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In Japan, career women challenge cultural norms

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to expand the country’s workforce and increase productivity by drawing more women into the workforce and helping them maintain careers after having children. The approach has been called "Womenomics," and has faced opposition from some men. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Amy Guttman reports from Tokyo on the practical and cultural obstacles it is facing.

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  • Amy Guttman:

    With Japan’s population declining by 300,000 people last year, its workforce continues to shrink. Japan has virtually no immigrants working their way up the economic ladder to fill open jobs. And with more than a quarter of its people over 65-years-old, Japan is aging faster than any other industrialized nation. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office five years ago, he recognized the economic impact of these factors and turned to an underutilized section of Japanese society for a fix, bringing more women into the workplace.

  • Shinzo Abe:

    “A society where all women who can challenge their dreams at any time or place, we will continue to introduce policies for women by 2020.”

  • Amy Guttman:

    Womenomics is the name for Abe’s policy to close Japan’s gender gap and fuel the economy with programs giving women more opportunities to work and be promoted. Member of Parliament Yunoki Michiyoshi has supported Womenomics. He says female empowerment and economic revitalization go hand in hand.

  • Yunoki Michiyoshi:

    There are male politicians who are against Womenomics and who hate the idea of female empowerment. But if you think about economics. If you think about Japan’s fiscal future, we need taxes from working women.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Before Womenomics began, more than half of Japanese women worked outside the home. But a majority of them worked only part-time, in mostly low skilled and low paying jobs. And only 38 percent of Japanese women returned to part-time or full-time work after having children. Abe’s goals included enticing more mothers back to work and tripling the number of women in management roles, from less than 10 percent in 2012 to 30 percent by 2020. But Womenomics has had its critics, some from inside Abe’s own conservative party. Member of Parliament Shoji Nishida doesn’t believe the plan is necessary.

  • Shoji Nishida:

    We have to find a solution, not just quotas. It could bankrupt companies if they are obliged by the government to hire a mandatory number of women in management. The consequence will be a disaster. Either the company will be crushed from the financial burden, or you will have women just given the title.

  • Amy Guttman:

    How do you propose encouraging them to promote more women?

  • Shoji Nishida:

    I don’t believe there is complete gender equality. 50-50 Women and men in companies, is this a good result? I don’t think so.

  • Amy Guttman:

    One step Abe has taken to make full time work more attractive to mothers is to reduce Japan’s national day care shortage. The government has allocated funds for 500-thousand more slots in new daycare centers. Campaigning for re-election last month, Abe promised to go further, providing free daycare and kindergarten for children up to age 5. Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company, offers a model for what Abe wants to achieve. Its on site daycare serves a workforce that’s 80 percent female, and it hit its own target of seeing 30 percent of its managers be women. Emi Watanabe is one of them. A married mother of two in Tokyo, Watanabe has worked for Shiseido since graduating college. She says the daycare and the company’s policy of paid family leave saved her career.

  • Emi Watanabe:

    I’ve been able to balance work and child-rearing. I had my first baby right after I got married. In Shiseido, not only is the parental leave system available, it’s possible, for sure, to come back to the workplace.

  • Amy Guttman:

    At Shiseido, the company says 96 percent of working mothers do come back to their jobs.

  • Emi Watanabe:

    The company truly believes in the capability of women and appreciates the importance of motivating employees so they can create more innovation. And this is conducive to the sustainable growth and development of Shiseido.

  • Amy Guttman:

    To help other companies move in Shiseido’s direction, Abe pushed Japan’s Parliament to make the national parental leave law more generous. It now requires employers to offer parents a year of paid leave for a newborn — six months at two-thirds of their salary and six months at half their salary. But Womenomics runs contrary to some long-held cultural norms. One of them is “Matahara,” or “maternity harassment.” Half of Japanese working women say they’ve experienced it. Sayaka Osakabe says when she became pregnant three years ago, she was afraid to tell her bosses. She was working full-time in advertising for a Tokyo media company.

  • Sayaka Osakabe:

    It’s normal for full-time, working women, once they get pregnant, to quit and become a full time housewife. It’s so accepted and common, there’s even a phrase people use, they say, ‘happy retirement.’

  • Amy Guttman:

    Her boss even showed up at her home to encourage her to retire.

  • Sayaka Osakabe:

    My male bosses told me to choose my career or my baby. If I stayed, they said, I should give up my baby.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Osakabe intended to work through her pregnancy. But she quit, because of what she calls a hostile work environment. Osakabe later sued her former employer and won a court judgment. Her case and another like it caught the attention of Prime Minister Abe, who pushed Parliament to strengthen anti-discrimination laws. Japanese companies are now required to educate employees and managers about maternity harassment. However, Osakabe says, the law is toothless, because there are no penalties for violations. She’s started an organization actually called “Matahara” to advise companies how to prevent workplace discrimination and to support women who’ve experienced it.

  • Sayaka Osakabe:, the choices are:

    For the women of Japan today 100 percent full time housewife, or you can be a career woman, dedicating your whole life, no husband, no children, only to your career. The third choice is you can be a working mom as a part-timer. I’m fighting to help make it better for the next generation.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Another long-held cultural norm that’s an obstacle to Womenomics is “karoshi,” or “death by overwork.” In Japan, 18 hour workdays are common. The prospect of extremely long days has deterred many mothers from returning to the workplace. Akira Matsumoto, the CEO of Japanese snack food manufacturer Calbee, has tried to curb that habit.

  • Akira Matsumoto:

    They are working too long. That’s why our company’s working style is so flexible now.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Calbee’s flex time policy encourages employees to work fewer hours or to work from home. The company also pays for childcare when mothers first return to work. Matsumoto says Calbee has also quadrupled its percentage of female managers from 6 to 24 percent and is on pace to reach Abe’s goal of 30 percent.

  • Akira Matsumoto:

    Just men can not manage this company. Without change, we cannot survive.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Do you ever hear negative feedback or resistance from men?

  • Akira Matsumoto:

    Yes of course.

  • Amy Guttman:

    And your response is?

  • Akira Matsumoto:

    If you don’t like this, you can leave the company. There are many companies outside this building. You can go, but no one has left the company so far.

  • Amy Guttman:

    “What’s new about Womenomics is that some companies are now recognizing that supporting women in the workplace means creating policies for men.”

  • Amy Guttman:

    Across Japan, only three percent of working fathers take paternity leave. At Taisei, one of Japan’s largest and oldest construction companies, that norm is being challenged with mixed results. Tetsuya Shioiri is the company’s human resources director. He says Taisei encourages working fathers to take time off for a newborn, and most actually do. However, after returning to work, the fathers miss time with their families, because of “karoshi.”

  • Tetsuya Shioiri:

    It’s a traditional mindset, male mindset, makes them feel ashamed to leave early. I hope working shorter hours will become more popular.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Construction site manager Aya Fujikawa is an example of how Prime Minister Abe’s plan could be successful in the long term. She says Taisei’s family leave and flextime policies enabled her to stay on the job through her second pregnancy. Her husband also works for the company and spends more hours than she does at home taking care of their first child.

  • Aya Fujikawa:

    My husband drops off and picks up my child, because I leave for work while my son is sleeping and return home after he has gone to bed. My husband is responsible for the child care, bathing, feeding, and daily routine.

  • Amy Guttman:

    How unusual is your home life?

  • Aya Fujikawa:

    At my company and within the whole of Japanese society, our situation is very much in the minority. My friends are very surprised. They admire me.

  • Amy Guttman:

    Taisei also conducts workshops for employees and their spouses to learn to share household chores and childcare duties.

  • Tetsuya Shioiri:

    Our company is in desperate need to recruit women. We need talented people regardless of gender. Supporting women is not enough. We need to support those around them.

  • Amy Guttman: , the percentage of Japanese women working outside the home has grown from 61 to 66 percent:

    Since Womenomics began that’s a million more women. And the percentage of working mothers returning to work has risen from 38 to 53 percent, compared to 71 percent in the U.S. But Prime Minister Abe has backtracked considerably on the goal of tripling the percentage of women in management positions from 10 to 30 percent. Today, that number has increased modestly to 13 percent and Abe now hopes to boost it to 15 percent by 2021.

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