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Mayumi Shinde, 40, has worked for seven years as a system engineer at a Tokyo firm, at one stage attaining a job capability assessment of S — one special level higher than A, the normal top ranking.

After taking child-care leave in December 2000, however, Shinde saw her ranking at Data Communication System Co. immediately downgraded to the lowest scale, causing her annual pay to drop by 1 million yen.

The firm also said she is not entitled to take a corporate exam for promotion from team chief to group chief, even though the board member in charge of her section advised her to take the test and her immediate boss guaranteed she would pass.

The company’s stated reason for its action: “Shinde has so far contributed greatly to the company, but there is no guarantee she will keep contributing in the future.”

Takako Mita (not her real name), 32, was shifted from her clerical job at a car parts company affiliated with a major automaker to a post at an assembly plant after taking child-care leave twice.

When Mita first asked for maternity and child-care leave from the Sagamihara-based company in November 1999, her boss assured her there would not be a problem and that someone would be hired temporarily to cover her position until she returned.

But when she returned to work after a four-month absence, considerably shorter than the one-year leave to which she was entitled, the firm immediately made her replacement a full-timer, forcing Saito to engage in odd jobs under her replacement’s instruction.

Mita became pregnant again and took nine months of leave from July 2001. When she returned she was assigned to work at the factory.

She is now the only full-timer in the factory, inspecting and packing car parts.

Mita and Shinde both consulted Women’s Union Tokyo, which in turn spoke to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Ministry officials confirmed that the way the two were treated by their employers was “within the legal framework.” The union is still negotiating with managers at the firms on behalf of both.

Women’s Union Tokyo, established in 1995 to help women with labor issues, has dealt with more and more pregnancy-related cases in recent years, according to Chairwoman Midori Ito.

“The birthrate cannot be expected to rise under the current recessionary circumstances, as companies try to exclude workers whom they consider costly,” she said.

“Although a revision to the child-care law in April bans unfavorable treatment of employees who ask for or take child-care leave, firms can get away with almost anything.

“A woman was recently fired after she told her boss she was pregnant, but whenever a company gives a different reason other than pregnancy, the labor ministry just accepts it,” Ito said. “The child-care law is just a castle in the air.”

Government guidelines forbid companies from firing or treating employees unfavorably if they seek child-care leave.

“Unfavorable treatment” includes forcing full-time employees to become part-timers, putting workers on standby at home, demoting them, slashing pay, subjecting them to unfavorable transfers to other departments and harming their working environment.

Companies are, however, only obliged to make “efforts” in this regard.

Firms are not subject to any punitive measures if they do not comply with the rules.

Part-timers have it worse

According to Kazuko Sakai, representative of Working Women’s Part-timers Analysis and Watch, the conditions facing part-time and temporary workers are even worse.

While government rules dictate temporary workers can also take child-care leave if employed on a continuous basis, the contracts of most women are not renewed if they tell their boss they are pregnant.

Less than 1 percent of workers in this bracket are able to take leave, Sakai said.

Considering that 35 percent of the nation’s working women between 25 and 34 — the age bracket seen as most suitable for bearing children — are nonfull-time workers, the effect on the nation’s birthrate is naturally serious.

“The more rules authorities make to improve child-care programs for full-time workers, the more companies want to replace them with nonfull-time workers who cannot use the benefit,” Sakai said.

Under the fiscal reforms being pursued by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, government support for single mothers has also drastically receded since August.

Single mothers with one child and an annual income of less than 2.048 million yen were formerly granted 42,370 yen per month. This allowance now only goes to those earning 1.3 million yen or less.

Those with annual incomes of between 2.048 million yen and 3 million yen used to receive 28,350 yen per month. This has been changed so that mothers with incomes of between 1.3 million yen and 3.65 million yen are granted amounts ranging between 42,360 yen and 10,000 yen.

The average annual income of single mothers, most of whom are divorced, stood at 2.16 million yen in 1998, including government support and family assistance.

But the government plans to cut its support by a further 50 percent within five years.

Such an unfairly heavy burden on those raising children flies in the face of government calls for an increase in the birthrate, experts say.

By taking time off to care for a child, a worker is less likely to get a raise, and thus lifetime wages remain low, as do later pension payments.

Tetsuo Yoshioka, head of the labor ministry department tasked with curbing the declining birthrate, said, “Although the issue is primarily a matter between employers and employees, under such crucial circumstances, we believe it is our responsibility to ask for cooperation from the economic and labor world.”

Panic by the numbers

Panic over the nation’s birthrate began with what is often referred to as the “1.57 shock” of 1989, when the birthrate was found to have undercut that of 1966, when it hit the previous low of 1.58.

1966 was a Hino-e-uma bad-luck year for newborn girls, which comes once in 60 years, prompting many Japanese to avoid having children.

Since the second baby boom of the early ’70s, the nation’s birthrate has gradually fallen for 2 1/2 decades and has hovered around 1.35 for the past several years. It stood at 1.34 in 1999, 1.36 in 2000 and 1.33 in 2001, well below the 2.08 needed to sustain the population at its current level.

If the rate continues at this level, the nation’s population — now around 127 million — could start shrinking in 2006.

One numerical scenario projects the population could be halved by 2100 and the Japanese race could become extinct after 3000.

A more imminent and tangible threat, however, is the collapse of the social security system.

While the government has organized a number of working groups to discuss the issue since 1991, recent fears have prompted Koizumi to renew a request to labor minister Chikara Sakaguchi to map out new comprehensive measures by the end of the month.

An advisory panel compiled an interim report on Sept. 13 that will serve as a basis for an expected report to the prime minister.

Finding the right balance

The preliminary report states that the government will “aim to create a society that makes people want to raise children, and feel happy to do so, as well as a society that does not put those who choose to raise children in a disadvantageous position.”

New measures to counter the declining birthrate outlined in the report include promoting a balance between work and personal life — particularly for men — and the creation of additional child-care support schemes involving companies, communities and the government.

The government has requested 1.04 trillion yen in the fiscal 2003 budget to boost the birthrate.

With recent research finding that even married couples are reluctant to have children, the government is planning to relieve the social insurance burdens of families with children.

Issues related to the ethical, medical and financial aspects of infertility will also be examined.

Coordinators will be appointed in each municipality to collate all information on child support and disperse it upon request. The introduction of a work-sharing system and the enforcement of child-care leave for men will also be considered.

Just five in 1,000 men employed at companies with more than 30 workers took child-care leave in 1999.

Some experts have high hopes for the Dutch work-sharing model, in which both men and women are left with sufficient time to engage in child care and other activities. Sakai of Working Women’s PAW, however, is not so optimistic.

“Currently, Japanese entrepreneurs welcome the idea of work-sharing because they think it means the replacement of full-time workers with part-timers,” she said.

“In 2001, the average hourly wage for part-time workers was 890 yen for women and 1,029 yen for men, and that of full-timers was 1,340 yen for women and 2,028 yen for men. Company managers don’t try to realize that the basic concept of work-sharing lies in equal work, equal pay.”

Debate over the declining birthrate started more than a decade ago, during the asset-inflated bubble economy. The subsequent economic slide has apparently exacerbated the problem.

Changes in social values, spiraling education costs, lack of living space, bullying at school, juvenile crimes and environmental deterioration are also perceived as contributing to the falling birthrate. Some experts say all developed nations follow this path.

Indeed, low birthrates are a major problem in most advanced countries apart from the U.S., where the rate is about 2.0. The rate stands at 1.2 in Italy and 1.7 in France.

No more rush to the altar

But a more direct factor, according to the labor ministry, is the growing number of women who either put off getting married or simply don’t take the vows.

This trend has a dramatic effect on the birthrate, as only 1 percent of children in Japan are born out of wedlock.

Many women who put off having children for career reasons find themselves beyond child-bearing age.

A 1995 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that 27 percent of all women between age 15 and 49 had either never married or had never given birth.

According to research by Noriko Tsuya, a scholar specializing in population issues, the birthrates of developed nations declined in direct proportion to the growing participation of women in the workforce in the 1970s. In the 1990s, however, she found that women who do not participate in the workforce are more reluctant to have kids.

According to Sakai, Japanese expectations that a woman should effectively shoulder the entire child-care workload regardless of whether she is a housewife have contributed to the current situation.

These expectations have only pushed up the cost of female labor, making firms even more reluctant to hire women and women more reluctant to have kids, she said.

With Japan’s traditionally long office hours, working women who have kids face a life of continual exhaustion.

On the other hand, mothers who stay at home must assume the burden of raising their children alone, because their husbands often return home well after midnight.

Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology at Keisen University in Tokyo, said, “Japanese women, with one of the highest education levels in the world, can no longer accept having their careers abruptly terminated due to marriage or childbirth.”

Even among young couples, she said, the boy will often ask his girlfriend how she will manage when they have kids.

“It has never been seriously questioned whether the concept that child-raising is only a woman’s job is strange,” Ohinata said.

When married to a full-time housewife, the average Japanese husband spends just 15 minutes a day on household chores and child care, and just 11 minutes if both partners work, Ohinata said.

“Women are unconsciously and silently revolting against the traditional gender roles,” said Rieko Suzuki, research director at Dentsu Institute for Human Studies.

Japan was ranked 32nd in the UNDP’s global Gender Empowerment Measures revealed in 2002, which gauges the extent to which women take part in social decision-making.

“Japanese women in the past got married to make their lives better, but now they don’t, for precisely the same reason,” Suzuki said.

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