Working Women in Japan – Thoughts on a National Issue

The news in Japan focuses on a few topics: 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, an increase in tourists, and working women and/or getting women back into the workforce.

A recent “humorous” Twitter exchange is the reason why I’m writing this piece. Not “humorous” as in “OMG! I’m screaming rn!  LMFAO!!!1!” But more along the lines of, “I laugh only because I’ve run out of options.”

Here’s the Tweet that started it all:

I jumped in after seeing @bonitoflake’s link to an article deatailing Nippon Kaigi’s (日本会議, “Japan Conference”) views on the roles and strengths of women. The user sums it up very succinctly:

“Nippon Kaigi women’s division thinks that a woman’s job is to raise a new generation of kids w real Japanese values.”

Which prompted me to reply:

The following morning, I watched the CNN International program, “Leading Women in Japan.” The timing was too good to be true. So, here I am, jotting down my thoughts on women in Japan, the role of women in Japan, and how to effectively get more women participating in the workforce. I currently am weighing my options regarding a return to teaching in April, so the role of women in the workplace is important to me as a woman and as a childcare worker.

I read a piece on The Japan Times website stating: “Sixty percent of women in Japan leave their job once they get pregnant with their first child, and 40 percent return to their job after maternity leave. This furthers the gender equality gap that is already very prevalent in the Japanese workforce.”

I, as a gaijin (“foreigner”) am an outsider, but as a woman, I feel like my opinions and experiences are valid in this discussion. Furthermore, supporters of immigration see it as a cure to Japan’s population decline, so non-Japanese women should speak up, as well.

Returning to Work After Having a Baby

Why is it so hard for women in Japan to return to work after giving birth? I’m by all means not an expert; my only qualifications that “allow” me to participate in this discussion are my gender and residency status in Japan. Since I myself am trying to return to teaching from April 2018, I’d like to share my experiences as well as insights.

I’ll go back to the tweeted image of Japanese women smiling as they take care of children, you can interpret the image in several ways:

  • By opening extra daycares, women can return to work.
  • Women should return to work in the capacity of a daycare worker.
  • There is nothing more fulfilling than being a homemaker and taking care of your children.

I’d like to think that the image suggests that an increase in daycare options means that more women will be able to return to the work force. Considering that Nippon Kaigi is behind it, well, who knows what their intentions are?


A major issue that hampers women’s role in the workplace is the attitudes towards pregnant women and new mothers. The Japanese language is creative and often takes several words and transforms them into a catchy phrase. The particular phrase I’m referring to is mata-hara short for “maternity harassment.” According to Sayaka Okabe, founder of Matahara Net, Mata-hara manifests itself in various ways, but it is most commonly seen in 4 ways: imposing traditional gender-based values, bullying, power harassment and simply being forced out of one’s job.

Anyone who has ever worked in Japan knows how stifling the work environment can be. Workers often feel bad (or are made to feel guilty) for taking days off, whether it be a sick day, or a personal day. Never mind the fact that all workers are legally entitled to days off, Japanese employees are routinely encouraged to NOT take those days off.

Now, imagine how guilty a pregnant woman must feel for taking time off for a checkup or leaving early because of morning sickness. Surely co-workers could easily say, “She’s probably using it as an excuse.” Or, “Well that’s not fair because she brought it on herself.”

In my case, I am very fortunate that I worked as a kindergarten teacher. While I worked from 8:30-5:30, I took advantage of my legal right to leave 1 hour early. As the bulk of school activity occurred before lunchtime, I scheduled doctor’s appointments after 2 PM. (2 PM is nap time, and before that is the lunch and playtime block from 12 – 1:45 PM.)

According to the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, new mothers also have a variety of legal rights regarding adjusting their working hours. These rights include breaks throughout the day to pump or nurse and taking time off to care for sick children or to spend time with their family. Unfortunately, however, new mothers might find that their employer is making things extremely difficult for them.

Of course, this is only if a woman manages to return to work after giving birth. After all, you just can’t leave an infant or toddler home alone. Who’s going to watch the baby? This is where Japan’s daycare shortage comes into play.

Japan’s Daycare Dilemma

Let me say: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to be a stay home mom or being a daycare worker. I myself am a kindergarten teacher and absolutely enjoy it. Even if you find your work rewarding or fulfilling, it would be great if your financial compensation was just as rewarding.

Here’s a sample of salaries from Hello Work, the government’s official job search bank.

An unlicensed daycare worker or a student working her way through a degree can expect to earn 1000 yen an hour. 100 yen an hour! That’s literally only 42 yen higher than minimum wage. You earn more working the night shift at a conbini (convenience store). You practically work alone, don’t have to clean up bodily fluids, nor do you have to deal with monster parents!

Even if one manages to get his or her license, there is not much of a change in salary. You can expect monthly pay anywhere between 190,000 to 280,000 yen, which largely depends on one’s experience. The only bonus I see is being a full time worker with benefits. Your company contributes to your pension and health insurance payments, through your take home pay will be significantly less.

Some municipalities are enacting their own measures to combat the low wages that daycare workers face. However, without unified measures across the nation, it’s very likely than less people will enter the profession.

Paternity Leave – Getting Dads Involved

If there are not enough daycare, then why don’t Japanese men simply take paternity leave? Women can return to the workforce and men take a break from work. The aforementioned Child Care and Family Care Leave Law clearly states that men are entitled to take paternity leave but the sad reality is that only 3 percent of fathers bother to take paternity leave. Their reasons are varied, I’m sure, but I imagine that men face lots of pressure to not take paternity leave.

I argued for months with my husband about taking paternity leave. When I was pregnant, I assumed that he’d take paternity leave. After all, he returned to Japan only 4 or so years ago. He’s spent his adult life in the US and was very accustomed to the “American” way of doing things. But when it came down to taking leave, we he argued lots. Finally, he caved in, but I can’t believe it took so much pressure from me. He was worried that his company would say no, even though he’s legally obliged to do so.

The Japanese government is aiming for 13% of new fathers to take paternity leave by 2020. Is that a realistic goal when there are still old-school ideas in the workplace?

Fuyou kazoku – Doing More Harm Than Good?

Another problem that I see is the fuyou kazuku, where the main breadwinner can claim the spouse as a dependent. What’s wrong with claiming your spouse as a dependent? There’s nothing wrong with the practice, however, I have serious issues with the salary cap of 1.3 million yen. In exchange for working for less hours, the spouse does not have to pay for insurance or pension out of their salary. Husbands, in turn, can claim dependents on his taxes. This cap, while intending to help out households, limits fuyou kazoku workers to part-time arubaito status.

I personally feel that the cap hinders or even discourages women to go back to work. One of the benefits of being a full time salaried worker includes health insurance and pension. Why work full time dealing with undue stress and a long commute when I can just be a dependent? I won’t have to pay for insurance or pension out of pocket, giving me control off all my salary. Most importantly, I have a flexible schedule that allows me to work when I desire.

However, for mothers, especially mothers of elementary school aged children, working part time is necessary. It gives her the flexibility to contribute financially to the household as well as focus on her child’s studies. I’m including this portion because I have conversations with my students’ mothers on advice being a working mom. 

With the father working full time, it’s often left to mothers to shuttle kids between cram school (juku), after school lessons like ballet and swimming (naraigoto) and club activities. It seems that moms chaperone kids until they are 3rd or 4th graders. This means mom is either a part-time worker or working at all for 8, 9, or 10 years! Talk about mottainai (Japanese word that means,“What a waste!”)

It’s clear that getting more women to return to the workforce is an issue that has several problems at its roots. Unfortunately, there is no definite answer to these problems. I do hope to see change in Japan.  But, I feel pessimistic about the 2020 deadline the government keeps setting for itself. Prove me wrong, Japan!

Check out my other posts on working in Japan:

WAHM Life – Deadlines, Obstacles, and Haters, Oh My!

WAHM Life – Why I’m Taking a Blind Leap of Faith

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