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The Struggle of Working Women in Japan

In Japan many women are forced to choose between marriage or a career.

By 2 min read 29

Japan has one of the highest gender inequality rates in the world. The Swiss-based nonprofit World Economic Forum recently released its Gender Gap Report which ranked Japan 104 out of 136 countries and despite the attempts by the Japanese government to improve the opportunities for women, many still “retire” from their jobs upon marriage, and most of them quit after giving birth.

This is the story of my friend, who despite Mr. Abe’s effort, is faced with the reality of working in Japan. She is in her mid 30s and is a so called “Office Lady”. She works for a small company as an administrative coordinator and struggles to find a job that is not a contract or temporary position. The fact that she is a woman in her 30s, makes it unlikely that she will be able to find a job as a full time employee.

In Japan many women are forced to choose between marriage or a career.

Like her, many Japanese women (and men) are facing similar conditions due to the rigid employment system in Japan. Japanese companies traditionally practice so called “life-time employment” but this system is not longer actively practiced as the Japanese economy has stagnated.

Today, if you have built sufficient skills employees may be able to find another position but the competition is stiff and many Japanese workers end up registering for temporary agencies that place them to long-term contracting positions.

My friend found an administrative job in a construction firm right after she had graduated from college. She has a degree in literature so she has been working in an office environment. The trouble started when she left her last job to get married. Unfortunately her wedding was cancelled and she was shocked to find out that her previous company wouldn’t rehire her. She started to go through classified ads for jobs but started to realize that it was nearly impossible for her to find a similar career job in office environment.

The struggle she faced is an all too common one for many Japanese women. She is in her 30s, which in the mindset of many traditional Japanese means that she should be taking care of a family instead of looking for work. Ironically being single also hurts her chances as many companies view this as a risk that she might leave the company after marriage or childbirth.

However, she was able to find jobs through temporary agencies that gives her either a short or a long term assignment but without any benefits. This really explains why many Japanese women are forced to choose between family and career as it is extremely difficult to get back into the workforce.

Even if they are able to start working again, the sever lack of daycare and long office hours make it extremely challenging for a new mother to maintain a work life balance.

I welcome your feedback on this issue…what could Japanese government do to help women in Japan?

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  • Filmie says:

    There is another problem, those who are forced to quit working to take care of elderly family members suffering from dementia. Do to the constant needed care, one may have to quit.

  • Filmie says:

    If her wedding was cancelled, there was no reason for her have left her employment in the first place.

  • ebv2406 says:

    Do women with vocacional careers like doctors and engineers have the same problem?
    In my country she would also have problem finding a job, not because her age or gender but her profesion (literature).

  • Hanten says:

    Well, you can work 40-50 hours a week in a part-time job but you can also work 12 hours a week in one. I’m not quite sure what your point is.

    • James Paul says:

      My comment is that part time can be vastly different from one person’s view to another….

  • Hanten says:

    It’s fantastic that so many people are here discussing the plight of working women here in Japan. I am shocked at the number of these enlightened commentators assuming that only women can look after children. Shocking as it may seem to the older Japanese generations, men are just as capable as women at taking care of their kids.

    Shorter working hours would not only help Japanese companies become more efficient and productive, they would also make it possible for Japanese men to more actively participate in their most important role, that of being fathers and mentors. As it is, Japanese kids will tell you how little they see of their fathers, Japanese mothers will tell you how their tired husbands don’t know about their kids’ day-to-day lives and those poor tired men aren’t able to help create any more of these children. Single men who work more humane hours would also have more time to find partners and would therefore be more likely to get married, or at least move in with their partners, then have children.

  • duslik says:

    It is a good point. Language could be an obstacle for Japanese managers. What is not the case in Europe. Not sure if office jobs will be less important. In an IT magazine was once an article with the statement that 50% all IT projects in various companies fails, eating up huge amount on money.
    During last couple of years I was observing how very ambicious IT projects got discontinued or stopped and people got back to well known old good Excel. Couple of years ago we were evaluating various vendors to find a proper big data visualization tool. Today all metrics reports still done in pivot tables. Tools are nice, efficient, but there are some heavyweight factors that say against them – if not license then change request and maintenance of tools are too expensive,
    the main problem is though that line functions can not agree on a common report criteria and prefer to go for a group report. That cause also the issue with an in-house tool. Excel is still a magic stick in many of corporates. Data extracts from most of data tools are in Excel. Even with literature degree but solid Excel skills a person can still add a lot of value.

  • blondein_tokyo says:

    Frankly, no- single people have the same expenses that married people do, and have the added burden of knowing that there is no one to bail them out if something happens. If I’m in an accident and can’t work, for example, there’s no husband to either help pay the hospital bill or take care of me. When I retire, there’s no husband’s social security or retirement fund to add to my own . I’m completely 100% on my own, fully responsible for myself. And on a regularly salary, this means saving more than spending, and going without the luxuries that people on a double income can afford and instead putting that into retirement. So no- I do not think I should have to give even MORE of my income when I can barely afford the taxes that I pay now. Nope nope nope.

    • Boey Kwan says:

      Great point. I was talking from of the viewpoint of a single person without children. Of course it’s financially convenient to be married, but without children, Japanese couples don’t get these “family benefits”. So technically it depends on having children.

    • TokyoMommy says:

      How do single people have the expenses of raising children? If a single married woman has an accident and cannot work she is still responsible for raising her child. If a couple has a child with disabilities that will never be able to work, how are they to expect that child to look after them? How about children who end up unemployed and have to depend on parents either way? Whether married with children or not, people who have double income always pay more taxes no matter what their situation. We pay double the retirement (even if the other spouse is not working). Without paying into the system, we cannot collect on it. When my husband took a couple of years off to look after the children, I paid his nenkin on my income. Now that I am working part time, he pays my nenkin on his salary PLUS my previous years taxes and it is A LOT more than we can afford right now. The government gets a lot more from a double income family than a single income family. Double income families still pay for retirement separately, and still pay as much as single people with the added burden of raising children. The problem with the falling birthrate is also that it is impossible to raise children on single incomes anymore, which is why I also understand your dilemna.

  • maulinator says:

    I believe in equal pay for equal work. But all work should not be compensated equally either. The problem with your friend and a lot of other workers (office workers in general) is that they do not have any marektable skills (unfortuantely her literature degree does not help her). Working in an office and doing paperwork is not a marketable skill. Workers and more importantly women are not taught any skills that are useful in the new economy. Generic office work is not a skill and the person in those positions can be replaced without much impact on the company hiring the person. So why invest a lot of money in these positions when anyone can do it after a couple hours of training? These generic office roles were traditionally filled by women, so there was no need for women to get a marketable skill set, and there was enough fat in companies to hire men to do these roles (unfortunately for hire pay) as well. However, with the move to get lean and the forcus shifting to short term profits, the comapnies needed to re-evaluate the need for these generic office jobs. They realized that most of these positions could be replaced by temp people without any fall in output while reducing the bottom line. Unfortunately, the first to go are the women in full time positions and some men, who are deemed either redundant or the position can be done by any worker bee. Generic office work is going to be a temp position going forward and there is nothing anyone can do about that. If the office work entails as much thinking as flipping burgers at McD’s (the work at McD’ is harder because you are standing all day) then the employment position should not pay much more or have any more benefits than a part time job. Basically the bar for adding value to the company has been forced higher due to the trend towards efficienct and short term profits. It is up to the employee to meet these criteria in order to get a better job.
    The government can help by providing assistance to educte people to get marketable skills (the government is acutally already doing that but not in a more general way). Discrimination laws should be enforced. The Japanese constitution is the only one in the world that actually stipulates that women are the equal of men but it has not been enforced in a practical manner. Encourage women to go into STEM fields- this is probably one of the most important things the government can do.
    In themenatime your friend should spend her free time learning some marketable skills and putting it to practice. Learn how to use a computer (not just Word and Excel- that does not count). Learn to code in JAVA or C++. Learn to speak a foreign language. Take business classes and learn the art of negotiation. And actually do some projects with the skill. Get it out on the internet so that there is documentation of the skill in use.

    • duslik says:

      But worn your friend, that C++ or Java job can be also outsourced (Eastern Europe, India). At least big corporates now saving a lot of money this way. Payments in my company are processed in Hungary, IT software development and support is in India, hardware support done by local underpaid externals, production in various cheap countries. Only profit counts. Children? Managers do not know what a word child means. In a long run who is going to buy cheap produced stuff? Retired singles.

  • Claire Curtin/クレアカーテ says:

    Something similar used to happen in Ireland, even up until 30-40 years ago. As in example, women in the civil service would have to give up their jobs as soon as they married, expected to stay at home and rear children. Very few women at the time held jobs and raised a family at the same time.
    However, as soon as the 60’s and 70’s rolled in, women started DEMANDING greater equality – equal wages, college opportunities, more women in politics, they were no longer expected to give up their jobs.
    Not to mention work hours that are reasonable.
    It took a few decades, but women’s rights are a lot stronger now in Ireland than they were back then.

    The only way to get the movement started, though, is to actually start struggling for it.

  • Brandon Sherman says:

    Equal work should receive equal pay regardless of gender. If some dude’s Ego can’t handle a woman making equal or more pay then he needs to grow up and I feel bad for his wife.

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    I read about Japan’s “ganbatte” attitude (to the extreme) is hurting the people now. But with the same token, this has propelled them out of the devastation of WWII in a short period of time. Too bad the Japanese government are slow in fixing this condition. They are losing young talented Japanese to other countries. But this is more like a culture problem, which means it would take a long time to change. Though the best route to change a culture is through education. It starts with the next generation.

  • Nick Chou says:

    I think this is also a cultural issue. Women in Japan are taught at a young age that working is temporary matter until they get married. I think this mindset should be changed in schools where the kids minds can be shaped.

  • dothackjhe says:

    I just accidentally came across this blog on Facebook and just clicked on it to see what the blogger is pointing. As a non-native of Japan living elsewhere, the information pointed here are something mostly new to me and possibly true as well to others who have not had the opportunity to live in Japan. This is a really good blog for me which I would recommend for others to read.

  • Jason says:

    Firstly, the Japanese Government can encourage women to work by buildiing more day care centres.
    Secondly, they can help by passing laws that make discrimation of women or pregnant women illegal, people who discrimate against women or pregnant women will be fined 50 Million Yen.

    Thirdly, they can help by passing laws that make companies easier to dismiss and employ workers, this would make the labour market less rigid, and make it more easy to transfer to another job or to find a new job.

    Forthly, they can help by encouraging or passing laws that make companies have their working hours shorten to just 8 hours per day. Additional working hours will require companies to issue conspension pay to workers in additional to their salary. Long working hours is one of the main reasons why women are unable to balance family and carreer , and one of the main reasons of the low birth rate in Japan.

    Fifthly, they can improve long term economic trand by encouraging more women to give birth by reducing financial burden on married couples. How this works is a bit complicated and complex.

    1st, married couples should pay less income tax than single woman and single man.

    For example, (for simplication I will just use National Income Tax)
    both single man and woman earning 5 Million Yen a year will pay with the tax rate of
    20% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 232,500 yen.

    While married couple with both earning 5 Million Yen will pay with the tax rate of 19.5% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 230,000 yen.

    2nd, Married couples with children will pay less income tax than Married couples with less or no children.

    For example, (for simplication I will just use National Income Tax)
    Married couples that both earn 5 Million Yen a year pay with the tax rate of 19.5% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 230,000 yen.

    Married couples with both earning 5 Million Yen and with one child will pay with the tax rate of 19% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 228,000 yen.

    Married couples with both earning 5 Million Yen and with two children will pay with the tax rate of 18% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 226,000 yen.

    Married couples with both earning 5 Million Yen and with three children will pay with the tax rate of 17% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 224,000 yen.

    Married couples with both earning 5 Million Yen and with four children and above will pay with the tax rate of 16% of taxable income exceeding 3.3 million yen plus 222,000 yen.

    In the short term:
    By doing so, Japanese consumer will have more money to spend and hence this will improve the economy. When the economy improve, more companies will be more willing to employ women.

    In the long term:
    This will encourage more couple to have more children, and this will stop the falling population and will help improve overall long term economic trend. This will help improve overall confidence and hence more companies will be willing to employ women.

    Those are just my suggestions. I really hope that the Japanese Government succeeds in transforming Japan into a economic powerhouse just like it is in Post World war II era.

    I think that women should be given a choice to work or to stay at home to take care of children, no one or government should force them to work or to stay at home.

    • blondein_tokyo says:

      Why should single people who don’t wish to have children carry the tax burden? That’s just another type of discrimination. It’s not easy being the person solely responsible for yourself, right up to retirement. Why make it even harder by taxing them more?

      • TokyoMommy says:

        Because single people are only responsible for themselves and their retirement, people married with children are not only responsible for their own retirement, they are responsible for themselves, their spouse (in many cases) and the funding of their children’s daily lives. Many people also have to look after aging parents in their retirement as well. It makes perfect sense to me. When I was single, I had far more disposable income..after having children, there is absolutely no comparison. Even to be able to work, you are looking at a sizable chunk of your income going to child care. Tax breaks for those with dependents of any sort is an absolute necessity.

        • blondein_tokyo says:

          That’s right. I am fully responsible for myself. This means that if something happens to me, if I am sick or injured, if I can’t work, then I’m in a LOT of trouble because there is not going to be anyone around to help. No husband, remember?

          Additionally, I’m not going to have a husband or children to help provide support for me when I’m older, so it’s highly likely I’ll never be able to afford retirement.

          I also find it fairly likely, as you said, that I’m going to be burdened with the care of my own parents. That’s right – single me, trying to take care of two elderly parents, all on my own.

          There is only ME looking out for ME, so try again and tell me why it is that I should carry more of a tax burden than someone who is married and has a double income?

      • Winnie the Pooh says:

        Not sure if trolling, but anyway:

        It’s pretty common for tax authorities to implement family-based benefits. Families are a fundamental necessity for economic growth and stability of a population.

        Do you think Japan’s bubble ever would’ve happened without the post-war baby boom? Don’t you think lack of reproduction may have something to do with the egregiously old population, which is characterized both internally and internationally as an economic crisis (noting that single people might carry more burden for old people too)?

        Families usually have higher financial burden for obvious reasons (e.g. single income supporting 3+ people); companies (especially in Japan) do not always have benefits that help the situation. Hence it’s up to the government to do the load balancing, so to speak. That gets passed to those who have fewer people to support on the same income.

        • blondein_tokyo says:

          What I do know is that my co-worker, who makes roughly the same amount of money as I do, and who has a working wife and a child, has more disposable income than I do. Most of what I make has to go into the bank. The grass is NOT greener on the other side of the fence. What needs to happen is more support to allow women to stay in the workforce when they have kids.

          • Winnie the Pooh says:

            I think everything here is expected, though: your coworker has a dual-income family, so disposable income should be higher. Most likely, your coworker cannot claim his wife as a dependent and receive a tax deduction for her, because she has income of her own.

            Your coworker’s family has a higher disposable income, but also likely higher living expenses (as a three-person family) and taxes (assessed on two incomes). Depending on total income, and depending on where they live, they may also not be eligible for certain family-with-child benefits. All of this amounts to a higher disposable income because the gap between money out and money in is bigger.

            Dual-income married families in Japan are not very common for all the reasons being discussed here. Totally agree about supporting working mothers more. I think the government will need to strong-arm companies to make this happen. The Japanese men who currently run them are not gonna get up ‘n do it themselves.

  • Hanten says:

    Ms. Nakata has raised lots of interesting points.

    Most foreigners would think that if women mainly get offered part-time work that they would then be able to save more. Sadly, part-time, casual and temp work, not only lack benefits like Ms. Nakata said. They also get paid less per hour than full-time work and never receive bonuses. The opposite of how people are paid in many other countries. The pay-off is that they’re not expected to work as much unpaid overtime. So, they have to pay for their own health-insurance and pension fund, while getting paid far less. They are no discounts on rent, utilities or food for part-timers so generally their savings are decimated by the smallest of financial disasters.

    Japan is suffering through one of the longest recessions or “economic stagnations” in history so the motivation to pay part-timers more isn’t there. Women still aren’t being paid the same as men working the same full-time positions. There are laws against it but companies are seldom prosecuted. One small area of progress has been long-term part-timers taking their employers to court demanding full-time status.

    For women who genuinely do want to have children often the only viable route is to get married to man who has a full-time job for life, give up work and get benefits through him. Many mothers do go back to part-time work after their kids start school. Working for the same low wages per hour, without bonuses and benefits, their husbands will lose the dependent-wife tax rebate if they earn more than a very low limit so the incentive so limit their income is built into the system.

    For the public and private sectors employers the incentive to treat men and women equally is also absent having been built into the system long before “devil wife” was a thing. That’s a wife who works and feels free to treat her husband as a financial equal. She might even *gasp* not make his bento anymore! Companies aren’t going to give up the right to pay women less even though they work 40 hours a week, which is what you can work as a part-timer if you include ten hours of overtime. Companies and the public service aren’t going to promote women who aren’t full-time employees.

  • Engineer Salman Akram says:

    Womens should at the same platform as the men. In case of merriage or child birth their duty timings should be reduced for some time of period at the same pay. After that period women should by themselves set priorities and satisfy the employers through performance.

  • jim says:

    Hello yumi, totally agree with you.
    I know this is not the point of the article, but I think I might be able to help her.

  • Laura Ikeda says:

    It’s not specific to just women, but I think they need to do something about the overtime culture. It’s taken as a given in most companies that any worker, in any position, will stay at work until 8, 9, or even later, come in on Saturdays, and generally live at the office. This makes it difficult for women to get “normal” jobs because it’s impossible to work like that and also take care of children, and also because it makes it impossible for fathers to share responsibilities with their wives. A mother could work part-time in the evenings and on weekends if she could count on her husband being able to come home at 6 to take over for her. Women with children could have any job they wanted if THEY weren’t seen as rebellious or lazy for going home — gasp! — at the end of the work day, in time to pick their children up from child care. Heck, FATHERS could pick their children up from child care. And everyone could eat dinner together before 11 PM.

    It’s a hard thing to change, though, because it’s people’s expectations and not actual rules. Even if they tried to make overtime completely illegal, and cut the power to office buildings at precisely 5 PM to boot, those old guys in suits, they’d be competing to see who could take home the most paperwork and stay up the latest finishing it, and anybody who didn’t would be seen as lazy and useless. There’s nothing the government can do to change that.

    • ゼロ騎士 says:

      Hence, the reason why women quit full time jobs after marriage, but someone has to pay the bills. Overtime is normal for white collar workers in Japan, and if they can’t the spouse will have to work part time instead, because most work in the market is about pretty much being an underpaid salesmen and are seen as undependable otherwise. (The job market in Japan is ridiculously competitive.)

      It’s not like they had a choice in the beginning, but if they don’t step up to the opportunity then someone else will take it.
      Japan is really competitive you know? That’s why they do their best to topple the competition, even if they reach 3rd or 10th place, they reach a sense of accomplishment in their lives.



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