Japan’s lost decade has had far-reaching effects, and continues to impact women in the nation’s workforce. Today, many Japanese women leave the workforce to raise a family, and struggle to return to work in the face of rigid gender roles and social expectations that women should be responsible for a family while working. A lack of available daycare facilities, aging parents’ care, and the absence of support from their husbands are further road blocks for women who desire career options in their lives.

FUKUOKA–Sachi Maehashi, 34, has a law degree from a four-year college in Japan. Now married with two young children, Sachi wants to go back to work to rebuild her career. Here’s the reality check: Sachi needs to overcome a number of obstacles both physical and mental before she can even start looking for a job.

“Women can’t be out there building their career unless they’re married to a very understanding husband, have parents who can look after their grandchildren, and also have a good work environment. I’m off that path already,” Sachi says. Sachi is having sleeping problems lately, which she thinks comes from her stress and depression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently promoting more women to be in supervisory positions to reduce the gender inequality gap in the workplace. It’s an initiative to help revive the economic slump facing an aging population and a shrinking workforce. Abe set an ambitious goal that by 2020, women should hold 30% of senior jobs, compared to just over 8% in 2014 in private sector.

“That’s a talk over the clouds completely and it doesn’t relate to me at all” laughs Sachi, referring to Abe’s ambitious plan.

Sachi’s story is not uncommon. Her plight is shared by many highly educated Japanese women/mothers who are eager to work but feel discouraged and even hopeless. Many feel trapped in cultural expectations of how women should be as wives, mothers, and daughters. For women who want to return to work face many challenges: lack of available space for children in the nursery, aging parents in need of care, and the absence of support by their husbands.

Statues of ideal family on Japanese street. The figure of the husband holding a baby isn't true to life. Japanese men would rarely be seen in public holding a child in their arms.
Statues of ‘ideal family’ on Japanese street. The figure of the husband holding a baby isn’t quite true to life. Japanese men aren’t often seen in public holding a child in their arms.

Women are equal until college

New employees of Japan Airlines Group attend an entrance ceremony in Tokyo's Haneda Airport on April 1.
New employees of Japan Airlines Group attend an entrance ceremony in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on April 1.

Thirty years after the first gender equality law in  the workplace enacted here, Japanese women are still struggling to advance in their careers. A recent study by the World Economic Forum shows that Japan’s ranking in gender equality is very low. Japan placed the 104th place out of 142 countries in 2014, below that of Tajikistan and Indonesia.

Women are more or less equal with men only up to college. They start their careers along with their male counterparts after college, but find themselves in a very different place 10 years later. After working six to seven years, many women get too exhausted or get sick, and start feeling pressured to get married and give up advancing in their careers.

For women who are married and working, challenges are greater when they become pregnant. It’s very common for working pregnant women to face what’s called “matahara” or “maternity harassment” from their bosses or co-workers. Because of social repercussions and not wanting to be a “meiwaku” (causing someone the trouble by putting extra workload because of their pregnancy), many women end up leaving the workplace voluntarily.

Women who continue to work after giving birth, they find out soon that their husbands are not very supportive. Even though men are allowed to take the paternity leave, no one takes advantage of it in fear that their career will be in jeopardy for career advances.

Japanese men, in fact, are among the men who do the least amount of house chores in any developed country. In contrast, about 70% of Japanese women stop working compared with just 30% in the US. In fact, many of them never go back to work.

‘Die, Japan’

Japanese daycare kids
Japanese daycare kids

Japan has been slow in creating space for children in the nursery for working parents. As of April 2015, there are more than 23,000 children on the waiting list for nursery, up 1,800 from the year before. 

Some months ago, a Japanese mother blogger wrote, “My kid fell through (from getting a space in a public nursery). Die, Japan.” This blog drew nationwide attention, prompting the country’s biggest economic daily to write a column about it. 

The blogger complained that whatever Prime Minister Abe is trying to do under his initiative, it’s just not possible. “(You politicians) are getting bribes and spending tons of money for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. You expect us to have babies, but there aren’t any nursery schools when it’s time to go back to work! Why don’t you slash the Olympics budget and make more nurseries so that people like us don’t have to lose our jobs! Fire half of the lawmakers, and you’ll have the money to build more nurseries!,” she wrote.

So why are there not enough nurseries? Why doesn’t Japan spend enough money to improve the social infrastructure for working parents? Is it because Japanese politicians think this is a women’s issue but not a men’s issue or the country’s? Look at Japan’s parliament, and part of the answer is there: Female lawmakers make up only about 8%, ranking at 157th place out of 185 countries and areas surveyed by the World Bank.

Young women in dilemma: Work vs. marriage

Working women in their 20s and 30s face increasing pressure to get married and have a family. By the age of 35, their parents, friends and others begin to worry about them being single. In contrast, men remaining single at the age of 35 is seen as quite normal. Some men even choose to marry in their late 30s or in 40s. One data bite shows about 43% of women living in Tokyo age 30 and 35 are still single.

Kaori Nishihara, 37, who works at a leading travel agency say that she wouldn’t be here as a career woman if she had been married. She’s lived in China for a few years and traveled all over the world as part of her job, working many extra hours every day, sometimes on weekends. Kaori’s parents and her older sister, who is a full-time mother with two kids, are worried about her because they think time is running out for Kaori to have a good marriage.

Surprisingly, some local colleges are giving lectures to female students about “how to plan their lives well” so that in the years ahead they wouldn’t have to marry too late and thus suffer from infertility problems.

Some reports say that one out of every 24 children in Japan are born today through in-vitro fertilization. In 2013, the number of in-vitro fertilization attempted was 368,764 cases, 3.6 times more than 10 years before. Here’s another fact: Japan’s birthrate is 1.42, second lowest after South Korea, according to data.   


But why are colleges pressuring young women to marry and have kids early? Personal choices matter, but why is higher education putting more pressure on women rather than helping them make choices to live better and easier? The truth is this is not a women’s issue but a much larger issue that should be handled by society as a whole. The solutions should include the companies and the government. Why do women have to bear the responsibility alone?

‘I wasn’t a Superwoman’

“I wasn’t a superwoman, you see,” says 45-year old former career-minded woman, who has a business degree from a four-year university. She’s worked for several multinational companies in Tokyo. “I went crazy working till late at night in my 20s and 30s, managing life with my little kids and husband. My husband has always been a traditional guy.  So what can I expect from him? In the end, I decided to quit. I had no choice,” she said.

Her husband works for one of Japan’s leading trading firms and comes home every night after 10 pm. He has no time for housework or spending time with children. “In Japan, men are encouraged to work hard and it’s okay if they sacrifice family life over work. But women are expected to do both  — work and take care of the family. There is no way we can do all this.” She now teaches English part-time to some local elementary school children at home to balance work and family.

Japanese 'office ladies' in Tenjin, Fukuoka
Japanese ‘office ladies’ in Tenjin, Fukuoka

An Internet company CEO (who is married to a non-Japanese) says she is lucky that her husband doesn’t hold a typical Japanese traditional view that women do most of the housework and child-rearing. She and her husband work full-time, and hired a cleaning lady for housekeeping and a nanny for their 1-year-old son. Her husband feeds kids breakfast and makes a lunchbox for her 7-year old daughter every morning. She says there are two mothers and two fathers in her family. Even under such a “gifted circumstance” as many Japanese women may see, she laments things could be better.


“I think the social infrastructure in this country for women to hold a competitive position isn’t ready yet,” she says, adding that her climbing the career ladder wasn’t all that smooth and easy. “As much as your partner’s support is important, the social infrastructure set up by the government and companies really matter,” she says. She just returned home from a week-long business trip to the US, while the husband took care of the children and worked.

As a mother of two daughters, I want to see this country change so that when my girls grow up, they can have a better environment in which they can pursue a career and be able to balance family life. Japanese people are traditionally known for having “gaman” and “taeru” mentality, holding back and persevere-and live-with-it attitude. I don’t want that for my girls. I want them to be freer, and live without rigid gender roles and social expectations. For that, changes must be made by the joint efforts by the government, corporate executives, and everyone involved. Because in the end, it does matter for the future of our country and our children for generations to come.

Junko Ashida is a part-time English teacher and former journalist

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