Re: “Labor law protects expectant and new mothers — to a point” by Hifumi Okunuki (Labor Pains, Oct. 16):

Japanese society has long been “traditional” in the sense that women who became pregnant, or even simply got married, were expected to end their working lives and stay at home in support of their husband and family. While this is changing, it’s not happening fast enough.

Often egged on by older women in the family who lived such a life themselves, many women today judge themselves and are judged in terms of their potential as wives and mothers. This often means a lifetime career ranging from making hubby’s bentō, to raising the children, to caring for the elderly in-laws — all noble endeavors, but none financially productive in an economy with a shrinking workforce.

Many women of the “bubble generation” and earlier are now reaching retirement age without having generated a single yen for the economy in 40 years. They paid household expenses, pension premiums and health-care costs all out of their husband’s (vastly inflated) salaries. With shrinking salaries, part-time work, zero-bonus jobs and a plummeting birth rate, this is no longer feasible. How much larger would the pension pool be now if half the population had been allowed to work all these years?

While laws have changed to assist working mothers, they still reflect a deeply entrenched chauvinism. As reported in Hifumi Okunuki’s column, working women get six weeks of maternity leave before birth and up to eight weeks after, with the first 30 days back at worked protected from mandatory dismissal. This falls far short of many developed countries.

Furthermore, many companies still pressure women into leaving regardless of the law. So do many families, for whom a married woman’s place is still in the home.

This kind of Confucian segregation must end if Japan is to develop socially and economically. More women are graduating from top universities with advanced degrees in business, medicine, biotechnology and engineering. They often come better equipped with language skills in English, Chinese and Korean. More women are entering politics and their presence will affect change.

Gone are the days of the old boy network — graying septuagenarians whose only solution to changing demographics is to demand more babies.

It’s time to give the bright young women of Japan a greater stake and a larger say in the nation’s future — especially after they have also chosen to be mothers.


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