Keeping Japan's Mothers in the Workforce
Eamon Flanagan, Director and Mei Cher Kua, Manager at Michael Page Japan

Recruiting and keeping mothers in the Japanese workforce will benefit families, businesses and society as a whole, but huge shifts in policies and culture are necessary to make it happen.

Japan’s ever-increasing pool of female professionals is at an all-time high. We have made significant strides in supporting working mothers in the last few years, and we look forward to further changes ahead. Still, we have a long way to go and so the question remains: how can companies support working Japanese mothers better to keep them in the workforce? 

Sobering realities
One of the key challenges that hold back significant progress is the cultural stigma surrounding working mothers. There is still the long-ingrained societal notion that expects mothers to spend more time at home instead of in the workplace. Mothers who work in Japan, similar to other parts of the world, continue to struggle with lower pay compared to their male counterparts, being bypassed for promotions, and not getting the support they need to juggle both their work and home lives effectively. 

Many Japanese mothers find it a challenge to secure childcare so that they can continue working. In Hong Kong and Singapore, hiring foreign nannies would amount to approximately $500 to $700 a month. Meanwhile, hiring a nanny in Japan can cost three times as much: ¥200,000 ($1,770) to ¥250,000 ($2,215).

Mobility, infrastructure and gendered status quos all have a remarkable effect as well on Japanese mothers’ desire and ability to work. For instance, working mothers in Japan face long commutes (on crowded trains), making it hard for daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. This predicament is often compared to other countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where offices are located closer to homes, schools or daycare facilities.

The inability to secure proper childcare has also been a contributing reason why many women find it hard to return to the workplace after having a child. In 2019, a government-sponsored bill made preschool education and daycare services in Japan free of charge. But available childcare facilities cannot meet the demand, so slots fill up quickly and the long waiting lists continue to be a problem, The Mainichi reported.

A story by The New York Times reveals just over half of first-time Japanese mothers return to the workforce. A lot of them make do with part-time jobs so they can leave the workplace early, while their husbands continue to work long and tiring hours. Many say that breaking free from Japan’s culture of overwork can help level the playing field for women and accord men the opportunity to be more present as fathers and husbands. 

Overcoming barriers
To counter these obstacles, there has been a big push from the government to empower Japanese women at the workplace and help them maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Global firms based in Japan, for instance, have developed policies like work-from-home arrangements, flexible hours and more flexible working environments for working parents. Microsoft Japan ran a four-day workweek experiment last year, a move that’s seen to benefit both the business (in terms of the resulting 40 percent rise in productivity) as well as employees, particularly women seeking more manageable work hours.

Japanese companies have been making marked shifts in their policies to encourage more mothers to participate in the labor force. The Council on Foreign Relations cites Taisei Corporation for its initiatives that are not only policy-based but also culture-oriented: the company offers paternal leaves and publishes stories of fathers during their leave. Daikin Industries meanwhile increased childcare subsidies for mothers on parental leave who want to go back to work sooner.

A recent survey by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Statistics Bureau found that about 26 percent of Japanese firms with over 1,000 staff have implemented flexitime. But in firms with 100 staff or less, that drops to only 3 percent.

Staying responsive to macro-economic situations is just as significant when it comes to providing aid to Japan’s working mothers. With the recent coronavirus outbreak, a prominent U.S. healthcare company in Japan has swiftly rolled out policies that provide proactive support for their employees following the announcement to close schools nationwide. Parents and all employees have a choice to work from home for the whole month. If employees have opted to be present in the office instead, this company has offered to take on their babysitter fees or provide special paid leave to accommodate their concerns as parents.

Policy-based, culture-oriented
Constructing environments that are conducive for women should be part of every organization’s larger plan to pursue better welfare for all their employees. Retention policies that work across the board include extended periods of parental leave (not just for mothers), awarding all employees recognition for their work fairly, creating a fun and nurturing workspace and encouraging employees to form trusting relationships with each other which in turn boosts productivity.

Policy changes however need to work hand-in-hand with cultural shifts. Many Japanese are accustomed to working long hours to demonstrate commitment, leaving the workplace only after the boss does so. Some firms have set shorter working hours with a finishing time of 4 p.m. but most employees feel they are expected to work well past finishing time.

Furthermore, when employees look around and see most colleagues staying late, they feel it’s only natural to do so. A work environment like this leads to mums — who are generally the primary caregiver — feeling guilty about having to leave the workplace promptly at finishing time to care for their children. To avoid this, HR departments have to work closely with senior management to educate them on the business benefits of making relevant changes to policy and organizational culture.

Many Japanese fathers also express the importance of their involvement in parenting but this is not easily possible due to their work commitments and the expectation to work long hours. Hence, companies also need to accommodate fathers in their HR policies, so they’re able to be more helpful to their partners.

Leading by example
Business leaders and those in a position to affect change need to step up and lead by example and encourage teams to support their colleagues where possible. It is surely challenging to change and alter old practices and mindsets that are deeply embedded in Japan’s work culture, but every effort counts. Over time, we will be able to create a more supportive and inclusive work climate for all.



Eamon Flanagan
is a Director at Michael Page Japan. He
specialises and leads the Human Resources division for Michael Page Japan. He has over 10 years of recruitment experience in Asia Pacific markets with a strong track record in placing senior HR talent into multinational firms across Japan and Asia Pacific. In addition to his core recruitment focus in human resources, he leads customer service, office support and healthcare & life sciences divisions.

Mei Cher Kua
is a Manager at Michael Page Japan. She specialises and leads the Human Resources division for Michael Page Japan. She has over 7 years of recruitment experience in Asia Pacific markets with a strong track record in placing senior HR, Technology and Digital talent into multinational firms across Japan and Asia Pacific. 


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