Japan’s stay-at-home mothers


Tomoko Mori, 37, energetic and self-assured, lives in Tokyo and works for a major American hotel group. She was recently promoted to management: “I’m working much longer hours, but I’m happy: it’s a sign of my employer’s confidence in me.” She is newly-married and hopes to have children before 40, but admitted “it could harm my career.”

Japanese women are pressured to choose between career and family. At first Mori tried to play this down. “With support from the government and from the company, I should be able to raise a child.”

Then she started to express reservations, and eventually changed the subject. Women who become mothers are unlikely to be given responsible jobs, since business owners feel they are too likely to be distracted by home life.

More Japanese women than ever are going to university, but 60 per cent stop work when they have their first child. In 30 years, their situation has deteriorated sharply. Only 44.2 per cent are in stable full-time jobs, compared with 67.9 per cent in 1985, and those in part-time jobs have risen from 28.5 per cent in 1985 to 43.9 per cent in 2015.

Shinzo Abe’s government claims to have made this a priority issue. In 2014, Prime Minister Abe established a council to support a greater role in the economy for women. In 2013, he backed a declaration of action by a group of male leaders pledging to promote “a society where women shine”, and launched a “womenomics” initiative to boost women in leadership positions to 30 per cent by 2020. That goal is still far out of reach.

Only 64 per cent of women are in the labour force (including part-timers), compared with 84 per cent of men. If female participation rose to the same level “the workforce would grow 14 per cent,” says Keiko Takegawa, director general of the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau.

Since the equal opportunity law came into force in 1986, women have advanced in the workplace (in 1985 their labour force participation rate was only 53 per cent), but they still give up work on becoming mothers, and only 11 per cent are in leadership positions.


“The most ambitious are the first to give up”

In 2011, Japan Women’s University asked 5,000 women what had made them give up work. “By far the most common reason (63 per cent) was a lack of career prospects,” says the university’s director, Machiko Osawa. “The most ambitious are the first to give up.”

Next came raising children (32 per cent), made more difficult by a shortage of nursery places, and caring for an elderly parent of either spouse (38 per cent), which often falls to the wife.

There is also discrimination: the World Economic Forum ranks Japan 104th out of 142 countries for workplace equality. Given menial jobs and conscious that men will always take precedence, even if they have the same qualifications, Japanese women are growing bitter.

Kazue Muta, a sociologist at Osaka University says: “Lack of respect for women is a structural problem in Japanese society. The government is promoting their employment as an official policy, but they still struggle to be regarded as full participants in the world of work.

“The ratio of precarious contracts is growing all the time,” she says. “Poverty among women is a real problem, like sexual harassment.”

Muta has defended women’s rights for many years. In 1989 she supported a female worker suing a colleague for spreading rumours about her sex life — Japan’s first sexual harassment court case, when the expression sekuhara (sexual harassment) was coined.

The police recorded 21,089 cases of harassment in 2013, twice as many as in 2002. The NGO Matahara Net estimates that one woman in four has been victimised for planning a family, or having a young child. There is maternity leave in Japan but few women apply (17 per cent), because of pressure from their employers.


Mothers strike back

The term matahara ( meaning ‘maternity harassment’) came into popular use in 2014, when Matahara Net was set up to defend victims. Its founder, Sayaka Osakabe, was pressured to work overtime despite being pregnant; the stress caused her to miscarry twice.

“In Japan, women who apply for maternity leave are shamed by their employers and mocked by colleagues,” she says. After the second miscarriage, she resigned and sued her employer. “I was so sad. I was so angry with the company. They called me a liar and tried to distort the facts. But I was the victim.”

Many women identify with Osakabe’s experience, and 180 have told their story to Matahara Net, confirming the abusive practices of some employers, including unfair dismissal. Such experiences are most common in precarious employment (one-in-two female workers) and in certain jobs, including nurses, teachers and office workers.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Osakabe. “We receive more testimonies every day, from women of all ages and from all industries. Most don’t realise they have been victims of harassment.”

Osawa, who studied in the United States and returned to Japan in 1987, says that when women stop work “they are forced to suspend their career. When they try to go back to work after giving birth, they can find only precarious employment. Their experience counts for nothing.”

The Japanese government is calling on women to take the initiative, but most are unprepared. “They have skills, but don’t know how to market them,” says Osawa. “Going overseas gave me a confidence in myself that most Japanese women lack.”

Japan Women’s University offers a programme for young mothers returning to work. “We help them get back on track,” says Osawa. “Since 2008, 300 have found good jobs. But we can’t meet the demand.”

In 2013 the government launched a programme to boost growth in nursery places. “In two years, we have created 200,000 extra places. We aim to double that by 2018,” says Takegawa. But the economic daily newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun claims that 23,000 children could still be on waiting lists when the programme ends.

In late 2015, the government launched an initiative targeting business enterprises with 300 or more employees, which had “until 1 April 2016 to draw up a positive action plan to support women,” says Takegawa.

“Their efforts will be monitored for 10 years, and the programme will be extended if necessary. We will award points and publish a ranking.” Their ideas “must be put into practice immediately.” Companies with fewer than 300 employees “are not under any obligation, but have been asked to do their best.”

This initiative follows the failure of a 2014 scheme that offered companies a 300,000 yen reward (US$2,700) for each woman promoted to a high-ranking job. The government expected hundreds to participate and had set aside a budget of 120 million yen (US$1.1 million), but when the programme ended in 2015 not one company had applied.

“The financial rewards were slim compared with the significant risks involved: companies were being asked to appoint women to senior positions immediately, but they needed training first,” says Akira Kawaguchi of Doshisha University in Kyoto, an expert on gender equality.

“This year’s plan is more promising. Companies will be able to put forward their own solutions. And having published their programmes, they will feel obliged to implement them.”

Hidetoshi Sakuma, president of Chiba Bank, instigated a manifesto issued by the heads of 27 major enterprises that value women taking an active role in the economy, aiming to smash the macho image of Japanese companies.


Flex-time relief

Measures introduced since 2015 include allowing women to keep their jobs by modifying or reducing their hours when they return from maternity leave (Cross Company), setting up training units (Mitsubishi), and rewarding workers – male and female – who go home on time with a symbolic bonus of 50 yen (less than 45 cents) a day (Johnson & Johnson).

Though this may surprise outsiders, Japanese salarymen (white-collar workers) are under social pressure to stay at the office until their line manager leaves, even if they have finished their own work. Nearly 20 per cent of white-collar men aged 30-50 work 60 hours a week or longer.

Kawaguchi believes the answer is to reduce working hours for both men and women: “The average working week is 45 hours, on top of which they do 10 hours of ‘free’ overtime, which the company considers its due. That’s too much.”

Takegawa agrees that “the long hours are very tiring and prevent workers from doing their jobs to the best of their ability.” More flexible hours could promote a better work/life balance for mothers, but also for fathers, who spend only an hour a day with their family.

The idea that the man goes out to work and the woman stays at home is still firm in Japanese minds. Since 2014, both parents are entitled to paid childcare leave and the pay has gone up from 50 per cent of final salary to 67 per cent. But only 2.3 per cent of fathers have taken leave. When the child is born, 85 per cent of mothers give up their jobs.

Another obstacle to women’s careers is that their husbands may be transferred to another company office, or city. “If a Tokyoite wants a promotion, he has to spend some time working in the provinces,” says Osawa. “If his wife goes with him, her job doesn’t follow her.”

Fewer Japanese women are marrying: 5.3 in every 1,000 per year, compared with 10 in 1,000 in the 1970s. The fertility rate has fallen to 1.42, compared with 2.2 in 1970; fewer than 2 per cent of children are born out of wedlock.

Osakabe received the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2015, in recognition of her work as head of Matahara Net; it was presented by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

During the ceremony, Osakabe didn’t know whether to be pleased or offended: “It’s an award normally reserved for women in developing countries. I couldn’t understand why I, as a Japanese, was receiving it. Then I saw the world ranking where Japan was near the bottom on gender equality, and I thought, ‘It’s true: we have to accept that, in this area, we are a developing country’”.


An unedited version of this article was initially published in Le Monde diplomatique, reprinted here with the kind permission of Agence Global.