Progress and Challenges: Reflections of a Working Mother in Japan

Photo of Keiko Kimoto

Keiko Kimoto

Sales Associate at TokyoDev

The result of TokyoDev’s International Developers in Japan Survey 2022 revealed that the country is still struggling to close the gender gap in the workplace in the tech industry.

As a Japanese woman and a mother of two children, I was very sad and also a little frustrated to see this result. Because it seemed to me that not much has changed in the 20 years since I started my career. It was also disappointing because the tech industry is usually regarded as one of Japan’s most progressive industries, including the working environment and empowering women. So I was expecting the result to be much better.

In 2015, the government enacted the “Act on the Promotion of Women’s Active Engagement in Professional Life” to encourage women to pursue their career and to be offered equal opportunities regardless of their gender or age. It was a very good move to bridge the gender gap, but from my personal point of view, a lot of women (including myself) have always been enthusiastic to be “actively engaged in professional life”, even before such a law was introduced.

As recently as my parents’ generation, women were attending university at a radically lower rate than men: only 10% of women went to them compared to 40% of men. By my generation this had changed, with 50% of both genders attending university, so we naturally expected to have the same level of equality after graduation. By the time I graduated from university in the early 2000s, some powerful women had paved the way and showed us how to be successful in our careers. Having those role models to follow after, I remember, I was very excited to start and grow my own career.

After I started working in a consulting firm in Tokyo, I seemed to be doing great. I was one of the top sales people, got a pay rise and a promotion before my male colleagues. I was very motivated to progress, and enthusiastic about my work and future career. Many young women in Japan have a similar attitude to work to my own. This survey conducted by Sony Life Insurance in 2020 shows 40.3% of women in their 20s and 41.4% in their 30s want to grow their careers.

However, after getting married and having children, this seems to change drastically. Another survey shows that among married women in their 20s and 30s, 17.3% became full time housewives, although only 8.5% of all respondents initially wanted to do so. And 27.5% answered that they prefer to be paid less, rather than to commit to working long hours or grow their career, because they want to spend more time at home to take care of their children and do housework.

According to the survey by the government in 2018, 46.9% of women left work after having their first child. Among those who left work, 52.3% answered that they did so because it was too hard for them to continue working while raising a child.

I’m fully aware that in recent years, men are more involved in raising children and household chores than ever before. However, I’ve seen first-hand how most Japanese mothers still have so many responsibilities at home, that they can easily get overwhelmed and give up on their careers — and I was one of them.

From the moment I gave birth to my first child, I was incredibly determined to go back to work and catch up with my team. However, being both a mom and having a career proved extremely difficult.. I had to finish work before 17:00 to pick up my son by 18:00 even when all my colleagues were working until late at night to meet a big deadline. After getting home, I fed and bathed my son, then put him to sleep by myself since my husband was also working long hours everyday, and often stayed at the office overnight.

When my son got sick, I had to cancel all the meetings for the day to take care of him at home. When we had a family visiting us on weekends, I had to welcome them with some food prepared while my husband was rushing back from work.

Back then, it was hard to find a place that could take care of a sick child, and hiring a babysitter was too expensive. I couldn’t find anyone to help me handle the things that kept coming up one after another. I was always frustrated at never having enough time to get things done in the way I wanted, both at work and at home.

So, I gave up. I left work and decided to be a full-time mother.

The most common reason for women in their 20s not wanting to get married is because they don’t want to take on all those responsibilities, for working, raising children, doing housework and taking care of their own and their husband’s parents.

In Japan, we have a Family Registry System, which records all the family history and family relationships. When you marry, one of the spouses has to leave their family register and be added to their partner’s. It is not just about which surname you will have going forward, but, especially for parents, it’s more like “giving your child to another family”. And most of the time, women are the ones leaving their family. It is still very common for the older generation to literally say “We’ll give our daughter to your family” when they allow their daughter to marry someone.

Furthermore, if you marry the first son of the family, you might be pressured to give birth to a son to keep the family line going, since the heir to the family is always a man.

Because of this cultural background, marriage has been a larger family matter, and not only between husband and wife. I’ve seen it’s changing lately, but it is still true that there’s unspoken pressure for a wife to be a good daughter to her parents-in-law. It is not surprising to see a wife taking care of her husband’s elderly parents on behalf of their biological children, but it’s very rare that the husband takes care of the wife’s parents.

While being aware of these cultural expectations and unspoken pressures, 24% of unmarried women in their 20s answered that they don’t want to have children in the future. They know if they have children, they will face these kinds of responsibilities and pressures, which would make it difficult for them to focus on their careers, and ultimately make them choose between career and family.

However, the aging population and labor shortage caused by it are serious issues in Japan, with 51.1% of companies suffering a shortage of workers. Having more women continue their careers after marriage or childbirth is a key to solving this problem. To encourage them to work, it’s necessary to make it easier for them to better balance their work and family life.

The Japanese government is trying to make it easier for mothers, something that is nice to see. For example, they are pushing companies to encourage parents (especially fathers) to take childcare leave and providing discount coupons for the use of babysitters. The shortage of nurseries was also a big issue that prevented many mothers from going back to work after maternity leave. However, this has also been improving with less than 3,000 children on the waitlist compared to 26,081 children on the waitlist In 2017.

From a perspective of offering more options to full-time working mothers, it looks like Japan is moving in the right direction. However, many women still prefer to work part-time with less responsibilities than to be regularly employed and work full-time. More than 2 million women answered they chose a part-time job because it’s easier to balance with housework, childcare and elderly care.

Before having more women actively engaged in professional life, there seems to be a long way to go. It is a very complex problem, with the gender gap in the workplace, lack of government support and the cultural background. However, we shouldn’t waste much more time because we’d have an economic loss of 1.17 trillion yen a year if 200,000 mothers leave work after childbirth. We can see how enormous an impact women can have on our economy.

Upon writing this article, I got to know that I was not alone and many other women also gave up on their career regardless of their motivations, talents or skills. 20 years ago, we had some role models who taught us how to build our career as a woman, but now I realize that we didn’t have one to teach us how we could be a successful working mother without a career break.

I think we’ve had enough struggles, frustration and sometimes tears in the past 20 years, and we don’t want younger generations to have the same experiences. I believe that the situation is improving (even though it’s slower than we wished), and there are companies that take initiatives at supporting and empowering women like TokyoDev, so I do hope they can have both their career and family without giving up anything.

More about the author

Photo of Keiko Kimoto

Keiko Kimoto

Sales Associate at TokyoDev

In addition to helping TokyoDev with sales and back-end operations, Keiko is the founder of MALOU, a company that leverages her previous experience in the food and household goods industries to provide planning and consulting services.

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