Japan’s extremely slow progress on improving the lowly status of women has been one of the factors that has held the country’s economic growth back. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced his plans to change this through his “womenomics” program, which would encourage women’s participation in the workforce. But the reality is that the lack of support for new mothers is hurting the career prospects of Japanese women, who frequently struggle to hold on to their jobs after they have children. In fact, reportedly 70 percent of women quit their jobs after having their first child.
One reason for this high percentage is maternity harassment. In fact, victims of maternity harassment in Japan have recently begun to make their voices heard, giving the phenomenon its own Japanese term, matahara (shortened from the English “maternity harassment”). The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC) conducted surveys on this topic in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, only 20.5 percent of women had heard of the term matahara, but a year later the number had jumped to 62.3 percent.
According to the 2014 survey, which had 626 respondents from around Japan, 26.3 percent of women reported experiencing maternity harassment, slightly more than the previous year’s figure of 25.6 percent. Also, 27.3 percent said they knew of somebody who had experienced maternity harassment, again rising slightly from 23.2 percent the previous year.
Sayaka Okasabe is one victim of matahara who has been speaking about the issue in the media. After Okasabe suffered a miscarriage, which she attributes to working long hours as an editor while pregnant, she returned to work with plans to negotiate with her boss on splitting her workload in order to prevent a second miscarriage. She was told “not to get pregnant again for two or three years and that the workload was not going to kill her.” When Okasabe became pregnant for the second time, her doctor ordered her to take bed rest, but with her workload still heavy, she was kept busy at home responding to constant emails and phone calls, and was eventually visited by her boss demanding that she resign since her absence was causing “inconvenience.” She returned to work only to suffer another miscarriage one week later. “I did not tell them the first time I got pregnant; I was scared that it would cause annoyance in the company,” Okasabe told The Diplomat. “They will not say ‘congratulations’ to you at Japanese companies.”
After quitting her job, Okasabe took her case to the labor tribunal. Since she had a recording of her boss’s visit, she was able to supply proof of her harassment. The case ended with a confidential settlement. Okasabe went on to found MataharaNet, an organization that helps victims of matahara and promotes the well-being of working women in Japan.
In another example, a woman who works as a clinical psychologist spoke to The Diplomat about her experience with matahara. She asked to remain anonymous because of her ongoing court battle against her employer.
Upon returning from maternity leave after having her first child, this woman’s employer changed her contract after she had asked for shorter hours as she needed to take her child to childcare. She was then denied “outside duty,” such as attending conferences or working at other hospitals, something she had been doing routinely twice a week for four years before becoming pregnant. She explained that this was very important for those in her field. Her boss then used her paid vacation days without her knowledge for her time spent working outside the hospital. When she complained, she received a note in her paycheck that read “focus more on your child,” and she was also told that she was being “selfish” and a “bad mother.” Her outside duty then began to be treated as absences, which reduced her salary in half for seven consecutive months. She is now suing her employer. “It is not about the money. It is about sending a message to society that this is not alright,” she told The Diplomat.
Sayaka Okasabe’s voice in the media, along with her organization MataharaNet, has certainly generated a spark for women to demand change. Okasabe told The Diplomat that after appearing in the media and speaking out against maternity harassment, her former company has taken measures to educate its employees about maternity harassment. The voices raised from her organization MataharaNet also coincide with the first-ever hearing on the issue at the Supreme Court. The case was a woman who was demoted from her title after returning from child-care leave. She sued her company but had her claim thrown out by the Hiroshima District Court and High Court. The Supreme Court overturned the verdict, in what is a major victory for working women in Japan.
“Our generation is able to work alongside men because previous generations of women fought [for that right],” Okasabe told The Diplomat. “It is now this generation’s turn to hand down the baton to the next that will allow them to maintain a career and family, without being discriminated for it.”