National / Social Issues

Was pregnancy a mistake? The question many Japanese women face

by Yumiko Doi

Kyodo

When nursing home caregiver Yukari Nishihara, 34, told her female boss that she was pregnant, she was taken aback by the response.

“Are you determined to work no matter what happens to your baby? If you cannot work, you’d better step away,” her boss said.

That was in Kitakyushu, in September 2013.

“Was it a mistake to get pregnant?” Nishihara asked herself. She felt she was experiencing what is known in Japan as “maternity harassment” — a well-documented reality that involves the bullying, demotion or even dismissal of workers who become pregnant.

In Nishihara’s case, her employer failed to offer her lighter tasks. She continued helping elderly people up the stairs and assisting them in taking a bath. She worked sometimes for up to 10 hours a day — and had a nagging fear that the labor might trigger a miscarriage.

In a meeting with her employer, Nishihara was indirectly but clearly asked to resign.

To her, quitting was not an option because her husband was sick and she needed to support her family. Nishihara had been married for eight years when she became pregnant.

So, she defied the request and kept working, a decision that she says led to a series of incidents where she felt she was harassed by her coworkers.

“It might be better if the baby went away,” she said to herself, feeling under immense pressure.

In February 2014, Nishihara gave birth to a baby girl. But she soon suffered from depression and today she remains on medical leave.

In August that year, she filed a damages suit against the nursing facility’s head and its operator with the support of a local labor union and is fighting the case in court.

Equal employment opportunity legislation for men and women was introduced in Japan 30 years ago. It prohibits the termination of employment due to pregnancy or childbirth. An amendment in 2006 added unwarranted demotion and the unreasonable curtailing of workplace responsibilities to the list.

Despite being illegal, harassment against pregnant women remains rife in Japan. A labor ministry survey on harassment conducted last year showed that 21 percent of full-time female employees and 48 percent of temporary workers experienced it relating to their pregnancy or maternity.

Yumiko Akutsu, a lawyer specializing in maternity harassment issues, said behind the trend is an old-fashioned corporate culture which holds that people who cannot perform under the same conditions as others should not continue to work.

The way women work changed dramatically in Japan following the 1997 revisions to the equal employment opportunity law and the labor standards law, which removed special rules applied to women for their protection. This included lifting rules restricting extra work and a ban on night shifts, ultimately expanding women’s work options.

According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in February last year, 159 out of 1,000 pregnant women who continued to work suffered a miscarriage and one in five of the women who lost a child said they often worked more than nine hours a day.

Lawyer Akutsu said, “Although the relations between hard work and miscarriage have yet to be confirmed medically, we cannot deny that long hours of working weigh on women’s physical condition.”

Nowadays, both work and child-rearing are important aspects of women’s lives. “I hope for a society which respects the dignity of working people, instead of treating pregnant women like throwaways,” Nishihara said.