Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Japan’s Struggling Single Mothers Expose the Flaws of Womenomics

As the pandemic exacerbates poverty rates among single mothers, the shortcomings of womenomics reforms are on full display.

Thisanka Siripala
Japan’s Struggling Single Mothers Expose the Flaws of Womenomics
Credit: Pixabay

Under Japan’s women’s advancement strategy, dubbed “womenomics,” a record number of women joined the labor force to help fill the country’s chronic labor shortage and resuscitate the sluggish economy. Amid Japan’s rapidly declining fertility rates and an aging population, then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo named women Japan’s hidden asset – an underutilized resource that could alleviate pressure to look for foreign migrants to solve the labor crunch.

Amid Abe’s focus on womenomics, women’s labor force participation in Japan rose from 50 percent in 2015 to 52.7 percent in 2019, with an extra 3.3 million women gaining employment. Traditionally, many women in Japan stopped working after getting married. Nowadays there are many women who continue to work after marriage but leave before the birth of their first child with their husbands becoming the sole breadwinner. After years of raising children, when these women return to the workplace they are often left with low paid, low skilled, irregular, and unstable jobs. Temporary workers earn 60 percent less than permanent employees and women make up 56.4 percent of the temporary worker labor force, according to the Health Ministry’s 2019 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit women especially hard. Since the first state of emergency in April 2020, women in irregular jobs were the first to be dismissed. As the economy contracts as a result of the prolonged coronavirus crisis, women’s precarious place in the workforce has come to the fore. Rather than nurturing women’s talents or career development, womenomics has left women susceptible to economic shocks as part timers, contract, and dispatch workers.

Making matters worse, the six week state of emergency in April closed schools abruptly, leaving many parents scrambling to secure child care. But single parents – whether divorced, unmarried or widowed – have been hit the hardest. While 82 percent of single mothers are gainfully employed, they earn an average annual income of 2.43 million yen ($23,000), which includes benefits.

In Japan there are approximately 1.23 million single mother households. According to the Single Mothers Association survey conducted between October and November, 65.6 percent of 1,300 respondents said their income had decreased or was anticipated to fall. On the other hand, 79.7 percent answered that expenses had increased. Single mothers in Japan face financial strain as more time spent at home means an increase in utilities and food costs while they are also being offered fewer working hours as a result of the economic slowdown. The move to online learning in April has also raised concerns about widening educational disparities as securing stable internet access, tablets, or computers for study and the cost of after school learning programs (cram school) weigh more heavily on family finances.

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The government is eyeing more financial aid to single parent households in its second supplementary budget, which plans to offer 50,000 yen ($480) to single parents and an additional 30,000 yen ($280) to households with two or more children as a special temporary benefit.

However, that will not address the underlying factors that make it difficult for women to balance a meaningful career and child rearing. Womenomics has likewise failed to resolve these issues.

Although Japan’s traditional lifetime employment model is credited with offering job security and lifting Japan’s standard of living, its paternalistic practices do not accommodate career interruption. Many high skilled jobs are out of reach for women who leave the labor force to care for children. Meanwhile, women make up a large proportion of essential workers in the service sector, which does not allow for teleworking. Women are now risking their health while continuing to earn low wages amid a labor shortage.

In 2015, Abe pledged to have women account for 30 percent of corporate leadership positions by 2020. It was an ambitious goal, but by the end of Abe’s eight years in office, women made up just 15 percent of leadership positions. Since Suga Yoshihide was elected prime minister in September 2020, the 30 percent target has been pushed back 10 years to 2030.

When it comes to gender equality, Japan lags behind other developed nations. Japan’s gender pay gap is the second largest among OECD countries. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Parity report Japan ranked 121 out of 153 countries – a decline of 11 places compared to the previous year. In 2019 Japanese women earned 23.5 percent less than their male counterparts, a pay gap surpassed only by South Korea. Meanwhile, rigid gender roles can be seen in the reluctance of men to take paid parental leave and the disproportionate burden women carry for child rearing and housework. Women spend on average 3 hours and 44 minutes each day on unpaid labor compared to 41 minutes for men.

Although companies with more than 300 employees are required to draw up gender equality plans, unconscious bias can be deeply entrenched. A recent court case overturned a past ruling that determined offering irregular workers and permanent workers unequal benefits such as severance pay and seasonal bonuses was illegal. The latest ruling reinforces the instability temporary workers face and threatens to undermine last year’s “equal pay for equal work” labor reform. which aimed to remedy the disparity in working conditions between irregular and permanent employees.

The Abe administration’s broken promise to “create a society in which all women shine” has been adopted by the Suga administration. But womenomics in its current manifestation is ill-equipped to handle the new COVID-19 age. As coronavirus cases surge across the country, attempting to close the gender equality gap by offering fiscal incentives to struggling single mothers does not address the underlying reasons that lock women to a cycle of irregular work.

There are many factors that need to be addressed simultaneously in order to improve women’s working conditions. A mixture of workstyle reforms, such as phasing out inflexible labor contracts, the promotion of gender entrepreneurship, performance based evaluations, company transparency in gender pay gaps, and improved childcare will certainly help. Women’s contribution in the workplace remains undervalued and creating lasting change for women requires shifting traditional family dynamics and the patriarchal values that underpin them.