Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

“To Rescue Economy, Japan Turns to Supermom,” a New York Times headline announced earlier this month.

One of those supermoms is Chiaki Kitajima, an advertising executive in Tokyo. She told the Times that when she was pregnant with the first of her three sons, “her bosses were shocked that rather than accept reduced hours and a demotion after maternity leave, she made a presentation on why the company should subsidize child care.”

“I had to fight to convince them that supporting me was a good investment,” Kitajima said. She is currently “the creative director of her advertising agency but says mothers at her professional level remain rare.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to change that by creating circumstances that encourage “Japanese women to have it all.”

An article on the Huffington Post website adds: “Currently, 50 to 60 percent of Japanese women quit work after giving birth. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new initiative, dubbed ‘womenomics,’ aims to break down traditional male-oriented corporate culture and make it easier for women to keep jobs and advance their careers while raising children.” 

Abe’s solution, the Times says, is to provide “more state-funded child care and other measures to foster ‘a society where all women shine.’”

The Times adds, “Mr. Abe’s most concrete policy moves have focused on child care, which is in short supply in major cities. His government is trying to eliminate nursery school waiting lists by creating 400,000 new spaces by March 2018.”

It will take work to fulfill the promise of womenomics. Abe is up against “entrenched societal and corporate norms,” the Times says, as well as “an entrenched corporate culture that prizes long and inflexible hours favoring men.”

In addition:

“While many mothers start working again once their children reach school age, most take up low-paid part-time or contract jobs. This, experts say, helps explain why Japanese women earn 40 percent less than men on average and occupy only one in 10 management-level positions.

“In September, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said significant steps to close the gender gap could increase Japanese economic growth by a quarter of a percentage point. That is not small in a country that has averaged less than 1 percent growth for the last two decades.”

How Japanese Moms Raise Kids and Work

An article in the Japan Times profiles women who are “challenging the country’s infamous gender stereotypes and share a resilience and belief that they can work, regardless of their status as parents. Better still, they can be viewed as important role models for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ economic growth strategy.”

“Although Japan’s women are on par with their male counterparts in educational achievement, Japan ranks 104th in gender equality out of 142 countries and territories, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report,” the article says. “The country’s Achilles’ heel is its low rate of female participation in the workforce, as society puts pressure on women to marry and become homemakers.”

For Rieko Kaneko, an industrial physician, working is possible because her two children attend daycare and kindergarten programs.

“I would like to relax my work schedule for my children,” Kaneko told the Japan Times. “If I did, however, my children may become ineligible to attend day care.”

She says day care centers should be encouraged to look after children of part-time working mothers.

The Approach in South Korea

An opinion piece in the Japan Times by Bloomberg columnist William Pesek suggests that Abe could learn from looking at South Korea where President Park Geun-hye “has earmarked much of next year’s 5.5 percent increase in public expenditures to encourage companies to offer more flexible schedules — key for working mothers — and to subsidize the prohibitive cost of child care.”

The bottom line: “For kids aged 3 to 5, day care will now be free.”

“Park has set some ambitious goals of her own,” Pesek explains, “including raising the number of women in the work force to 62 percent by 2017, from the current 56 percent.”

Stay tuned to see how these nations’ ambitious plans for expanding child care play out.