Japanese women are more likely to have a university degree than men, and the number of women in employment has been rising steadily for 10 years – but, for a range of reasons, a woman who has had children still has a hard time getting a good job.
Nobuko Ito is the very model of a modern professional Japanese woman.
She is a qualified lawyer and she speaks fluent English. She has years of experience working in international contract law.
But Nobuko no longer works in a big international law firm.
Today she works from a small office near her home. She works a fraction of the hours she used to, and for a fraction of the money.
The reason? Nobuko has three children. In Japan balancing work and motherhood is still extremely hard.
“Before I had a child I remember one busy month where I billed the client for 300 hours!” Nobuko says.
“I’d get in the office at 09:00 in the morning, and leave at 03:00 the next morning, and I’d come in on Saturday and Sunday.
“If you want to keep working you have to forget about your children, you have to just devote yourself to the company.
“I can’t do this, it’s impossible.”
As Nobuko’s example shows Japan’s working culture can be brutal. It’s one of the reasons why 70% of Japanese women still give up work as soon as they have their first child.
Another is their husbands.
When it comes to housework Japanese men are still far behind their counterparts in Europe or America.
In Sweden, Germany and the US husbands spend, on average, three hours a day helping out with children and household chores. In Japan it’s one hour, and they spend just 15 minutes a day with their children.
Then there is paternity leave. Japanese men are entitled to take it, but only a tiny minority actually do – just 2.63%, according to the Health and Welfare ministry.
“My husband didn’t take paternity leave” Nobuko Ito says.
“Most Japanese men are very hesitant to use the system. They may want to come back home to help with the family, but on the other hand they think they need to work as hard as possible otherwise they may not get promoted, or they may lose their job.”
Despite all this many Japanese women do want to continue working after they have children.
But they then come up against the next problem – childcare, or rather the lack of it.
According to the Tokyo government’s own statistics there are 20,000 children in the city waiting for places in day-care centres.
The government centres that do exist are good, but they are far too few. And even if you do get a place it’s means-tested and can be expensive – around 70,000 Yen ($737, £484) per month for the first child.
“I’d get a discount for having three children, but it would still be at least $1,000 a month even at the state nursery,” says Nobuko Ito.
“At an expensive private nursery it can cost $2,000 a month per child. But those are really good!” she says laughing.
All of this adds up to two things. Women who are having children are not working. Women who are working are not having children. Both are terrible for Japan’s future.
In her ground-breaking work Womenomics: Japan’s Hidden Asset, Japanese-American economist Kathy Matsui says getting more Japanese mothers to stay in work or go back to work should be a “national priority”.
She says it could add as much as 15% to Japan’s GDP.
But Matsui says there is another even more pressing reason. Japan is running out of people.
“Although a low fertility rate is common among other developed countries, Japan may be the only OECD nation where the number of pets exceeds the number of children,” she says.
Japan’s birth rate is just 1.37 births per woman, far below the 2.1 figure at which a population remains stable.
Evidence from Europe and America suggest helping women to stay in work can increase the birth rate.
In countries like Sweden, Denmark and the US, where female employment rates are high, birth rates are also higher. In countries where female employment is low, like Italy, South Korea and Japan, birth rates are also low.
In Japan a demographic crisis is already under way. In 2006 Japan’s population began to shrink.
If current trends persist it will lose a third of its population in the next half century.
Nothing like that has ever happened before.
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes BBC News, Tokyo