Noriko Hitotsumatsu, a bilingual research pharmacologist with a master’s from Cambridge University, considers herself lucky to have a part-time job in a Tokyo pharmacy after shelving her career to raise two daughters in one of the world’s most work-oriented countries.

“I was determined to raise my children myself when they were small,” she said. “When they were older, I kept to part-time work so I could coach them through school entrance exams, while my husband worked around the clock,” she added. “I’d like to go back to full-time work someday, but I don’t think I can return to research after such a long period away.”

Japanese professionals like Hitotsumatsu, 38, face a raft of obstacles in returning to work after having a child, from a lack of affordable household services to tax rules that discourage women from full-time employment. Women abandoning work altogether contributed to Japan being ranked 90th out of 148 in female workplace participation in the World Economic Forum’s 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report, more than 50 places behind China.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made helping women like Hitotsumatsu a centerpiece of his policy to revive an economy that needs more female workers to replenish a labor force forecast to shrink as much as 42 percent by 2060. Abe is even considering granting entry to more foreign household workers, a challenge for one of Asia’s least diverse countries, as he seeks to make good on his vow to get women into 30 percent of management jobs by the time Japan hosts the 2020 Olympics.

“To allow women to work to their full capacity, we will have to bring in people from Southeast Asia to help with child care and housework,” said Hiroya Masuda, an adviser at the Nomura Research Institute (NRI), who serves on an economic advisory panel to the government. “I think a lot of people have come around to that view.”

Abe pushed the idea in a Jan. 22 speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Such a policy change would mark a dramatic shift in a country where 1.7 million foreign residents make up 1 percent of the population.

“If we talk about accepting immigrants, there will be people who object,” Masuda said. “There are people who complain about Japanese society changing. There are fears of a rise in crime.”

More than half of working women give up full-time work when they have their first child, many returning only to poorly paid part-time jobs, according to a study by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. A third of women surveyed by NRI in 2010 who had given up their jobs said they did so because the environment was not in place either at home or the workplace to enable them to continue while managing children and a household. NRI surveyed 1,000 women via the Internet.

Even for women working full time, the expense of household services is prohibitive, with one typical Tokyo agency charging about ¥48,000 ($469) a month for three hours of cleaning a week. That compares with a monthly wage of $517 for live-in help in Hong Kong. More than half of respondents to a separate NRI survey in 2011 said they did not use such services because of the cost, while only 2 percent said they were current users.

“I would need to get my husband to agree to it,” said 33-year-old university administrator Mai Mukai, mother of a 5-year-old girl. “That decision would be based largely on cost.”

Like most Tokyo residents, Hitotsumatsu does not have room for the type of live-in housekeepers, known as helpers, that are common in Singapore and Hong Kong. The helper culture has provided a source of cheap home and child care, while generating hard currency for countries like the Philippines and Indonesia from workers sending money back to their families.

Admitting domestic workers from overseas could make these services cheaper and more widely available, Masuda said. Only diplomats and foreigners admitted as highly skilled professionals can currently sponsor visas for housekeepers from abroad, and there are now just 1,169 people in Japan under that provision, according to Justice Ministry statistics. In contrast, there are more than 300,000 foreign helpers in Hong Kong, a city of 7.2 million people compared with Japan’s population of 127 million.

Last year the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan issued a report urging the government to allow Japanese citizens with a household income of ¥7 million or more to sponsor visas for domestic and elderly care workers.

Acceptance of foreign housekeepers and other workers from overseas should start in the special strategic zones Abe designated in March, where looser regulation will be tested as part of a drive to attract investment, an advisory panel said in a proposal on May 12. The six zones are greater Tokyo; the Kansai region around Osaka; Okinawa Prefecture; and the cities of Fukuoka, Niigata and Yabu, Hyogo Prefecture.

The Abe government is also expanding child care provisions and considering removing tax and social security policies that discourage married women from seeking full-time work. Women earning less than about ¥1 million don’t pay tax and spouses earning less than ¥1.3 million can be included for free in their partner’s health care and pension plan.

Japanese men work longer hours than their counterparts in any other member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a report published in March. That means the burden of housework falls on women. Japanese men spend 62 minutes a day on unpaid work, less than any country apart from South Korea studied in the same report. Japanese women average 299 minutes of unpaid work and get less sleep than women in any of the other countries studied.

There are signs that Abe’s policies are having an effect. The number of women employed grew by 470,000 last year to 27 million — the biggest increase since 1991, according to the internal affairs ministry. That compares with 36 million working men. Closing the employment gender gap could boost Japan’s economy by about 13 percent, according to a Goldman Sachs report from May 6.

The biggest obstacle may be Japanese society itself as many women are reluctant to accept household help even if available, the NRI study from 2011 shows. Forty-two percent of respondents cited unease about having nonfamily members in their homes as a reason for avoiding the use of cleaners.

“Regardless of whether we’re talking about foreigners, Japanese people feel uncomfortable about letting people into their homes while they are out, unless they are family,” said Sayaka Suzuki, mother of a 5-year-old boy, who works for Nikon Corp. in Tokyo.

Suzuki said she moved to be closer to her own parents, on whom she relies to help with baby-sitting and cooking. Rather than farming out housework, she says she wants to see a change to the long-hours culture that means her husband is rarely home.

“This policy seems to be aimed at freeing us up to work more,” Suzuki said. “I think the government should be looking at policies to help everyone work less and get a better work-life balance.”

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