Monday, 12 May 2014

Working Mothers, Childcare and Limited Choices

Image by Magdalena Roeseler
Two events this weekend prompted these thoughts. On Saturday I attended a manga research symposium and the post-function dinner and spoke to several women who are career academics about gender issues in Japan. Sunday was my first mothers’ day. 
I recently shared Ken’s post on ‘who wears the pants in Japan’, and the content of some of my conversations reflected this perspective. We talked about female friends who had quit their jobs after marriage and how easy their lives were compared to our male friends’ situations. The guys work until late at night every day, while their wives enjoy hobbies and leisurely lunches at fashionable cafés with their friends. This is, of course, a highly classed perspective. Many women in lower income families are simultaneously responsible for 100% of house work and child care but also have to work because their partners’ income is not enough to live on. But among university educated women, this apparently spoiled existence seems common. The novelty probably wears off… at a cub-scout meeting recently a mother told me that after she finishes the housework she just sits alone and wonders what to do with herself. “What do you DO all day?” She asked me, looking a little desperate. Amid all sorts of moral panics about “herbivoremen” and NEETs, freeters and other apparently abhorrent versions of masculinity, few commentators ever mention that perhaps the whole system is just deeply unappealing to many young men. Sure, they may get a nice home they don’t have to take care of, but I’d feel pretty upset if I worked myself to death supporting a partner whose life seemed so much more fulfilling than mine. At a different dinner with a group of women in their sixties I was  saddened to hear them discussing encouraging their husbands to take up golf so that they could get them out of the house all day on Sundays (many Japanese people work six day weeks). “If he’s home I can’t relax” one said, as her friends nodded in agreement, “and I have to cook a full lunch for him. If it’s just me I snack on toast or go to a café.” Retired husbands are sometimes referred to as sodaigomi, over-sized garbage. There is even a name for the psychological distress wives experience when their husbands retire.

Before this starts sounding like some kind of praise for how great a gender segregated work culture is for women, let me elaborate on how this really is not a choice for women. One of the academics I was talking to had completed her PhD in Australia and we were talking about how abnormal it would be for a women in Australia to quit her job because she got married. “In Japan we can choose” she proudly said. She is single, so I can see why it seems that way to her, but when I began explaining the barriers to mothers working in Japan her jaw dropped. Even though I work just three days a week and my son is in school, I have found it extraordinarily frustrating.  If I had a pre-school aged child, I just wouldn’t work unless I had to. The majority of Japanese women I know who take their careers seriously are single and childless.

Maternity leave and day care are out of reach for many women.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 24,825 children across Japan were on waiting lists for authorized nurseries in 2012.
Yet a survey by Hoikuen wo Kangaeru Oyano kai (roughly translated as parents looking into day care group) led by Aki Fukoin, who has been dealing with this issue since the 1980s, found that 55,222 children in 70 municipalities were waiting to be placed in authorized day care centers last year.
The gap reflects how the government defines “children on the waiting list.” The government figure does not count children whose parents declined admission from day care centers that were not of their choosing, or children who were accepted by unauthorized day care facilities that receive government subsidies.
The article continues
Experts cite several reasons behind the shortage of facilities. First, municipalities are generally reluctant to spend money on setting up more nurseries when the increase in senior citizens outpaces that of newborns.
In addition, despite deregulation in 2000 that allowed private companies and nonprofit groups to offer day care services, entering the market has actually been difficult because established facilities want to protect their turf.
“The Social Welfare Corporation (the main provider of authorized day care centers) opposed private operators from entering the market and colluded with local politicians to ensure their applications were rejected,” said Hiromi Yamaguchi, CEO of JP Holdings, the largest private operator of day care facilities.
Thus out of 23,711 government-authorized day care facilities, only 1 percent are currently run by private companies, welfare ministry figures show. But with Abe encouraging municipalities to authorize more company-run day care centers, things may change, Yamaguchi said.
Entering school doesn't aliviate the problems, either. Although either I or my partner are home by the end of the school day most days, we have still gone through a huge amount of hassle in the past month because the school keeps randomly sending our son home early, with sometimes only one day's notice. First we had two weeks of him coming home after lunch because of "home visits" by teachers (all of which were completed in three days, incidentally). Then there were some staff meeting and workshops that couldn't possibly have been held after 3, so again, all the kids were sent home after lunch. On Friday we get a notice listing the next week's return times, so if Monday is a short day I don't even have a single business day's notice to try and organise some kind of care. After burning through leave at a rate of knots, we looked into our school's after school care program. LOL. It's expensive, very few adults are supervising a huge number of kids many of whom have special needs, and there is a waiting list so long we didn't bother registering (thereby contributing to unreliable statistics on waiting lists...)
Many working mothers have had to give up their jobs just because they can’t secure spots for their children at such facilities. The problem has become so acute that there is now a term describing difficulties confronting working mothers with first-graders: “shoichi no kabe” (the hurdle of the first grade).
Even students who are fortunate enough to gain admittance to an after-school club benefit for only a limited time. Many clubs — particularly the traditional, publicly funded ones — accept students only through the third grade, meaning that older children often have nowhere to go after school. Many end up staying home alone, often with a TV or computer games as their only companions.
Concern for such kids has recently given rise to another term: “shoyon no kabe,” or the hurdle of the fourth grade.
The article continues:
A survey by the liaison council suggests that the actual number of children on waiting lists might be between 400,000 and 500,000, many more than are officially recognized.
“Of all the working mothers with first- to third-grade children, almost 70 percent of them work over six hours a day, which is considered full time. There are 1.32 million children whose mothers work full time,” said Yutaka Sanada, deputy secretary-general of the council.
“Only 880,000 of those students belong to gakudo clubs, which means that the rest — about 400,000 students — don’t have anyone to look after them after school.”
So what about women who, despite all the hurdles, persist in getting back to work? They face continued discrimination at work and may be labeled devil wives with no shame by wider society:
“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.”
Tanaka, 37, said in his post that while “woman power” is necessary to revitalize the economy, he thought that the mothers “had no touch of reserve nor shame.” “What I am saying is don’t force your child-rearing on society from the start. . . . (The mothers) should have the manners enough to say ‘Please help us raise our children,’ ” Tanaka added on his blog, adding that he was not married and had no kids.
A multitude of angry comments flooded the blog, with people expressing sentiments like not wanting to raise their children in a district with a representative like Tanaka and that it is because of people like him that Japan has a low birthrate. Tanaka was not available for comment.
More on the protests by Tokyo mothers at Japan Probe:
The reporters visit the house of a woman who lives in Itabashi ward of Tokyo. She gave birth to a baby a year and one month ago, and was planning to return to full-time work. Unfortunately, she was unable to find a nursery for her child. She applied for five places, and they all turned her down because they were full. Because her maternity leave only lasts until April, she will be forced to abandon her job.
Government-run nursery schools have pretty strict entry requirements. Because of a shortage of such facilities, they give preference to people in the worst financial circumstances. The woman they interview says she has heard about some couples getting divorced so they could have a better chance at passing the entry screening.
For some reason I can't embed it, but this is an interesting clip from a documentary titled "Mothers' Way, Daughters' Choice".

Despite constant talk from politicians and media about the need to both increase women's participation in the workforce and to get the birth rate up to try and do something about the aging population, nothing really changes. On the surface I have a certain amount of envy for women who seem to enjoy such carefree, unburdened lives without ever having to go to work, but it is delusional to see this as a choice. Choice only exists when the odds are not heavily stacked in favour of one option to the exclusion of others.
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  1. You always write very interesting articles!
    I guess the "devil wife" expression can be applied universally. I mean, up until few decades ago even western countries had this idea that a "proper wife" should be a housewife who spends her days cooking and cleaning and taking care of her hard-working husband and kids. Actually, I believe even now some western people feel the same about full-time working wives/mothers.
    I also feel sad for the women who want their husbands out of their homes on weekends. Those husbands chose themselves wrong wives and those wives chose themselves wrong husbands.

    1. Thank you! Yes, you are absolutely right :\


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