Japan Is Among the Hardest Countries for Working Mothers. These Families Want to Change That.
Men in Japan do fewer hours of domestic work than in any other wealthy nation.
When Motoko Rich, The Times’s Tokyo bureau chief, wrote about how this gender imbalance has affected Japanese women’s careers, we asked people in Japan to share their experiences.
Among the 200 responses we received, we found several surprising new themes. Several mothers and fathers there told us how they’ve managed to buck the norm, and shared their tips for a more equitable relationship.
Here are some of their stories, which have been condensed and edited. Some have been translated from Japanese.
Men in Japan speak out
In 2017 only 7.5 percent of Japanese fathers took paternity leave, according to a survey by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. It still faces a strong stigma among men in Japan.
Hitoshi Sugiyama, 29, Shizuoka
My wife and I got married two years ago and will have our first baby soon.
I quit my job last year because I got depressed. I worked overtime every day and even worked on weekends without payment.
But now we both have jobs and do family chores. When I was a university student, I lived alone. I learned how to do chores then, so I believe family chores are not just for mothers.
We do not decide our roles for the chores. My wife and I discuss which chores are done and not done. It works for us so far. We’ve already talked about our child, and the care of the baby will be the same — it is not only for the mother, but also for me.
Jeremiah Sawma, 41, Osaka
Japan’s work expectations deprive men of the opportunity to be good fathers and force women to choose between career and family.
I’m American and work full time at a Catholic middle school. My Japanese wife is a nurse and teaches courses required for day care workers’ certification about two days a week. We have three daughters aged 5, 7 and 11. When I’m home, I do more of the housework and child care while she prepares for classes.
I think schools here overwork the teachers, but the teachers also overwork themselves. They really love the kids and take an almost parental role, making it hard to turn down more responsibilities. It’s a wonderful environment to work in, but it’s hard for young teachers to build their lives, particularly for women. Many decide to remain single or work part time when they have children.
My wife may switch to nursing and work full time in the future. If she does, I will probably have to work part time to take care of the kids.
Yuichiro Nishida, 29, Toyota
My wife and I both have full-time jobs. I’m a nurse at the local government office, and my wife works for a trading company. We both get up around 5 a.m. One of us does laundry, while the other makes breakfast and bento for lunch.
When I leave the office, I pick up our son. I draw the bath, take in the laundry and prepare dinner. After we eat, I fold the clothes, take a bath with our son and put him to bed. My wife comes home after 10.
For change to happen, people in Japan should realize that men can do everything that women can, except breast-feeding.
[How does your family divide domestic labor? Please tell us in the comments, and include where you live.]
International women struggle to break the mold
In Japanese families with a child or children younger than 6, women spend about seven and a half hours a day on chores and child care, while men spend less than an hour and a half on the same type of work, according to Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office. The gap is narrower in the United States, where women do about five and a half hours a day, while men do a little over three hours.
Rosa Argyropoulos, 44, Tokyo
My husband and I met in Tokyo. He’s from Greece, and I’m from New York. In the first year after our twin boys were born, my husband worked his regular hours, leaving me to care for the infants. That led to my postpartum depression.
Family members flew in to help, but most could only stay a few weeks. My in-laws came for two months, which was crucial for my recovery. But our parents are too old to take 16-hour flights just to help with cooking and watching the twins so we can sleep.
When my health deteriorated, my husband was finally willing to cut back his hours. But that led to his demotion, twice.
At the moment, I earn more than my husband, so we’ve decided to have him be the twins’ main caretaker for now. We also spend a substantial amount of money to hire helpers to clean and cook a few meals a week.
Bonnie Li, 38, Nagoya
I am an American married to a Japanese man.
The birth of our daughter put a lot of stress on our family, and it was a constant battle to get my husband more involved (he was always busy with his hobbies, work or at university for further education). I made him quit some hobbies, at least until our daughter was a little older.
I once cried in frustration because my husband was too busy enjoying his own food to notice that I was hungry and sitting down to cold, unappetizing food. Since then, he has considered my feelings a little bit more.
Now, I don’t just ask my husband to make food; I demand it. For Christmas I told him he was going to make a strawberry shortcake with our daughter. He had never done it in his life. I had little hope for the results, but it turned out to be the tastiest spongecake I’d ever eaten. I guess being no-nonsense and demanding has helped make my husband helpful and considerate.
Though my husband helps much more than the average Japanese man, I’ve decided firmly not to have more than one child. I was on the brink of making the decision to divorce because my husband was mostly absent. One day I got stress-induced hives. Realizing my limits and asking for help probably saved my marriage.
Yukari Sakamoto, 52, Tokyo
I am Japanese-American, and my husband, Shinji, is Japanese. Before starting a family, I made it clear that if we had children, I wanted him to contribute 50 percent in raising them.
We have an 8-year-old son, and my husband has been very good about splitting tasks, such as washing dishes, cooking, grocery shopping and taking him to school. However, we are self-employed and control our work schedule. I realize that this is rare.
We lived with our in-laws for a year, and I could see that my mother-in-law was surprised when I would ask my husband which task he wanted to do after dinner: washing the dishes or bathing our son. She did all of the work for her husband and sons.
I want our son to grow up thinking it’s natural for his father to do chores because I want him to be that kind of father.
Louise G. Kittaka, 49, Tokyo
I’m from New Zealand. My Japanese husband works long hours as an executive and travels frequently for business. He’s a devoted father to our three children, but if he gets home at 11 p.m., how much housework can he really be expected to do? On the flip side, someone has to make dinner, attend to the kids’ affairs and do laundry.
As long as the Japanese government continues to couch raising children as a woman’s issue, nothing will change. It isn’t about making it easier for mothers to work — it’s about making it easier for all parents to leave the office earlier and spend time as a family.
In the meantime, working women lucky enough to have their mother or mother-in-law close by can rely on them, while the rest of us muddle through.
Japanese women strike a balance
To bolster Japan’s lagging economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for more women to join Japan’s labor force. By last summer a record 70 percent of women ages 15 to 64 were working, the Japanese financial publication Nikkei reported. But a Reuters poll of Japanese companies found that women held less than 10 percent of management roles.
Eri Gustke, 30, Tokyo
My Japanese-American husband and I both work and have two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 7-month-old boy. I returned to my job in January after eight months of maternity leave. We’ve agreed to share all of the child care and housework.
My husband is very good, maybe better than me at taking care of the children. When I tell people this, their reaction is “you are so lucky” or “he is so cooperative.” But child care is the responsibility of both parents.
The reason I could ask my husband to do everything 50-50 is because my income was higher when we had our first child. In the couples I know whose husbands are very involved, the wives earn more.
Satomi Yamakawa, 33, Tokyo
We share the work: My husband takes on household duties, while I take care of our 19-month-old twins.
We made efforts to change his mind-set, and I tried to rely on him. Before I tended to feel sorry for him when he was doing chores. I couldn’t relax; I felt guilty taking a break when the household duties hadn’t been done. Now we’ve learned to keep our pace well.
If we women decide to leave something to our husbands, we should rely on them. We shouldn’t discourage our husbands by saying that they didn’t do something well, or instruct them to do this and that.
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.
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My Lesson Planning
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April 11, 2019 at 10:36PM