Although Japan’s women are on par with their male counterparts in educational achievement, Japan ranks 104th in gender equality out of 142 countries and territories, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report. The country’s Achilles’ heel is its low rate of female participation in the workforce, as society puts pressure on women to marry and become homemakers.
However, the working mothers profiled here are challenging the country’s infamous gender stereotypes and share a resilience and belief that they can work, regardless of their status as parents. Better still, they can be viewed as important role models for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” economic growth strategy.
Yukiko Imazu is the first female partner at Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious law firms. She’s also the first partner at the firm to have taken maternity leave.
While in elementary school, Imazu’s parents raised her to believe that her generation of women should work outside of the home — that the idea of being a housewife would become “old-fashioned.”
“You have to have some skills so that you can work for a lifetime,” her father had warned her.
After graduating from Keio University and gaining the proper training and certifications to become a lawyer, Imazu joined Anderson & Mori in 1996. Within two years, she married and had a child. Her firm had no policy regarding maternity leave.
“I was very nervous,” Imazu recalls. “I had to leave the office by 7 p.m. to pick up my daughter from day care at 8 p.m. The first day I returned to work I sent an email to the partners and explained that I wanted to work but I also had to pick up my daughter at a fixed time so I couldn’t be flexible (with my schedule). I received no response.”
Sometimes she would leave meetings early, apologizing for “sneaking out.” Imazu could only stay late on the occasions her husband was able to pick their daughter up.
Fortunately, the day care center near her home looked after her daughter until 8 p.m. and fed her dinner — a rarity as most require a pre-dinner pick-up by 6 p.m. The forward-thinking manager of this day care center believed that working mothers should be better supported.
Imazu’s family has also been instrumental in helping her continue her career. When her daughter started preschool, Imazu’s mother or grandmother would pick her child up at midday, take her to her afternoon classes and look after her until Imazu picked her up in the evening. Now a teenager, Imazu’s daughter continues to go to her grandmother’s house after school.
In 2005, Anderson & Mori merged with Tomotsune & Kimura to become today’s Anderson Mori & Tomotsune. Fortuitously, founding female partner Akiko Kimura paved the way for Imazu to be promoted as a partner that year.
“It was my task to open the door and break the glass ceiling,” Imazu recalls.
Imazu questions Abe’s three-year child care leave proposal. “If I took a year off, I wouldn’t want to come back,” she says. “So three years is out of the question.”
Employees, she says, should “work more efficiently and not be evaluated by their length of stay at the workplace. Also, men should spend more time outside of work to look after their families.”
Imazu is grateful for the support she has received to date. “Mothers,” she says, “tsuneni mawari ni kansha (cannot work without the help of others).”
Miho Sakai, a Sendai native and mother of 9-year-old twins, is a marketing manager at the Tokyo office of Brightcove, a digital marketing and media company headquartered in Boston. Sakai’s commitment to her career has been shaped by her experiences abroad. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been to the States and have learned to do things myself or maybe it’s just my personality,” Sakai says.
As a young adult, Sakai went to the U.S. to study English and then went on to attend a college in San Francisco, where she remained for five years to work at Sega Corp. Upon returning to Japan, Sakai married, had children, successfully secured spaces for her children in an oversubscribed day care system, and continued to work in the technology industry. Her husband was transferred to a post in the U.S. for five years, during which time she was a full-time homemaker.
When they returned to Japan, Sakai began work at her present position. She works with the Asia-Pacific and North American teams of her company, allowing her to utilize her language skills and bicultural understanding. Although she typically works nine hours a day and is home by 6:30 p.m. when her children return, she continues to work after they go to sleep and usually wakes up early to complete work.
She says her manager is not a traditional salaryman and is therefore not concerned about in-office work hours as long as the work is completed. She says he has a more Western way of thinking, having graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from the Tuck School of Business of Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in the United States. She also attributes the acceptance of her situation to the firm being multinational.
With no relatives nearby, Sakai’s husband is her greatest supporter.
“Although he’s really busy, he supports me mentally,” she says. “If the house gets a little messy, he starts tidying things up without me saying anything.”
Her closest friends also frequently help out. They, too, are working mothers and understand one another.
Ultimately, Sakai feels women are integral to the success of any given company.
“Women are born to multitask and they can use that experience at work,” she says.
Not all women should feel they have to work while raising children, Sakai says, “but if they feel like they are better for it, they should go back to it.”
She believes it’s essential for working women to have support from their husbands. “You don’t want to create any problems within the household,” she says. “Hmmm … I think I should spend some more time with my husband.”
Megumi Uchida is a real-estate consultant running a company that offers clients a full suite of business solutions with their investments. She is also a single mother who has a 5-year-old daughter. For Uchida, not working is not an option.
A day care center takes care of her daughter from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day, but when Uchida has to meet clients in the evenings, she must pick up her daughter, take her to her older sister’s house and then return to work. “I think I waste one to two hours a day, going back and forth on trains, picking her up from the day care center and taking her to someone who looks after her,” Uchida says. “It also costs a lot of money for taxis.”
Uchida started her own company by necessity. The only way she could increase her earnings at her previous place of employment was to increase her overtime, which was not possible because she needed to take care of her daughter.
“Those I was supervising were much better paid,” she says. “I challenged the company and said I could finish the same workload within office hours. I could get it done by the end of each working day. They replied that the company does not think in such a way.”
However, when Uchida fell ill — most likely from stress — she had to reduce her workload, which made her ineligible to continue with her daughter’s day care, as she could not fulfill the minimum hours of employment required for mothers to receive public child care benefits.
“I need my daughter to cooperate with me to keep things working,” she says. “It may be too much for a 4-year-old to handle, but I explained to her that I cannot always do what other families are able to. I am a single mom and we are a family of two. I will work hard to do what I can for her, including paying for her ballet lessons. I wonder if she thinks this is a heavy burden, and I feel guilty about it.”
At the same time, Uchida feels she had little emotional support.
“My parents were opposed to having children outside marriage,” she recalls. “I had to cut ties with them and have my baby without any assistance.”
Today, however, they have since reconciled. “I want to move from where I am to be closer to my family, but there is no opening at a day care center near them,” she says. “It’s easier for me to wait for another year or two until she goes to elementary school.”
“(Existing policies to support working mothers) are putting the entire burden on women and do not help create an environment for women to work,” she says. “It doesn’t seem as if any politicians understand this. I am concerned about what the future will be like when my child’s generation grows up.”
Yuki Honda is a professor of social science in education at the University of Tokyo and the mother of two teenagers. She is an outspoken advocate of gender equality and has authored or edited more than 15 books and countless academic papers on family and education.
“When I was very young, my maternal grandmother used to tell me to work,” Honda recalls. “She raised my mother and my aunt (on her own) after her husband died young. It must have been hard for her to make a living. My mother also worked, so I was raised by this grandmother. I loved her, and she inspired me.”
The life of a professor offers Honda a fairly flexible schedule.
While she must be on campus to teach classes, she says, “I decide how I work, how long I work, and when I work.”
The drawback to this, however, is that she usually works after dinner and late into the night. With her daughter now in high school and involved in club activities that take place before and after school, Honda wakes up at 5:40 a.m. to prepare a lunch box. “I am always sleep-deprived and groggy,” she says, sipping on a Red Bull.
Honda and her partner, who is also a professor with a similarly flexible schedule, maintain a weekly calendar to ensure the household responsibilities are shared.
With no relatives in Tokyo, they have needed to rely on the public support of day care centers and after-school care.
Honda says that Japanese women may need to rethink their beliefs toward who bears responsibility for raising their children. “Children grow healthier when people other than the mother — namely, the father and adults outside of the family — are involved in the process of raising them,” she says.
What’s more, Honda would like to dispel the myth that children should be raised by their mothers until they turn 3 years old. “It is crucial to start building vocabulary when children first learn to speak,” she says. “If children only spend time with their mothers until they are 3, it can inadvertently hurt them.”
“I notice that Japanese mothers typically feel really guilty about working, thinking it inconveniences the family,” she says. “I would like to tell them that they don’t have to feel guilty, and there are lots of good things that come from moms working.”
As for Japan’s traditional gender roles, Honda is concerned that both men and women are disadvantaged in the event of divorce. “Both the husband and wife are disadvantaged because each of them can play just one role. And, women, in particular, face financial hardship,” she says. “Statistics show that single mothers earn very little money and are quite vulnerable. I think it is important for women to become financially independent.”
Rieko Kaneko is an industrial physician, and is employed in a large company that is required to have a full-time doctor on the premises. She has a 5-year-old child and a 1-year-old toddler.
Kaneko’s parents raised her to believe that women should work and hold a qualification. Interested in biology, medical school seemed like the natural next step. However, her career is second to her family.
“I am not interested in getting promoted or attaining great career achievements,” Kaneko says. “For now, raising my children is my first priority. I will think about my own future when they are older.”
Kaneko is solely responsible for the schedules of her children as her husband’s work hours are extensive. Her children’s day care center and kindergarten are close to one another, so the morning drop-off is manageable. However, after she leaves work at 5 p.m., she picks up her older child who has already been taken from the kindergarten in the early afternoon to afternoon day care. She then has to pick up her younger child from a different day care center. In emergencies, she calls on her in-laws to come to Tokyo.
“I would like to relax my work schedule for my children,” she says. “If I did, however, my children may become ineligible to attend day care.”
Kaneko says day care centers should be encouraged to look after children of part-time working mothers. What’s more, she says, the government should create programs that support babysitting and employ the elderly for child care.
At present, any reduction in her working hours would require her to send her children to private child care. “That can be quite expensive,” she says. “You might end up spending all of your earnings on it.”
Kaneko is also concerned the government is not addressing how the critical years in one’s career path often coincide with a woman’s peak period of healthy reproduction. “This issue must be addressed, especially as the country’s falling birthrate and the aging of the Japanese population become serious concerns,” she says.
Kaneko hopes her children will view working mothers as the norm. “They will think it is natural for women to continue working after they marry,” she says.
This is the final installment of a two-part series on working women. Read the first part: Can women really ‘shine’ under Abe?