Will DPJ policy push women into work?

by Michiko Munakata and Natsumi Mizumoto

Kyodo News

Even before she begins her career, Shiho Umeki, 22, has always planned to reduce her work after getting married, just like her mother before her. That was until the Democratic Party of Japan won the Aug. 30 election.

The change in the political landscape has prompted her to rethink her plans because the DPJ, looking for ways to bankroll its promised generous child allowances, pledged during the campaign to ditch tax deductions for spouses.

Ending the deductions “would be a historic changeover as it will bring about a profound change in women’s lifestyles,” said Emiko Ochiai, a professor of family sociology at Kyoto University.

Along with the DPJ’s vow to let married couples use separate surnames, ending the spouse exemption would give working women a supportive push, experts say.

“I thought after getting married that I would be a housewife working only at an easy pace just like my mother, but will that become difficult?” asked Umeki, a senior at Waseda University in Tokyo. She has been recruited to start working for a drug company next April.

“It means society will change, won’t it?” asked the resident of Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, in reference to the DPJ’s plan to do away with the tax deductions.

As a part-time worker, her mother has intentionally kept her income below ¥1.03 million a year so she won’t lose her status as a tax-exempt spouse.

The tax system under which breadwinners, mostly husbands, can claim an exemption for their spouses has been in place since 1961.

The ¥1.03 million income ceiling for spouses compares with an average annual salary of ¥4.37 million for private-sector employees in 2007 — ¥5.42 million for men and ¥2.71 million for women — according to the latest data released by the National Tax Agency.

It is common for wives to work fewer hours than their spare time from housework and child-rearing allows so they can take advantage of the system, which is widely regarded as giving housewives preferential treatment.

The DPJ says it wants to abolish the system under the assumption it has discouraged women from attaining economic self-reliance.

“The current tax system that particularly gives nonworking housewives preferential treatment is problematic and we think it should be rectified,” then DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada said at a news conference Sept. 4.

The party is considering scrapping the tax deductions for both spouses and dependents starting in fiscal 2011, when it plans to fully implement its promised monthly child allowances of ¥26,000 per child after distributing half that sum in fiscal 2010.

Experts say the poor circumstances for mothers to work more hours should also be addressed, such as the short supply of day care services.

The number of children on waiting lists for licensed day care facilities as of April jumped 29.8 percent from a year before to 25,384, a record surge as mothers went looking for work during the economic slump, the welfare ministry said Sept. 7.

“I’m worried about whether I can continue working after giving birth,” Umeki said. “If the DPJ says it will change Japan, I want it to realize reforms that women can say they are happy about.”

To boost gender equality, the DPJ wants to give married couples the choice “at an early date” to adopt separate surnames, according to its policy index for 2009.

Under the Civil Code, couples currently have no choice but to pick either surname, most often the husband’s in light of underlying social pressures, to be legally recognized as married.

“I want the policy to be legislated as quickly as possible,” said Noriko Higuchi, a 50-year-old licensed dietitian in Sendai who has been in a group campaigning for the option since 1991.

“It will require no money nor will it force everyone to follow it, but it would be encouraging for quite a few people,” she said, explaining her own experience of switching to her maiden name 18 years ago as a matter of identity, seven years after being officially registered under her husband’s surname.

Momentum for opening up the option by amending the Civil Code increased in the early 1990s and culminated in a draft government bill in 1996, but since then it lost steam due in part to the recent tendency for fewer people to marry and more women being allowed to go by their maiden names in business, she said. There have also been campaigns by groups opposing the notion of giving couples the choice, she said.

“Many people have already put dual surnames into practice through such possible means as the use of maiden names and unregistered marriages,” said Ayumi Sasagawa, 45, who has lobbied LDP lawmakers to make the change.

“But everyone is fed up with various problems they face in their daily lives just because their names are not legally recognized,” she said.