The problem of Japan's 'devil wives'

Last updated 11:42 19/11/2012
Terue Suzuki
HARD WORDS: "In Japanese society, when a woman chooses work instead of staying at home to look after her husband, she’s called a devil wife," says working mother Terue Suzuki.

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To resume work after the birth of her first child, Terue Suzuki moved back to her family home on weekdays to get help with baby-care, leaving her husband in the house they shared.

"It was like a weekend marriage," Suzuki, 45, who works at a Japanese telecommunications company, said of the arrangement started 14 years ago.

"I had a satisfying job and really wanted to go back to it. In Japanese society, when a woman chooses work instead of staying at home to look after her husband, she's called a devil wife."

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government set a goal in July to boost the proportion of working women within eight years to spur an economy that's had two recessions since 2007.

Increasing the number of employed women may bolster gross domestic product by as much as 15 percent, according to Goldman Sachs.

Encouraging women in the work force "has to be a top-down response," said Christine Wright, head of the Japanese unit of Hays, a London-based recruitment company. "The most important change is awareness."

Limited daycare, peer pressure and job inflexibility mean Suzuki remains a minority in Japan, where 70 percent of women quit work with the birth of their first child, said Nana Oishi, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

That level compares with about a third in the United States, according to Goldman Sachs.

Suzuki, a senior manager in cloud-computing services, had the support of her husband and her employer, who let her switch departments to leave work on time.

She moved to her parents' place in Yokohama, about a half hour train ride southwest of Tokyo, in 1998 after failing to find a daycare centre for her son near her marital home.

Her sister quit a temporary job and looked after the child for six months until an opening came up at a nursery near her parents' house.

Suzuki continued with the "weekend marriage" when her second child was born, in total for about eight years.

A Japanese newspaper nicknamed her oniyome, meaning devil wife, in an article on flexible office schedules that highlighted her determination to go back to work rather than become a housewife to care for her family.

The phrase was made famous in a blog whose contents were turned into an 11-episode drama titled Oniyome Nikki (Diary of a Devil Wife), which aired on national television in 2005.

In a survey conducted in 2010 of more than 6,000 couples in Japan, 70 percent of respondents said mothers should stop working to focus on raising their children, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

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The availability of childcare places, at 166 per 10,000 people, trailing the 210 in Britain and 365 in Australia, has also been a deterrent for women, based on figures from recruitment consultant Robert Walters's Japan unit.

While Japan topped the list of 144 countries for innovation capacity in the World Economic Forum's latest Global Competitiveness Report, it placed 87th for women's participation in the labour force, the lowest ranking among Group of Seven nations except Italy.

Some women also felt they were passed up for promotion when they became pregnant, or had it delayed until they returned to work, said Lanis Yarzab, a director at Robert Walters Japan KK.

"This is a type of discrimination that is not frequently discussed in Japan," she said.

More than half of the 700 male and female respondents in a survey by Robert Walters say the main challenge for working women is balancing their career with family.

A decision to start a family will make a woman less employable, according to 77 percent of women and 72 percent of men in the survey.

"I wanted to have kids but I kept putting it off because I wanted to gain recognition for my work," said Yoko Ogata, an employee at a Japanese trading company, who has no children.

After she married a co-worker, colleagues told her to "be a good wife," while others told her husband he "shouldn't make his wife continue working," she said.

Ogata started to be given small teams and projects to manage when she turned 36 and felt she was being recognized for her hard work. Soon after that she got pregnant.

"I wasn't sure what to do," she said. "I was finally being given responsibility to handle projects and by getting pregnant I worried that people would say 'This is why we can't use women.' "

Ogata, now 46, miscarried during her seventh week of pregnancy.

"My husband and mother-in-law were very angry and asked if I hadn't had a miscarriage on purpose," said Ogata, who didn't tell co-workers about the pregnancy or miscarriage. Her husband divorced her and married another co-worker.

Japan's government has set a goal to increase the proportion of employed women ages 25 to 44 to 73 percent by the year starting April 2020, compared with 66.5 percent in 2010.

It also aims to boost the share of women working after the birth of their first child to 50 percent by the end of March 2016 and 55 percent by 2020, the government said in a plan released July 31.

There is plenty of scope for government-led initiatives to encourage more women in the workforce, such as expanding the capacity of daycare and nursing-care services through greater deregulation as well as better enforcement of rules regarding equal employment opportunity and pay, Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, said in an e-mail from Tokyo.

If Japan's female employment rate of 60 percent rose to the 80 percent for males, there would be an extra 8.2 million employees in the work force, spurring growth in disposable incomes and consumption, Goldman Sachs strategists led by Matsui, a working mother with two children, wrote in the latest edition of its Womenomics report in October 2010.

Suzuki said she doubts Japan can reach a point where the majority of women will stay with their company after their first child.

"Most mothers are still there to meet their sons after they finish school for the day," she said. "Women are the ones who are building the expectations of their sons for how a mother acts."

- Bloomberg

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