By Kathryn Tolbert Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, August 14, 2000; Page A14
TOKYO Working women in Japan are more likely to be married than not these days, a sharp reversal of the traditional pattern. But for most of them, continuing to work after the wedding is an easier choice than having children.
Despite some tentative attempts by government and business to make the working world and parenthood compatible, mothers say Japan's business culture remains unfriendly to them. Business meetings often begin at 6 p.m. or later, long hours of unpaid overtime are expected, and companies routinely transfer employees to different cities for years.
As a result, many women are choosing work over babies, causing the Japanese birthrate to fall to a record low in 1999--an average 1.34 babies per woman--an added woe for this aging nation.
Kozue Nakayama, a senior manager at a manufacturing company, has one child but said she will not have a second. She relies heavily on her parents, now 74 and 77, to pick up her 5-year-old daughter from a day care center, give her dinner and a bath and often put her to bed.
When Nakayama became pregnant, she and her husband bought an apartment near her parents for that reason. "Not one of my friends with children can work without the help of their parents or in-laws," she said.
Nakayama's husband was transferred to Singapore two years ago, becoming a "business bachelor" for a few years. She did not want to quit work to go with him, so she visits her husband four times a year and he comes home every two months. The rest of the time, their days start with a phone call that her daughter eagerly awaits. Nakayama then drops the girl off at the day care center before her one-hour commute to the office.
Nakayama said she understands the hesitation of young women in her office to have children. "Japan has to change," she said. "Young women, if they like their job, don't want to have a child."
"For a working woman to have a child is a big, big decision for a couple," said Yuichi Yamada, president of Meiji University and a professor of corporate culture. "The government is trying to lay the groundwork, but it's costly. Stupidly, Japan didn't spend money on these issues in the high growth years."
Government efforts to reverse the declining birthrate include a law that took effect in June doubling to age 6 the length of time parents can receive subsidies for raising children--about $47 a month for the first and second child and $94 a month for each subsequent child.
Another law requires companies to give parents time off until a child turns 1. The parent who takes the leave gets 25 percent of his or her salary in the form of unemployment insurance, an amount that will rise to 40 percent in January. A mother can take a separate, eight-week maternity leave, receiving 60 percent of her salary from the national health insurance plan.
But a survey conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper found that instead of government allowances, most people wanted longer hours at the government-run child care centers upon which most families rely. Most are now open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Babysitters are available through agencies, but are expensive and used mostly for emergencies. When Nakayama hires a sitter at night, it costs $65 for three hours, plus transportation. The Japanese don't rely on teenage babysitters because the teenagers are too busy with school clubs and cramming for college entrance exams.
But women are still choosing to stay in the work force, taking advantage of the changed social attitudes and new anti-discrimination laws that prevent companies from designating clerical jobs for women and managerial jobs for men. Thirty-two percent of Japan's working women have been employed for more than 10 years, compared with 19 percent in 1980. Married women make up more than 57 percent of the female work force, compared with 32 percent in the 1960s, according to a government survey. With a looming labor shortage because of the low birthrate and rapid increase in the proportion of elderly in the population, even more women will be working.
Taeko Hiraoka, who wrote a series of articles on working women for the weekly magazine Aera, said readers told her they were pressured to quit their jobs when they became pregnant. Hiraoka, who is expecting her first child, plans to move to an apartment near her mother so she can go back to work. She would not dream of asking for a four-day week or shorter hours. "We are supposed to work as many hours as possible," Hiraoka said. "People in Japanese companies really work to the limit, right to the edge."
Eiki Kushida, 52, took the unusual step of suing his employer, the telecommunications company NTT East Japan, because he was transferred and saw his family only on weekends for seven years, depriving him of time with his children during the last years they lived at home. The case is still in the courts.
"I think men in Japan do not wish to be apart from their families," he said. "But let me say that in Japanese society, three years of transfer is basically accepted."
A slowly increasing number of companies are allowing employees to choose career paths without transfers, acknowledging the increasing number of working women and people's desire to be near elderly parents, according to the Japan Institute of Labor.
Government ministries are taking steps to accommodate the increasing number of two-career couples in their work force. For example, the Foreign Ministry usually assigns couples to the same embassy in their first posting and to the same region in their second. The Ministry of Trade and Industry is considering allowing one spouse to take a leave of absence when the other is transferred, but the government personnel agency is resisting, worried about public reaction during a recession in which other people are losing jobs.
Throughout the government, there are flexible work hours so those needing to pick up children can start earlier and finish earlier--although on most days few men end their work day by 6 p.m.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.