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Japan’s persisting gender gap leaves many single moms in poverty



Yuka Suzuki, 47, has virtually no savings, earns about half the average national wage and cannot see where the money will come from to retire one day.

She is still doing better than most single moms in Japan, where half of all one-parent families live below the poverty line. The OECD ranks Japan — the world’s third-largest economy — last among its 34 members for the financial well-being of single working parents, and the greatest hardship falls on mothers.

The laggard performance reflects a work culture skewed against women with children, a relative lack of support from ex-husbands and a dearth of child care facilities. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made elevating the role of women as a pillar of his economic program, the initiative confronts entrenched attitudes dictating long hours for full-time workers.

“The gap between men and women and between regular and nonregular work is huge in Japan and single mothers are badly underpaid,” said Yanfei Zhou, a researcher at the government-funded Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

“The fate of children is also at stake here, with the risk of poverty in families being passed down through the generations.”

A typical story that emerges from speaking with women like Suzuki starts with their cutting back on or quitting work to raise children, followed by an unexpected separation from their partner or bereavement and then a decades-long struggle through poorly paid part-time jobs with little prospect of returning to permanent employment.

Compensation for part-time and nonpermanent roles on average is 35 percent of the equivalent full-time permanent position, according to data from the National Tax Agency. That contributes to low savings among single mothers, half of whom have less than ¥500,000 to draw on during hard times, compared with the average for all Japanese households of ¥10.5 million, statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show.

Suzuki, who got divorced 11 years ago, worked at a welfare center for disabled adults before getting married and quitting to raise her daughter and son, now 19 and 16.

“Back then I was doing overtime everyday and even taking some work home because of the massive amount of things to be done,” she said in an interview in Tokyo.

“I knew it was going to be too hard to get back into that kind of work while rearing children without help from anybody.”

After separating from her husband, Suzuki started part-time work and selling cosmetics from home. She increased her hours as her children grew and became more independent.

She now works about 40 hours per week, giving advice to mothers on child rearing. That is equivalent to full-time duties, but she has not landed a permanent position with the accompanying insurance, pension and holiday benefits.

Child care centers are not offering single mothers the flexibility they seek in raising children and preserving a career. While single parents who get their kids into centers registered with the national government can become eligible for discounts and fee waivers, many cannot find openings near their home or workplace.

The alternatives are more expensive nonregistered day care businesses, or kindergartens which only accept children over 3 years old, provide care for about four hours a day and close during school holidays.

Miyuki Tomaru, 46, a Tokyo mother of twin girls who has written a book on how to survive single parenting, said this was one of the hurdles she faced.

Tomaru quit work after marrying in her mid-20s and separated from her husband soon after the birth of their twin daughters. She couldn’t get child care for her two girls in one place and had to wait until they were 3 years old to enter a kindergarten, which only looked after them until 2 p.m. and closed during school holidays, limiting her employment options.

“The kindergarten’s long vacations in summer, winter and spring were the hardest times,” said Tomaru, who did part-time jobs ranging from lunch-box deliveries to online sales. She said a month’s worth of income disappeared during the long vacations when she either stopped working or had to pay for extra day care.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government allows centers with more flexible rules than nationally accredited facilities, including those with longer opening hours, to charge as much as ¥80,000 per child month.

There were more than 21,000 kids on waiting lists to enter registered child care as of April 1, according to the welfare ministry.

The Abe administration set a target of creating 200,000 new spots for kids by the end of next March. It was likely come in about 9,000 short of this, according to the most recent estimate from the ministry based on data in May.

The prime minister, who is campaigning for Sunday’s election, aims to expand child care by a further 200,000 spots in the three years through March 2018 to eliminate waiting lists.

Suzuki and Tomaru, who is now a full-time permanent worker at a medical company, have been more fortunate than many of Japan’s 1.2 million single mothers.

Their ex-husbands are among the 20 percent who pay alimony after a separation, according to data from the welfare ministry. About 74 percent of custodial parents the U.S. receive full or partial child support from their former spouses, according to U.S. census bureau data.

“Most divorces in Japan are settled by consent, which doesn’t mandate a child-support agreement,” said Miyuki Shimoebisu, an associate professor at Tohoku University in Sendai, who has studied divorce settlements in Japan and the U.S.

“Even when a child-support agreement is legally agreed on, there aren’t mechanisms available to single mothers to ensure they get payments.”

The government subsidizes vocational training for about 10,000 single mothers annually, according to the welfare ministry. A separate program which spent ¥17 billion over five years to help single parents jobs was scrapped in March. An advisory panel to the government said it was not a cost-effective way to help them into the workforce.

Abe’s administration wants to boost the employment rate for women aged 25 to 44 to 73 percent by 2020 as Japan seeks to counter its aging and declining population. The figure was 69.5 percent in 2013, versus 91 percent for men.

Only 39 percent of single mothers are in regular work, versus 67 percent for fathers raising kids on their own, welfare ministry data show.

Suzuki said she is looking to the future with hope and trepidation. She has not been able to begin preparing for retirement and earns about ¥2.7 million a year, compared with the welfare ministry’s estimate for average annual income of ¥5.4 million.

Using OECD standards, the welfare ministry measured the poverty line in Japan at about ¥1.2 million in 2012. Almost 55 percent of households with one adult and children fell below that.

The average across the OECD for poverty among working single parents is about 21 percent, according to a report from the Paris-based organization, citing data covering 2008 to 2011. The were no figures for South Korea.

With little experience to draw on, she entered a one-year program in 2012 run by Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Japan unit. It provides networking and career guidance to single mothers and has assisted about 130 people over the past five years, said Kumiko Masaki, who oversees the Tokyo-based project.

Suzuki’s goal over the next few years is to go into business for herself as a child care adviser to boost her income. Eventually she would like to set up her own children’s bookstore.

“I calculated how much money I was likely to earn before retirement,” said Suzuki. “It wasn’t enough.”

  • Oliver Mackie

    These women deserve assistance, particularly given the fact that most single mothers in Japan are in that situation due to divorce, in stark contrast to the US, Europe, and Australasia where the vast majority are due to unmarried pregnancy, particularly among teenagers. In the former case, there is less worry that public assistance will act as an incentive to single parenthood, although it must also be coupled with clear rules and strict enforcement regarding the financial responsibilities of fathers following divorce, and these should be kept separate from the other details of any particular divorce settlement.

  • Oliver Mackie

    Thanks for your contribution. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen statistics from very recent and credible research that supports my assertion regarding reasons for single motherhood. I will find it and revert in due course.