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Childcare not the only cost for working women in Japan

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In Brief

Japan has recently moved to increase its female labour force participation rate, with the government allocating significant resources to tackling Japan’s longstanding shortage of child care places. Alongside this expansion in child care services, immigration laws are to be relaxed to allow for the recruitment of more foreign nannies.


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While these reforms are critical and long overdue, more must be done to increase female agency if Japan is to optimally utilise its female population.

In 2013, Japan’s female labour force participation rate for 15–64 year olds was 64 per cent; low by OECD standards. Greater availability of affordable child care should improve this figure, as there is a clear correlation between expanding child care services and women taking up paid work in Japan. Given that the shortage of places has been documented since at least the Koizumi administration, an easing of constraints here should see quick results.

But it is not that easy.

For starters, the government is coming up against barriers to expansion, notably the lack of qualified staff and the relatively high cost of low-skilled labour in Japan, which makes child care expensive by OECD standards. Looser immigration laws might help but are a politically difficult reform. Another option is to utilise Japan’s large population of retirees. Those interested in child care work with experience raising their own children could be offered fast-tracked qualifications.

If successful, a policy to this effect would solve multiple problems. It would ease the labour shortage and expand child care provision. It would allow older workers to be retained by the workforce. And it would provide Japan’s elderly, who are often lonely, more opportunities to socialise.

Another issue is that childcare only frees up parents for around six hours a day, which is not enough to engage in regular full time employment under current conventions in Japan. Work hours in Japan are notoriously long, and flexible work arrangements are rare and viewed disparagingly by management.

This means that childcare will largely allow women only to enter irregular work. But part time wages in Japan are low compared to wages for regular workers, so women employed in such positions will not be paid appropriately for their level of education. This is a waste of human capital. Moreover, the large degree of duality in the Japanese labour market between regular and irregular workers is already a drag on productivity, and thus increasing this divide would be undesirable.

For women to be mothers and participate in work at a level commensurate with their skills, cultural change is required at the organisational level. Some obvious changes include greater provision of flexible work times, efforts to schedule meetings at times that suit working parents, the phasing out of the seniority-based wage system (nenko jyoretsu) and other practices that reward time in the office rather than output, and an acknowledgment that women are just as capable as men of performing in managerial roles.

Yet Japanese firms are notoriously reluctant to change their attitudes and practices. A glaring example is the negligible impact of Japan’s equal opportunity legislation. Abe’s push for a 30 per cent female management quota should help. It will discourage firms from placing women on the irregular/clerical track by default, and encourage them to retain and invest further in female workers who marry — rather than pressuring those who are unwilling to commit to long hours at the office to leave. Women could then engage fully in the workforce, confident they can continue their careers after marriage and children.

A change in organisational culture to accommodate parenting would also allow men to spend more time in the home, an important condition for high quality labour force participation by mothers. Women cannot be expected to take care of the home and work a full-time work week. But here policy comes up against the intractability of culture at the societal level. Japan has had big economic incentives for reform for some time but failed to capitalise, in large part because of cultural inertia.

One pertinent example is Japan’s parental leave system, which rivals Scandinavian systems in its incetivisation of getting men involved in parenting, yet is utilised by few men — just 1.9 per cent in 2012. Much of this relates to the disapproval of workplaces, but more diffuse societal factors play a part. While traditional gender roles are slowly losing popularity, they remain entrenched. In 1979, more than 70 per cent of respondents to a survey by the Gender Equality Bureau of Japan agreed that men are expected to work while women are expected to keep the home. The percentage fell by 2009, but was still high at 45.8. The continuity of these gender norms is implicated in the difficulties associated with career advancement for Japanese women and their atypical rates of graduation from university — Japan is one of the only countries in the OECD where fewer women graduate from university than men.

Essentially, the opportunity cost of getting educated and working hard is relatively high for Japanese women.

As women are offered more respect from employers, their parenting desires are better accommodated by spouses and firms, and their potential contribution to the economy more widely acknowledged, this opportunity cost should fall and more women will engage more actively in the workforce. Unfortunately, this will require cultural change, which is difficult to accelerate with policy.

Mark Fabian is a postgraduate student in economics at the Australian National University.

6 responses to “Childcare not the only cost for working women in Japan”

  1. Mr. Fabian –

    1) What is the source of this statement?
    “Another issue is that childcare only frees up parents for around six hours a day”
    Is the six hours some kind of average of the hours children spend in kindergarten (Ministry of Education) and in day care centers (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare)? If so it would be a meaningless figure, as the kindergartens are designed for women who are not working full time and who, because of the tax treatment of spouse earnings, do not want to work full time.

    2) The elderly are already being recruited heavily for childcare, particularly for elementary school-level gakudo hoiku positions, as these require less training.

    • Mr Cucek, thanks for your note on the elderly. I was aware that some efforts were being made to make use of the retiree population, but light on details. As I understand it, this push could do with some acceleration, and I haven’t seen much comment on it in the English language press so thought it worth mentioning. It’s an approach to the child care labour shortage that I think would work in a range of countries, not just Japan.

      As for your other question, the 6 hour figure is derived from general reading in the area, rather than a particular statistical source—admittedly not the most rigorous approach. Nonetheless, I think calling them meaningless on the grounds you mentioned is a bit strong, assuming I’ve understood you correctly. In the PR campaign behind womenomics, child care is touted as the principal panacea to the female labour force participation rate. In that context, it seems worth underlining that child care is not going to lead to potentially high income earning mothers returning to full time work. Yet it is precisely those kinds of mothers womenomics needs in order to make a sizeable contribution to economic recovery. Are we arguing the same point here?

      Thanks for bringing up tax issue; it could certainly use reform. Yet I also think it’s worth remembering that the tax treatment of spouses is just one part of the calculus households make when determining how to share responsibilities. I think it’s reasonable to assume that there are a lot of marginal cases who might prefer to return to full time work (or maybe even not have children) if the other factors I discuss were taken care of. Alas, I don’t have the capacity to run regressions that might establish this at this time.

  2. The author tosses out the factoid that Japan is the only OECD country where fewer women graduate from college than men. Strictly speaking, that’s true although Japan is quite close to parity.

    So what?

    Is there any body of economic theory that says the ratio for women should be higher than for men? In Britain, the country I know best other than Japan, the fact that females get more higher education than males, especially working class males, is regarded as a major social and education issue. Again, in Britain, the fact that medicine is becoming heavily female is regarded as a problem. It costs as much to train a female doctor as it does a male doctor, but on average, for the same training costs, females provide fewer years of active service than males.

    Citing college is also dubious because Japan has two higher education streams (as did Britain until 1992). Many women (and not a few men) go to senmon gakko (post-secondary vocational schools) because their programs are more directly tied to jobs than is graduation from a generic liberal arts or humanities program at the college level.

    The author seems to think that the labor force participation rate for women in Japan is singularly low. It is not, and it is much higher than Italy (39%). And, there is no good correlation between female labor force participation rates and economic well being. The top female labor force participation rates according to World Bank data are found in very poor countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania.

    The author seems to think that Japanese attitudes about male-female roles are singularly traditional and have changed little over time. Survey data in fact shows that Japanese attitudes on male-female roles (guys work, women run the house) are very little different from European countries such as Germany and Italy.

    Finally, this article appears to be riding on the bandwagon that proclaims the salvation of the Japanese economy through womenomics.

    First, it’s not clear that the Japanese economy needs salvation.

    Second, there’s no body of evidence that shows a casual relation between the issues measured by the stats used in this article and economic performance. Iceland and North Korea have about the same female labor force participation rates. Their economic performance is not the same.

    Third, the Japanese economy achieved growth rates comparable to the contemporary PRC in the 60s and 80s when all the indicators pertaining to women in Japan were far more negative than they are today. No one gave a damn about the situation of women until very recently when it womenomics emerged as the magic elixir that was going to to light a fire under the Japanese economy. While I’m all for creating a society in which women (and men) can maximize their potential and, as a Japanese citizen have a vested interested in the health of the Japanese economy, I seriously doubt whether having more females than males graduate from college or any of the other factoids cited in this article mean much in the grand scheme of things.


    • EHK, you say that there is no good evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between female labour force participation (FLFP) and economic performance. But that’s not really my point. I’m arguing that Japan needs to target not so much the quantity of FLFP but the quality. There is certainly an abundance of theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence to believe that not using your human capital endowment efficiently leads to economic underperformance.

      This is relevant to your comments about education. If the female university graduation rate is lower (in some cases much lower) in Japan than for comparably developed countries, it is suggestive of a structural bias against females graduating from university in Japan. So what? Well, if we follow the logic that higher education levels are associated with higher productivity, then having a systemic bias against increasing the productivity of half your population seems economically unwise. Your point about vocational training strikes me as being quite well explained by my central argument. If women are going to be discriminated against in high-skill workplaces, then it may be more sensible for them to focus on other employment options, such as those made available by vocational training.

      I “seem to think gender roles in Japan…have changed little over time” based on the survey data that I referenced (there’s a link). Could you refer me to these sources please? The fact that the same gender roles exist elsewhere does not mean that they aren’t outmoded. These traditions may have been sensible in the past (before washing machines and other technologies), but there’s good reason to believe that is no longer the case. Similarly, the policies of the post war years you mention were sensible at that time but no longer. Womenomics would seem to be one part of a range of structural reforms Japan needs to undertake, alongside political and institutional change, to lift its growth potential. If that’s the ‘bandwagon’ I’m riding on, I think I’m in good company.

  3. Mr. Fabian,
    Thank you for a thought-provoking article.
    1) Cultural explanations for Japanese phenomena:
    It seems that you may see an irresistible and endemic cultural reluctance as the primary driving factor that has historically prevented women from participating meaningfully in the Japanese workforce, and that it is also a largely immovable factor in terms of future policy settings.
    The 2011 Survey on Civil Litigation in Japan is now available in English (hard copy held by ANU Library). It is the third in a series of four similar surveys to span some 15 years. One key aim of this groundbreaking empirical study is to elucidate the reasons for the historical Japanese reluctance to litigate. These reasons have for 50 years has been the subject of the key debate in English on Japanese law. It is now apparent that this reluctance was to a large degree produced from the top down by strategic structural, political and financial impediments – now being systematically dismantled since the Koizumi reforms.
    Similarly Japan’s equal opportunity law itself can be viewed as a strategic measure designed to slow rather than accelerate meaningful participation in the workforce by women by ‘capturing and controlling’ a building pattern of successful tort litigation by women who had suffered workplace discrimination, and preserving the status quo.
    I would encourage you to peel back the notion of irresistible and immovable cultural gender bias producing a ‘bottom-up’ trend for women to avoid meaningful workplace participation, and look actively at historical ‘top-down’ factors, such as the spousal tax deduction, lack of support for a childcare industry and preservation of features of Japanese labour law that systemically reduce the status and employability of women, such as menstrual leave(even to this day) and the ability of companies to order employees to submit to intrusive or excessive work and posting requirements with impunity.
    In other words, ask whether modern Japanese labour “culture” has been largely produced through the specific allocation of the female population to domestic or menial duties by means of strategically-designed tax, industry and labor policy.
    2) Diverse childcare options in Japan:
    I would also note that long day care (e.g. 8 am to 6 pm), weekend occasional care centres and even 24-hour childcare centres do exist in Japan in major cities, although not with sufficient capacity to meet demand.

    • Thanks for the comments Carol. Very interesting perspective. The capture and control narrative is quite compelling. Might be difficult to disentangle the chicken from the egg though. I’ll have a read around. Thanks for the references.

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