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Complex Return to Work Cultural Issues in Japan

Fundamental changes necessary to produce parity for women in the workplace

"Japan plans to lift economy by getting new moms back to work" is the headline on the front page of yesterday's Los Angeles Times business section. The news: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced formal plans to lure at-home moms back to work to help allay Japan's chronic employment shortage.

In 2008, I keynoted a major conference in Japan sponsored by Japan Women's University and the U.S. Embassy in Japan called Second Chance for Women on this very topic. I also spent a week giving talks around the country where I was able to speak directly to Japanese mothers about the "return to work" issue. I returned to Japan in 2011 for more speeches and conversations, with some of the moms furtively whispering in my ear. They literally did not want to discuss the topic out loud.

Right before I left for the second trip, Amy Chua's controversial book about her parenting style, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, went global. Although Chua is Chinese-American, the debate about her book broadened to a discussion of "Asian parenting". In response, I wrote this article about the special challenges faced by women in Japan and Korea who want to return to work after a career break. The title, "In Japan and Korea, Asian-style Parenting Means Mom Stays Home," says it all.

The women and work situation in Japan is complex. The challenges come from societal, corporate and cultural norms, government taxation and immigration policies, and a tight day care market. Specifically, they are as follows:

  1. Women are expected to care for elderly parents - not just their own, but also their husband's, especially if he is the oldest child.
  2. Women are responsible for the academic achievement of their kids, and some make it their full time job not only to coordinate tutors and extra enrichment classes, but to work with their kids directly in the hopes of maximizing academic performance. Poor academic performance by a child is the mother's fault, and the pressure starts early. “My daughter was my walking report card in diapers,” a Japanese mom confided to me.
  3. The practice of Japanese families typically hiring nannies from outside the country. With immigration limitations forcing a very small supply of nanny candidates, it is extremely difficult for parents to find a nanny even if they can afford one.
  4. Competition for spots in good day care facilities is fierce and couples get on waiting lists while the wife is pregnant with the child. Also, there is a Catch-22 element to it; new moms can't sign up for the wait list for early daycare unless they can prove they have a job, but they really can't commit to a job unless they have day care lined up.
  5. The cultural norm of "saving face" in Japan means there is pressure to make it look like all is well at home, even if women are unhappy about their domestic roles. The isolation felt by at-home moms is more pronounced in Japan because they can't discuss their feelings with anyone else, and certainly not in a public forum.
  6. As the article mentions, Japanese tax policy penalizes a couple who both have full time jobs and gives incentives for the lower earning spouse to work part time or not at all.
  7. Strict hierarchical rules equating age and seniority are still in place in all but the most progressive Japanese companies. So a woman returning to work who is older than her boss is problematic. Some Japanese companies skirt the issue by giving the returning woman a dotted line diagonal reporting relationship to a more senior level boss who is also older, but even this is highly unusual. (Special mention goes to Aquent founder Steve Kapner, who has lived in Japan for the past six years and first mentioned this issue to me.)

It is encouraging to hear that Prime Minister Abe's plan for increasing the work force participation of at-home moms includes new policies to address some of the many challenges Japanese women face in maintaining their career continuity. Abe's plan is a giant step in the right direction. However, changes in government policy are only part of the solution. Japan has a long way to go before there is parity for women in the workplace, and fundamental shifts in societal, cultural and corporate norms are required for real progress to be made.