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JAPAN: Careers On Hold For Most Women

TOKYO, Dec 20 2009 (IPS) - Tomoko Ando and her husband divorced because she refused to quit her job as a lawyer and start a family. The shortage of daycare centres has created a dilemma for women like Ando who want to continue working, but also start a family.

Mari Miura: "Even though women want to get back to work earlier, it is sometimes impossible due to the shortage of day care."  Credit: Mari Miura

Mari Miura: "Even though women want to get back to work earlier, it is sometimes impossible due to the shortage of day care." Credit: Mari Miura

“It was a painful decision,” said the 35-year old. “I worked hard to become a lawyer and didn’t want to give up my career. I would be left in charge of raising the children and doing the housework.”

Many women in Japan have to quit their jobs because there is a shortage of daycare facilities. More than 25,384 children are on waiting lists. The new government plans to come up with an overall plan by the end of January to help cut the waiting lists.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 42 percent of women don’t return to their jobs after childbirth. Only 7 percent of men help with household chores, while 90 percent of wives do all the work, according to the government’s White Papers on Gender Equality 2009.

Since the 1970s as major socioeconomic changes took place in Japan, women delayed marriage and had fewer children. The average number of children per family is 1.3; the nation has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The average age for marrying today is 28, an upward rise of 2.7 over the past 20 years.

Working Women

According to the National Institute of population and Social Security Research Japan's population could shrink by 25 percent by 2050 if the birthrate doesn't increase.

Japan's new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has promised to bring the birthrate back to a sustainable level and ease the expense of raising children.

The government wants to give families a monthly allowance of 125 dollars per child under 15 beginning April 2010 and increased to 290 dollars the following year. It hasn't been approve yet.

Takamato Takamatsu, a simultaneous translator who travels for her job, worked while raising her two sons. They now attend university.

"I had a better income than most people, so I could splurge on babysitters," she said. "Although, Japanese looked at me with great scepticism because babysitters aren't that accepted here. But I told them I was raised in the United States, so I got away with playing by different rules."

The attitudes about women are slowing change in Japan. But the idea that women should stay at home is deeply rooted. It wasn't until after World War II that women began taking an active role in a variety of economic and social activities.

Before the war the Constitution did not guarantee the equality of men and women; women didn't have the right to vote nor run for office. At that time, under the Civil Code, wives were seen as inefficient, they didn't have rights to property and inheritance; even their parental rights were limited.

After the war the Constitution in 1946 guaranteed equality for men and women under the law.

Still, according to a survey conducted by the Cabinet office, 50 percent of people thought a husband should go to work, and a wife should stay home and take care of the family.

Takamatsu who bucked the trend, however, has the last word. She said: "Both my sons got into a top university, which I think made some of the women who were critical of working mothers think again. Perhaps they'll be more tolerant and supportive of the choices of their daughters (or daughters-in-law)!"

Many women’s activists groups say Japan needs to encourage women in the workplace, especially if they want to sustain a workforce and stay in the global expansion race. The workplace still remains difficult due to discrimination and family responsibilities.

According to the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry, out of the total population of men and women over the age of 15, 24.04 percent of women are participating in the workplace.

“It is true, that there is little space for working mothers in the workplace,” says Mari Miura of Sophia University in Tokyo. “But the situation for women has improved, as now there is child care leave, daycares in workplaces, flexibility with schedules, and the right to refuse night shifts.”

In addition, Japan has adequate maternity leave, six weeks prior and eight weeks after childbirth, however daycare centres are what is lacking.

“It is nice to be able to spend time with babies for such a long time, but in terms of career information, such a long interruption harms women,” Miura says “Even though women want to get back to work earlier, it is sometimes impossible due to the shortage of day care.” It’s also expensive to provide day care services to 0-1 year old children.

It is also difficult for women to strike a balance between work and their home life due to long working hours, “This puts strong psychological pressure on working women,” Miura told IPS.

Then there’s discrimination which women encounter. It starts at the level of recruitment; many companies have a multiple career track system (employment management categories). The first track is the top tier and so on. Women hired in the first track are extremely low.

The reason only a few women are hired for the first track is because it requires women to work long hours and accept a company’s orders to relocate. Although they have the right to refuse overtime work, someone else would have to do the job for them.

The other problem, she says, is that over half of Japanese women are non-regular workers. “Basically, non-regular workers are not able to claim the rights that female regular workers are granted.”

It’s in the home where women have power. They are the decision makers. Usually it is the women’s role to control the family’s budget while men are busy at work to shoulder family responsibility.

Sandra Shoji, an instructor at Tokyo International University, after talking to students and observing neighbours’ kids, believes the trend for women marrying later is changing because of the economic recession, fewer jobs and lower salaries.

Female students now want to secure both a job and a husband for financial security and emotional support. Many girls think that their chances for finding a full-time job in this economy are low.

“So,” Shoji says, “with all this tiresome and incessant job-hunting – it is much more exiting to day-dream about getting married. Especially since being a housewife in Japan is considered to be an honourable, full-time job.”

Housewives can wear the clothes they want, decorate their houses and have cute babies. They daydream about shopping with their married girlfriends while pushing their babies in fashionable baby strollers.

In trains, women read books and magazines about catching a husband. They go to speed-dating parties to find a possible husband who is a few years older than they are and has a full-time job.

“I was surprised to find more female university students dating blue collar workers,” Shoji says. “They are looking for a husband with a track record of employment, which is more difficult to find these days.”

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