Two years ago, an online rant about the lack of day care in Japan went viral on social media and seemingly started a movement, prompting working mothers to stage demonstrations in which they demanded the government take them seriously and offer more child care.

Since then, there’s been little progress: Though thousands of day care slots have been added, they’ve filled up quickly and long waiting lists remain, keeping women at home even if they want to go back to work. This illustrates the depth of the “returner mom” issue in Japan, which can ill afford to turn women away as it fights a persistent labor shortage and as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes women-friendly workforce policies.

“There is more day care in Japan, for sure, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game and the waiting lists are getting long,” said Tsukiko Tsukahara, president of Kaleidist K.K., a Tokyo-based research and consulting firm.

Yukie Watabe, 38, is a mom who left her job. She, like many Japanese women, had an education and early working life equal to that of men of her generation. She graduated from prestigious Waseda University in 2002 and worked at a string of impressive financial institutions — Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., Nikkei Shimbun Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities — before taking a job at a fund management firm in Tokyo.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. That effectively ended Watabe’s corporate career — a path she had been pursuing for a decade. And once her son was born in August 2013, she encountered the next hurdle facing many mothers in Japan — the notoriously long waits for child care in many neighborhoods. She switched fields and, in 2015, started an online fashion company, Ayuwa Inc.

“To this day, I don’t understand why I had to leave the corporate world after years of hard work just because I got pregnant,” Watabe said.

Working mothers are held back in Tokyo in ways they aren’t in other financial hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore. In addition to societal pressure on women to care for children themselves, Japan’s long-standing opposition to immigration means that families don’t have affordable options for in-home child care.

So after taking advantage of the nation’s liberal maternity leave, many mothers face the reality that they have nowhere for their child to be cared for so they can go back to work. Parents are allowed to request a period of leave — it’s mostly mothers who do — until a child is a year old, and can extend it to 24 months if they can’t find child care, while earning about 67 percent of their base salary or more. Many end up extending without pay after 24 months because of the lack of child care.

As mothers delay returning to their jobs, men continue to significantly outnumber women in Japan’s workforce. Though women’s participation increased to a record 67 percent last year, according to the government, that figure includes part-time workers. In a 2014 report, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts estimated that closing the gender employment gap in Japan could lift the gross domestic product by almost 13 percent.

If women have more than one child and are out of work for several years, their skills often atrophy — especially in fast-paced digital environments — and they’re viewed as being less serious about their careers. Hence, the job may not be there when they’re ready to return.

“The challenge that is unique in Japan is that domestic help is not as available as it is in Hong Kong and Singapore,” said Yumiko Murakami, head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Tokyo Centre. “That is a very big factor in terms of how easy it is for women to work and have kids. We don’t have that in Japan. That’s a problem.”

Hiring a nanny is not an easily accessible option for most working mothers, said Kumi Sato, president and chief executive officer of Cosmo, a Tokyo-based public relations firm. She is the American Chamber of Commerce’s Japan chairman emeritus and vice chair of a task force that’s been lobbying for changes to immigration laws to help working mothers.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, the cost to hire foreign nannies is about $500 to $700 a month for them to work six days a week. In Japan, it costs three times as much: ¥200,000 ($1,770) to ¥250,000 ($2,215).

“Right now in Japan, hiring a nanny is considered a luxury,” Sato said.

The OECD’s Murakami discovered this firsthand several years ago. She worked in New York for Goldman Sachs and was being transferred to Tokyo. A colleague was in the same situation — the only difference, she said, is that she’s a Japanese passport holder and he’s an American. So he could bring in a foreign nanny but she couldn’t.

“I had a problem; I had three kids under the age of five,” she said. She found a Japanese woman who agreed to live in and take care of her children. “It was sheer luck,” she said. “It was expensive, yet I was lucky I could find her and afford a live-in nanny. That’s not an option for 99 percent of Japanese families.”

So day care centers have become the focal point for child care in Japan. The government said it spent ¥1.32 trillion in fiscal 2018, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year, to build and staff more centers. This has resulted in the addition of about 11,000 slots in the year to date. Murakami, whose children ended up going to day care centers, said the quality is very high.

“They are unbelievable — inexpensive and amazingly fantastic,” she said.

That’s if you can find a space. As fast as the centers are being built, they are filling up. The most recent data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show 19,895 children were on the waiting list as of April 1. Yet this represents progress — it’s the first time in 10 years the number fell below 20,000. The biggest demand for care is for babies up to 1 year old.

The lack of day care is affecting the economy. Japan’s workforce is shrinking by 200,000 people every year as women quit their jobs to have children, Dai-ichi Life Research Institute said. Their absence works out to ¥636 billion in lost wages, and the drop in productivity costs Japanese firms ¥1.17 trillion a year, the Tokyo-based institute said.

The “returner” problem is further complicated when women attempt to return to work once they have found child care — sometimes several years later. They often have trouble securing jobs that match their previous responsibilities, and are viewed as being on a “mommy track.”

“Some people assume that working mothers aren’t on the career track,” Tsukahara said. “They are made to think that their career path is now a mommy track; people around them aren’t so supportive.”

Hideo Kumano, chief economist for the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, calls it a major contradiction that so many women are dropping out of work amid Japan’s deepening labor shortage. Production capacity and revenue take a significant hit when women don’t return to their previous jobs, exerting an opportunity cost on the economy, Kumano said.

Abe has said his administration will tap underutilized parts of the workforce, including women and older people, to boost productivity and counteract the population decline without turning to immigration reform.

“The problem is that (Abe) has wavered on those policies,” Kumano said.

In May 2017, Abe again acknowledged the day care shortage and promised to fix the problem, saying he may need another three years — through the end of the 2020 fiscal year — to cut the waiting list for centers to zero. His original target was the 2017 fiscal year.

“This time, I’m really going to put an end to the problem of day care waiting lists,” Abe said at a Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) event.

Abe said he wants to have done enough to enable 80 percent of women in Japan to be in the workforce by the end of the 2022 fiscal year.

Yet Abe’s own recent actions go against previous calls for promoting more women to higher positions in society. Abe reshuffled his Cabinet Tuesday and selected only one female lawmaker. That’s the lowest number since he took power almost six years ago. Satsuki Katayama, 59, was appointed regional revitalization and gender equality minister and is now the sole woman in Abe’s 19-person Cabinet.

Jessica Gerrity, a 38-year-old TV personality from New Zealand who is married to a Japanese man and raising her three children in Tokyo, said she sees how hard it is for working mothers in Japan, compared with her home country. If the government is serious about raising one of the world’s lowest birth rates in the world’s oldest population, it has to start with respecting working mothers, she said.

In Gerrity’s native country, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern returned to work after six weeks of maternity leave. She was largely celebrated there as a working mom who’s juggling parenthood with a high-flying career. That example could be a lesson for Japan, Gerrity said.

“There are differences between societal norms in Japan versus abroad,” Gerrity said. “Stay-at-home moms are the norm in Japan. Therefore, if you are a working mom, others say ‘your poor kid’ or your mother-in-law and other moms say ‘a good mom would be home.'”

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