Japan's working mothers: When housework gets in the way


PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe has a goal of energising Japan's sputtering economy by elevating women in the labour force. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Mr Abe boasted that 67 per cent of women were working in Japan, an all-time high.

But many of those women are stuck in limited roles in the workplace, and one of the biggest hindrances to their ambitions - and the nation's as a whole - is the disproportionate burden women shoulder at home.

It is a legacy of the country's exacting domestic expectations and rigid gender roles for who performs them. While Japanese women have entered the workforce at historic levels, their avalanche of domestic responsibilities is not shrinking - and men in Japan do fewer hours of household chores and child care than in any of the world's wealthiest nations.

But Japan's economy needs educated women like Yoshiko Nishimasa to work to their full potential. After World War II, as the nation entered a period of rapid economic growth, Japanese women typically quit work when they married or gave birth, taking care of the home while their husbands worked punishingly long hours.

In the late 1970s, married women slowly started to enter the workforce. Then, when Japan's stock and property bubbles popped in the early 1990s, large numbers of them went back to work to keep their families afloat financially.

After that, Japan struggled to lift itself from a protracted period of stagnation. It was overtaken by China as the world's second-largest economy in 2011, and Mr Abe has staked much of his reputation on returning the economy to steady growth.

Now, with a declining and rapidly aging population, Japanese employers are struggling with a severe labour shortage. And while the government has expanded some visa categories for foreigners, the country is still opposed to increasing immigration significantly. So Mr Abe has underscored the importance of working women to shore up the economy for the long term.

But more than half of working women are employed part time, and about a third are on temporary contracts. Women in Japan represent fewer than 1 per cent of management positions, compared with an average of 4.6 per cent among the world's most developed nations. And Japanese women often face a double-edged sword.

Like many Japanese companies, Ms Nishimasa's employer accommodates her towering domestic responsibilities. Until her youngest child, 2, enters second grade, she can work a shortened seven-hour day, albeit for 30 per cent lower pay. She is never asked to do the kind of overtime she regularly put in before her children were born, when she was often at the office until 10 pm or later.

After Ms Nishimasa graduated from a top university in Tokyo, she worked for a textbook publisher as a sales associate. She married four years later. Much to her shock, the company automatically converted her employment status to part time, she said.

"My boss started saying, 'You are not long for this job because you're probably just going to go off and have kids, right?'" she recalled.

She looked for another job, but prospective employers said, "You probably can't work late, right?" or "Does your husband understand how busy you will be?" The publisher where she landed did not ask her marital status. But the hours were intense, and when she did get pregnant, at 29, she did not slow down, often remaining in the office until midnight. She miscarried in the final month of her pregnancy.

She got pregnant again, yet continued working long hours. After giving birth, she never thought of quitting. But because her husband is expected to meet rigorous targets for raises and promotions, she cut back on work to take care of the children.

"Theoretically, it sounds ideal to have me work fewer hours and Yoshiko work more," said her husband, Kazuhiro Nishimasa. "But realistically, it is not feasible."

Just over half of Japanese mothers go back to work after the birth of their first child. But they often have part-time jobs while their husbands continue to work brutal hours.

Some experts argue that Japan's culture of overwork is unnecessary, leading to inefficiencies and low productivity. If everyone worked fewer hours, women might be able to catch up and Japanese society as a whole would benefit, they contend. NYTIMES

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