The concept of work-life balance is intrinsically appealing. People are so busy with work nowadays that they can’t escape, tethered as they are to their jobs by smartphones. This situation generates stress and encroaches on private time with family and friends. Weekends? What weekends?!

Thus business gurus have a receptive market to tap as they explain the virtues of striking a healthier balance between responsibilities at the office and at home. Young parents in double-income households — increasingly the norm in Japan as people try to make ends meet — are attracted to the notion that a firm benefits from valuing its employees’ personal time, throwing them a lifeline as they scramble to juggle work and family, all while trying to maintain something resembling a life.

Is it possible, however, to introduce work-life balance policies in companies where a majority of workers don’t take their paid holidays, often because they worry about inconveniencing colleagues? There is also a widespread expectation that employees engage in sābisu-zangyō (unpaid overtime), unable to leave work before their workaholic supervisors, and spend time after hours socializing with colleagues and clients over drinks.

Indeed, in a corporate culture where employees are judged by their willingness to spend limitless face time with coworkers, attend an endless succession of meetings and prioritize work over private life, it was never going to be easy to implement work-life balance policies.

The media is currently abuzz over the ikumen phenomenon of fathers getting fully involved in, and prioritizing, child rearing and taking paternity leave from work in order to do so. The reality, though, is that just over 1 percent of fathers take such leave and countless surveys underscore the resilient gender division of housework, and child and elderly care that constitutes a career woman’s “second shift.”

I have noticed fathers becoming more involved in dropping kids off at day care, playing at the park, attending school sports festivals or swimming classes with their babies, and this is quite different from 20th-century norms, but such impressionistic perceptions confront surveys focusing on time spent on household duties that overwhelmingly show that men remain slackers at home. Depending on the survey, wives spend between three to 10 times as many hours per week on domestic duties as their Japanese husbands, a gap that remains high even for dual-career couples.

Actually, few fathers take more than a very limited amount of parental leave according to an excellent paper by Harvard University sociologist Mary Brinton and her colleague Eunmi Mun at Amherst College titled “Between State and Family: Managers’ Implementation and Evaluation of Parental Leave Policies in Japan” in the Socio-Economic Review. Their research suggests that men who do take child care leave do so briefly, and often work in their firm’s Human Resources departments, implying that they do so in order to earn the company coveted government recognition as being family-friendly.

This limited gesture approach to child care by a tiny percentage of fathers is emblematic of the larger patriarchal context that assumes women are the main child care providers. This context informs the attitudes of husbands and HR managers who play a crucial role in shaping employee career paths, and thus limits the scope for overcoming the gendered division of parenting.

So even if women’s participation in the labor force is increasing and more are availing themselves of child care leave, there has been little positive impact on boosting women’s presence in top management, and the wage difference between men and women remains high. Moreover, there has been scant progress in boosting the birthrate, one of the government’s explicit goals in pushing work-life balance policies.

“Despite two decades of increasingly aggressive work-family policy promotion by the government, Japanese women’s quit rate at childbirth remains close to 60 percent, far higher than in most post-industrial societies,” the authors write in their article.

Work-life balance is about combining careers and child-rearing, but in Japan this still remains too much of an either/or situation.

While HR managers appear keen to implement parental-leave policies, seeing them as essential to recruiting and retaining talented female workers, the crux of the problem is that they are also ambivalent toward women who actually use parental leave. Women who take parental leave cannot live up to the “ideal worker” model of total dedication imagined by HR managers. This ideal worker is entirely focused on the firm and is undistracted by familial responsibilities, essentially meaning someone with a full-time housewife — not an option for most career women.

The authors’ interviews indicate that this view remains widespread even if it coexists uncomfortably with 21st century policies and norms aimed at enhancing women’s role in the workforce. Despite HR managers’ enthusiasm for parental leave as a means to recruit and retain talented women, they implicitly assume that women hold primary responsibility for caregiving and act accordingly. Hence workplace context and gender-role norms limit women’s career trajectories.

Problematically, when women return from parental leave, managers are frustrated that they can’t just resume working like nothing happened — as if the needy child at home suddenly disappeared when the parental leave finished. The authors found managers expecting, unreasonably, that “long child care leave ‘solves’ the problem of women having a dual focus on work and family, as if child care concerns are once and for all resolved by the leave itself.”

Such unrealistic expectations are a major problem for career women who essentially have to out-macho their male colleagues because “the definition of work-life balance does not include women’s ability to solicit help from their husbands, but rather women’s ability to excel in both home and workplace. In this way, Japanese women are expected to place priority not on one realm of their life but on two. This potential no-win situation derives from the cultural imperatives for male and female employees alike to conform to the male image of the highly committed worker and for female employees alone to simultaneously conform to the image of the nurturing parent.”

For HR managers, parental leave is by definition maternal leave and is considered a women’s issue. As Brinton and Mun argue, there is a “cultural taken-for-grantedness in Japan of the gendered division of labor at home and the pervasiveness of a gender-essentialist view with respect to who should perform the primary nurturing role in the family.”

Ironically, “improvements” in Japan’s child care leave system are having a perverse influence, reinforcing both gender division of labor in the household and HR managers’ attitudes toward women, because taking longer parental leave is viewed as signaling insufficient commitment to the firm. Thus, the government has revised the system in ways considered favorable to parents, and firms are implementing such policies, but rather than helping women, the new regulations are accentuating their marginalization because parental leave is taken almost exclusively by female employees. This helps explain why only 10 percent of publicly traded Japanese companies have at least one woman holding either a position as senior executive or board member.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to help women “shine,” patriarchal practices and attitudes remain deeply ingrained and are grounds for pessimism regarding improvement any time soon.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.