Women in Japan: How can we help working mums?

By Lisa Twang, Mar 05, 2020

Women have come a long way in 2020, but we still live with gender bias every day. We continue to fight barriers unique to our sex: the glass ceiling, unfair expectations at home, demands on our bodies, and rights to higher education and healthcare. 

With this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme being ‘I am Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights’, we wanted to dig a little deeper on the issues that are holding women back. Is it their right to education? Their rights to healthcare? 

Some of our interviewees’ struggles are easy to relate to, and others might feel far away. But no matter where they’re from, we want them to know that their voices are heard, even from across the globe. 

In our four-part series, “What gender inequality looks like in my country”, we ask women a question on one key issue relating to women’s rights in Japan, India, Korea and the US. We hope to shed more light on how each issue is unique to their countries, and how things can improve for local women.

Our first story starts in Japan. We spoke to working mother Yu about how Japanese mums struggle to stay in the workforce after a first child, because they need more support from their husbands and companies. She reflects on how changes in government practices, traditional attitudes, corporate culture, and even mothers and fathers speaking up for themselves, may bring relief for Japanese mums.


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I’m Yu and I’m 38 years old. I work in the finance department at a multinational company in Tokyo, and am married to my husband Kaoru. We have two children: three-year-old Yuika and one-year-old Eishi.

Our family when Eishi was a newborn.

Our family when Eishi was a newborn.

Most Japanese wives don’t get a lot of support from their husbands, even if they work. But I’m very fortunate that Kaoru and I take equal responsibility for housework and childcare, which is very rare in Japan.

I take the children to nursery in the morning and pick them up in the evening, while Kaoru does our grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning before he goes to work in the late morning. On weekend mornings, he watches the kids while I go running, biking or swimming, as he understands that it’s my me-time.

Yuika visiting Kaoru in his office as a baby.

Yuika visiting Kaoru in his office as a baby.

My friends envy me and wish their husbands were more like Kaoru. If he wasn’t so involved at home, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am now at work, or as a mother. I think I would always be stressed out, and would probably be an angry mum with two ‘full-time’ jobs and none of my me-time.

Kaoru is one of a growing tribe of ikumen — a combination of the word ikuji (childcare) and ikemen (hunk). A few years ago, the Japanese government launched the ikumen campaign to portray fatherhood as cool and sexy, because they recognised that fathers needed to play a bigger role in their kids’ lives, and not just leave child-raising to mothers.

During the campaign, politicians took paternity leave for a few months to get closer to their children, and there were workshops and a ‘Work-Life Balance’ handbook given to dads to help them juggle work and household chores. There is also an Ikumen University in Osaka which teaches men how to care for babies and support their wives, and lets men wear 7kg pregnancy vests so they can understand how it feels to carry a child.

I don’t think the ikumen movement is a big thing yet, but I do see more dads having good relationships with their children, taking them to the park while their wives work or are busy at home. This is good, because we need more involved husbands to help working mothers. 

Most Japanese dads aren’t very involved at home. The traditional expectation is that women should do house chores, even if they work.

Usually, husbands work longer hours and are less involved at home, while working mothers rush to pick their kids up, shop for groceries, cook dinner, feed the kids, clean the mess, do laundry, bathe them, and finally put them in bed. That is a lot of work for women. Even if their work hours are shorter and they knock off at 5pm, they need to do another round of work after they come home.

I think dads need to start making more time for their families, and leave work on time to help with the housework and children. Women can do this; why not men?

My girlfriends who recently became mums all have jobs, but many slow down and stop advancing in their careers. They take extended childcare leave or work shorter hours with less pay, so they can continue doing the housework and care for their kids. And I really feel for my female friends and colleagues who struggle alone at work and at home. 

One of my female colleagues is married to a doctor, and he expects her to do everything at home for their children. She’s very tired and stressed, because she’s doing double work at home and with our company, but doesn’t want to give up her job as she still finds it meaningful. It seems extreme, but it does happen in other families too.

When Japanese women have their first children, they slow down in their careers or stop working, because they find it hard to keep up with the long working hours in Japan.

In Japanese corporate culture, we work up to 12 hours a day or more. In our 20s, women can put in these hours, and enjoy the same career opportunities as men. However, after we have children, we have limited time at work, as we need to pick up our kids from daycare and do chores at home.

This is why Japan’s Cabinet Office reported in 2018 that 70 per cent of Japanese women work before having their first child, and it drops by half to 35 percent after they have their first child. 

Japan needs women to have children, because our population is aging. At the same time, our country needs women to work, to support the economy and our elderly population. Working mothers are needed more than ever before, but we need more help to balance work and family.

Japan passed an act on the Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace in 2016, to support more opportunities for working women. But it seems like just a policy to me; we need action.

Our government needs to provide more affordable daycare, so our children can be looked after while we work.

In 2019, there were nearly 17,000 children on the waitlist for daycare facilities in Japan. The government needs to subsidise daycare, and make more places available. Japan has set a goal of matching all children with care services, and bringing the waitlist number to zero in 2020, so there.

I think it’s important for working mothers and fathers to talk to their companies to set expectations, and negotiate their working hours. Culturally, many Japanese people do not like sharing their true feelings, and both mothers and fathers may be shy to ask for help.

Speaking up at work takes courage, but it can be done. After returning from both my maternity leaves, I got my bosses’ and team members’ understanding for my home situation, and my bosses arranged the team’s roles and responsibilities around this. 

I block my calendar after 5pm, saying, “This is my family time.” My colleagues schedule meetings in the morning, so I can start working early and wrap things up by the end of the day.

I'm grateful that my colleagues have been understanding of my schedule as a mother, because they know I'm still supporting them. As soon as my children have gone to bed at night, I quietly go back to my PC to catch up on work.

When I was breastfeeding, I told my bosses I couldn’t do overnight business trips, or participate in evening seminars. But as my children have grown, I’ve changed my roles and taken on new responsibilities. 

I know I’m privileged to work in a multinational company with bosses from Europe, Australia and the US, because they like spending time with their children and are understanding when I do the same. 

With Yuika in hospital after Eishi was born.

With Yuika in hospital after Eishi was born.

It’s important for mums to believe that they can succeed in both their careers while having children: instead of feeling like they have to make a choice between the two.

I think more Japanese mothers need to take the opportunity to rise up at work, because sometimes they feel it’s easier to stop working after having children than to try to manage kids and their career. 

I would like to see more mothers in higher corporate positions, because I’ve noticed that female presidents and VPs in our Japan office don’t have families. It must be difficult for Japanese mothers to be promoted to that level, or working mothers may choose to ‘lean back’, not taking those roles at the top.

After returning from my first maternity leave, I was promoted at the same time as a male colleague as we’d both worked hard together. This gave me confidence to try out for a new role after my second maternity leave, and I was accepted. 

Personally, I feel like working while handling a three-year-old and one-year old is do-able: There is never: “I can’t do this,” but it is always: “how can I do this” or “how can I change this.”

In this photo of my previous company’s sales reps and our regional CFO, you can see I’m the only female. This is the reality for Japan, and we do need more women to be represented in the workforce.

To me, International Women’s Day is a good time to think about women’s rights, and to come together with other women to support one another.

Right now, I participate in Women's Leadership & Inclusion events in my company, where other women and I share our success stories and encourage one another. I hope companies and fathers realise what working mothers are going through, and that other mothers can learn to have more confidence in themselves.

I think the role of women in Japanese families is changing, and our efforts at work and at home are being recognised more. I’m excited to share my story, because I want more people to know what Japanese working mothers go through, and how we can change things for the better. 

Because I’m one of the few women on my current team, I feel responsible to help my male colleagues to practice gender equality at home. I try to encourage them to leave work on time, so they can go home to their families and help their wives. I’d also like my female friends to know they are not alone, and that it’s possible to speak up and ask their husbands and workplaces for support. 

I hope and believe Japanese society will be more gender-neutral when Yuika and Eishi are older. 

I don’t wish for Yuika to hold herself back from anything just because she is a girl; when she tells me she wants to fly in a rocket to Mars, I tell her: “Girl, you can do it!”. We’re also teaching Eishi that men helping out with the housework is a normal thing, so he can support his family in future.

To build a more equal Japanese society, we can start today, in our own homes.

Pictures provided by Yu.

This story is the first part of a series titled: ‘What gender inequality looks like in my country’. Over four stories, this series aims to shed light on the rights that women are fighting for around the world. The next story in this series will be published tomorrow. 

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