Several weeks ago the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, hung around briefly after the IMF finished up its annual meeting — which happened to be in Tokyo this year — and appeared on a special hourlong edition of NHK’s in-depth news show “Closeup Gendai.” The topic was working women as a factor in Japan’s economic recovery. Lagarde said more women in the workforce would “create more consumption” and stimulate demand, thus growing the economy. This proposal was so elementary that it seemed a waste to have the leader of one of the world’s biggest financial organs deliver it, but Lagarde’s purpose for being on the program was probably more symbolic than anything else.

At the meeting, the IMF presented a paper on Japan’s neglected female workers, and Lagarde said she has communicated with many Japanese women who “express frustration” about the “hurdles” that make it difficult for them to be taken seriously as management material.

As it stands, only about 10 percent of management-level workers and company executives in Japan are women, while the portion in the United States is 40 percent and between 30 percent and 40 percent in the European Union. The main problem is that eternal bugbear, the work-family balance, characterized by the fact that 60 percent of Japanese married women quit their jobs when they have their first child and never reenter the workforce as regular employees. The IMF estimates a 4 percent increase in Japan’s GDP if these women continued working. “Then Japan could reimburse its national debt,” Lagarde said confidently.

NHK elaborated on the IMF report by exploring the availability of day care and Japanese men’s less-than-accommodating attitudes toward housework and child-rearing, which many still seem to feel is a woman’s job. The announcer then asked Lagarde how she had managed to become a successful lawyer while raising two sons, and she admitted that, like “all women in such a situation,” she’d had to “deal with guilt.” After explaining her own working mother’s philosophy about children needing to be independent from their parents, Lagarde said she hired a nanny. “It was expensive,” she said, “but it was the choice I made.”

Her situation was special and most day care facilities don’t offer working parents the freedom that a nanny does. When asked if her partner was “cooperative,” Lagarde said his attitude was similar to one she had noticed among Japanese men: “He didn’t share in the responsibilities.”

At this point in the discussion Lagarde became even less useful for illuminating the topic under discussion. Though she had offered the IMF’s findings as a means of clarifying how important working women are to a country’s economy, it was clear that she was mainly on hand to provide a shining example of a woman who, in the announcer’s words, “has it all.” Such an example is often utilized by the media to illustrate the problem of working women in Japan, since structural barriers make it hard for a woman to achieve the same level of fulfillment that a man does, and while this is certainly true the focus on women who have or want it all distracts from the larger problem, which is that almost everyone in Japan is forced to work in a corporate culture that no longer has any bearing on reality.

That reality was outlined more plainly by Kiyoko Yamagiwa, president of wiwiw, Inc., a human-resources company. She pointed out that the average salary for a full-time regular employee has dropped by almost ¥2 million since its peak, which makes it virtually impossible for the average family to buy a home and raise children on one income. So while a majority of Japanese women still say they prefer being full-time mothers and homemakers, they can’t afford to. The government allows them to earn a certain amount of money as part-timers without paying taxes or social security, but the relevant laws are based on a “social and labor situation” that doesn’t apply any more.

The media dramatically plays up the courage and ambition of career-minded working mothers who fight cultural conservatism, but the experience of most working women is more prosaic. They simply want to earn enough to live comfortably and raise their children in a stress-free environment.

In order for this to happen, it is not enough to change attitudes about women in the workforce. Attitudes about work itself must change, for women and men. Naturally, men must make more of an effort to participate in child-rearing and housekeeping, but in order to do that they also have to be willing to work less.

Using the Netherlands as a successful example, NHK showed how a couple could make a comfortable income if both spouses worked “part-time” but on a regular basis. Each spouse would make less money than if either were working a full-time regular job, but together they could still make enough to live comfortably. More significantly, they would have much more free time. And as Lagarde pointed out from her own experience, part-time regular employees are more productive since they are encouraged to accomplish more in the time they have.

The token mainstream corporate executive on the program, a man, agreed these were good ideas but expressed reservations about carrying them out. Even labor unions have a stake in the status quo. But there’s another structural hindrance, namely the concentration of economic power in Tokyo and other major cities, which means workers cannot afford to live near their places of employment if they want to have children and buy a home. Commuting time has become as much of a drag on the economy as the lack of women workers, though back in the 1970s and ’80s it was considered a plus since development of bedroom communities spurred growth.

At one point during the discussion someone mentioned that the “peak time” when people who work in Tokyo arrive home — wherever that happened to be — was 11 p.m., a statistic that made Lagarde shake her head in shocked disbelief. That image alone made her presence on the show worthwhile.