefits compared to full-time posts. And in a step backwards, the government recently dropped a plan to remove a tax incentive for a spouse – usually a woman – to earn more than ¥1.03m (about $9,400) a year. It seems, sadly, that women like me will continue to stand out in Japan.

2 Readers' comments

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lenzslaw - November 20th 2016

MICHIGOGO, I totally agree. Stereotype and gender bias in Japan have been so common that no one notices at all. Even for people who notice the difference, they praise the bias as a cultrual fulfilment instead. Then we should consider "bias" as a relative standard and for Japan, no bias would be the new bias.

MichiGoGo - November 17th 2016

When visiting my home town Tokyo during past summer, I saw an ad of recruiting a magazine inside of a commuter train. One picture with a bunch of men from Japanese National Rugby team for full-time/contractor positions and another picture with the girl-pop-group AKB48 for part time jobs. Living in the U.S. over 20 years, it looked so odd, and I even felt angry at this gender bias. When I asked my friends in Japan what's wrong with these pictures, they didn't realized anything! Anything!