Baby Boom Gone Bust

by Jennifer Wang:

“You can see what happened to our Princess Masako. Our Princess graduated from Harvard University; then was educated at Oxford University. She had a beautiful career as a diplomat before she married the Prince,” said Mayumi Kajimura, an Assistant Professor at the Keio University School of Medicine. Since then, the princess has been in the news for various mental and physical illnesses, the results of her struggle to fulfill the tacit social expectations of the Japanese woman.

Japanese women often put off motherhood to pursue careers. (Flickr)

By the numbers, Japan is flourishing. The country has the world’s third-longest life expectancy, the third-largest gross domestic product, and the third-largest population of Internet users. Despite these indicators however, Japan’s population growth rate is one of the fastest declining in the world – still decreasing from this year’s -0.088 percent. While the declining growth rate is compounded by an aging population, Japan’s low fertility rate is mostly to blame. Japanese women now have more freedom to pursue careers, but this often comes at the cost of motherhood.

According to Mitsuru Claire Chino, a legal counsel at the Japanese Itochu Corporation, more women have been entering the work force because of the increasing number of companies – both foreign and Japanese – which are equalizing their hiring practices and expanding opportunities for part-time and temporary work.

Unfortunately, Japanese companies have not traditionally been “committed to women’s issues” and oftentimes women feeling undervalued for their work leave their jobs, according to Chino. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was passed in Japan in 1985, enforcement of the law is severely lagging.

Additionally, women are hard-pressed to find mentors or other working women who have succeeded before them. “In our medical school, I guess there are around fifty full professors, but not one is a woman,” said Kajimura. To overcome this precedent, women must work even longer hours than men if they hope to climb the corporate ladder. Of course, this reality leaves no time for raising a family, traditionally the woman’s responsibility.

“Many daycare centers are not open late to accommodate parents who work long hours,” said Chino. While the government is now drafting legislation that includes increased childcare support to combat one facet of the rising costs of raising children, Anne Stefanie Watzka GRD ’12, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology studying Japanese women, notes that many husbands will not hire babysitters because that would infringe upon the wife’s traditional role as caretaker.

Many women thus choose not to have children at all. Watzka’s preliminary study of high-powered women revealed that most are either single or divorced. Some women believe that financial independence negates the need to have a family or a husband. Others, having established successful careers, find themselves “entrapped in the system that made them believe that they were so free” but bars the possibility of raising a family.

Unless women can be convinced that work and family are not mutually exclusive, Japan’s population is expected to drop by 280 million to 100 million by 2050. Watzka adds that “there has to be a paradigm shift in the collective consciousness,” pointing to the importance of changing societal attitudes. As just one sign of increasing public exposure of this issue, “we are starting to see articles in the newspaper about ‘house husbands,’” said Chino. A Japanese government panel has also been created to address the gender ratio in the workforce and child support programs.

With more women entering the workforce, Japan must now learn to relinquish some old expectations and implement the changes necessary to allow Japanese women the true independence of choosing to have children, a career, or both. As Chino said, “Women need to know that it is okay to get married, that it is okay to have children, and that you don’t have to sacrifice your life to do this.”

Just as the success of Japanese women in the workforce will contribute to Japan’s continued economic development, the success of the work-family balance for all Japanese will support Japan’s continued growth.