An Unfiltered Look at Working Mom Life in Japan explores the realities faced by women in Japan through my own experiences. In other words, it’s not a criticism of the mechanics of life in Japan per se. Rather, it’s a subjective look at the realities women in Japan may face as they (re)enter the workforce after having children.
I repeat: This is not me as an angry western woman demanding that Japanese women “wake up” and let me deliver them into freedom. I understand and respect that different cultures do things differently. I’m just writing about my own experiences and the challenges that I have encountered as a working mom.
June 23 Update: Added a quote from an article in The Japan Times, “Pandemic magnifying household gender roles in Japan.”
My “employment circumstances” have changed since my post, A Day in the Life of a Working Mom in Tokyo, went live. I felt that this new post would serve as an update for my readers. The second reason is because I came across three articles that practically contradict one another when it comes to Japan’s dwindling birth rate.
I’ll start with the articles then circle back to my own circumstances.
The first two articles were published online in Japan Today on May 15, 2021, and on May 16, 2021, though the text is no longer available online. However, I linked to the respective versions via the Internet Archives Wayback Machine.
According to the result of a survey conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office, “61.1 percent of people in Japan believe it is hard to raise children in the country.” (May 15, 2021 Article).
The Cabinet Office reported in its April 28 report that the ongoing “coronavirus pandemic is likely to lead to a widening of the gender gap in Japan, already the worst among major advanced countries.”
The same report, quoted in a Japan Today article on May 16, 2021, also adds that “an entrenched view that men were breadwinners and women responsible for household chores and childrearing was still holding women back in society despite ‘rapid changes in individuals’ work styles and family forms.’”
Wait a minute, this sounds awfully familiar…
Could it be that societal expectations create obstacles that cause men and women to delay getting married and/or having children? Could it be that these factors impact women in the workforce?
Let me be real with y’all: parenting is hard. Having a child will change your life (obviously).
And, what makes it so hard is that every situation is different. Meaning, what works for one family may not necessarily work for another family.
I’ve never been pregnant or given birth outside of Japan. But, I appreciate the legal support and policies put in place regarding maternity leave, and child care leave.
On top of all the legal support, my city, Edogawa, has their own support measures, proudly detailed in a recent issue of the city newspaper.
So, I guess you’re wondering, if all these support measures are in place, what’s the deal with the low birth rate and why are (some) working women in Japan (me) complaining?
While everything looks good legally, the key issues that working women face remain entrenched in societal expectations. Which means that as long as a woman decides to be a stay-at-home mom/homemaker, all the support is there.
“Good Wife, Wise Mother” Versus “Working Mama”
In Japanese media, the archetypical Japanese woman embodies all the traits of ryosai kenbo (良妻賢母), a term that means “good wife, wise wother.” She’s a woman dressed sensibly, who manages the household finances, cooks balanced meals, lovingly prepares bento boxes, and takes care of her children so her husband can focus on his work.
(The husband, in turn, supports his family, not through his presence or contribution to household chores and parenting, but through his ability to support his family on a single income.)
Ryosai kenbo is in contrast to the term “working mother”: wa-kingu maza- (ワーキングマザー). It’s often written as the easily hashtag-able “wa- mama” (ワーママ).
Note how the term “working mother” is written in katakana, the blocky Japanese script used primarily in modern text to denote words and terms of foreign origin. That is to say, that the concept of a “working mom” is the antithesis of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be when she reaches childbearing age. (Or, perhaps I’m reading too much into it — you decide.)
At any rate, a working mother is just that, a mother (母) who works. She may be a wife (妻), but she might as well say “I don’t need no man” since she’s out there chasing yen. (Can you feel the sarcasm?) She’s not good (良) nor is she wise (賢). ‘Cause if she were wise, she’d know about all the 3 big obstacles that await her, like:
1. Finding Daycare
All the details on daycare in Japan can be found in this post, but here’s quick rundown:
Daycare in Japan is for babies 54 days old up to 6 years old.
Generally speaking, daycare schedules accommodate the working hours of full-time parents/guardians: Monday through Friday (sometimes Saturday), from early morning to late evening. They are closed on national holidays. Some daycare facilities open only at night to accommodate parents who work the night shift. Other facilities offer around-the-clock daycare or even offer temporary care.
Getting into daycare can be very competitive, especially if you live in metropolitan areas. It’s not uncommon for daycares to have waiting lists. Moreover, in order to get accepted at daycare, oftentimes parents need to submit proof of employment. This creates a catch-22 dilemma for women who may have quit their jobs after giving birth.
2. Daycare Costs
Tuition at public daycare is needs-based and on a sliding scale. For example, here in Edogawa City, monthly tuition fees start at 0 yen a month for a family on welfare. It goes up to 58,500 yen a month for a family that earns more than 425,000 yen a month. PDF (in Japanese) here.
On the other hand, tuition at private facilities can cost anywhere from 60,000 yen to 100,000 yen a month. Tuition fluctuates based on the age of your child and how many hours per day your child stays.
3. Income Cap
If a woman’s annual income exceeds 1.3 million yen (1.8 million yen if aged 60 or above, or disabled), she can not qualify as a dependent on her husband’s insurance under the Employees’ Health Insurance System and Employees’ Pension Insurance System. This means that she either has to join her company’s insurance scheme or enroll in the National Pension System and National Health Insurance.
Before a mom can (re) enter the workforce, she’s got to find daycare for her child. Public is the best way to go, but there’s hurdles to getting in. It’s likely that her child will go to private daycare, which will cost more. On top of that, a woman shouldn’t earn too much, or she won’t qualify as a dependent on her spouse’s insurance.
I nearly forgot the important part, but it’s almost always overlooked when talking about working moms.
Here’s the tricky part: Dealing with the “fourth trimester” and the hormonal, physical, and emotional changes of being a mom all while setting up a fair division of housework and parenting.
That’s the part that I got wrong, the part that no one told me. Even though I’d physically recovered from childbirth, and could wear all my pre-baby clothes again, I didn’t feel like myself anymore.
I always thought there was something wrong with me because of all the frustration, mom guilt, and resentment, and mixed up feelings. As it turns out, I wasn’t crazy — I just never knew that side of motherhood existed until I connected with other moms on social media!
It’s funny though, because according to “society,” I was doing everything right. Whenever women’s magazines/websites do surveys on “the kind of women men like/want to marry” the top choices are either “nurse” or “daycare/kindergarten teacher.”
(No doubt this has something to do with the ryosai kenbo thing. After all, a nurse knows how to take care of people when they’re sick. A daycare worker will “obviously” make a good mom. Basically, being a nurse/daycare/kindergarten teacher will increase your dating prospects, especially if you’re looking for a long-term relationship!)
In my case, I taught kindergarten in Japan for about 7 years. As someone looking to “eventually “settle down and expand my family,” (it was just my dog and I until I met my husband). I thought teaching was a good career choice. I’d done my time in a Japanese company, but office life just wasn’t it for me. I appreciated having a flexible working schedule, little overtime, and most importantly, summer and winter vacations!
In those days, I was a full-time contract employee. I worked 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, between 8 am and 6 pm.
I worked full-time up until taking maternity leave in December 2016. Then, I returned to work in November 2017, about 10 months after giving birth to my daughter.
My working hours were 9:30 am to 2:30 pm, and my daughter went to daycare with me 2-3 times a week. From April 2018, my daughter then went to daycare 5 days a week with me, 5 hours a day.
In my case, as a part-time worker, I earned too much to qualify as my husband’s dependent. I had to join my company’s insurance, which covers pension, health insurance, unemployment and worker’s accident compensation.
Add in tuition fees (about 35,000 yen), and when I got my monthly paycheck I started to wonder why I even bothered going back to work in the first place! Maybe Japanese housewives got it right, after all…
I felt like I had to work more to earn more in order to justify being a working mom. Eventually, I started putting pressure on myself to be more. From April 2019, I decided that I wanted to gradually extend my working hours until I was back on a full-time schedule at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
New Job Search
After my contract renewal negotiations fell through, I started to look for another job. But, without daycare secured, I didn’t even know where to start.
What made it especially worse is that all this happened in mid to late March. It was nearly impossible for me to find a teaching position, let alone a daycare/kindergarten for my daughter as the Japanese school year starts in April. On top of that, there was a pandemic going on!
Now, I do need to be clear that I am very fortunate that our household could survive on one income. But, for me, I felt like such a failure and was so embarrassed about losing my job. I was hurt for being let go after working at my company for almost 5 years.
That hurt and anger and embarrassment blinded me to my own talents. It wasn’t until I realized that my monthly page views for May 2020 doubled to nearly 10,000. Then, my page views from June almost hit 20,000. Then came Adsense revenue and Amazon Affiliate link sales, and more Instagram #sponcon opportunities…
By the end of the summer 2020, The Wagamama Diaries was at almost 40,000 monthly page views!
(I still can’t believe it! …And neither did Adsense because my account was temporarily blocked due to “invalid traffic.” )
Still, that’s when my attitude and mindset changed. I realized that I could do this full-time to earn income. I mean, it’s not like I was getting job offers from anywhere else!
One Year Later
One year later, I’m a full-time content creator and the owner of the sustainable J-beauty brand, [EDO BEAUTY LAB]. I have 5 main sources of income (freelancing, sponsored content, social media management, affiliate sales, AdSense), and it fluctuates from month to month.
However, I make more now than I did as a kindergarten teacher! I also started dabbling in investing, and now have a pretty solid portfolio, too.
My daughter now attends Japanese kindergarten. Her monthly tuition fee is around 8,000 yen a month (after the tuition reduction kicks in). It includes school lunch, PTA dues, and transportation. On the other hand, when I worked at a daycare/kindergarten facility, I paid 35,000 yen a month. And, that was with the staff discount!
A typical day at a Japanese kindergarten is 5 hours, and factoring in bus transport time, I get about 6 hours a day to do housework, freelancing, and set up [EDO BEAUTY LAB]. Looks like I got my work-life balance after all!
I acknowledge that I am very #blessed in my journey. It was hard, and man, was it expensive to incorporate a company, but I did it. I still have a long way to go, though!
I have many criticisms of the system here in Japan that seems like it exists to keep women at home. (Seriously, what’s up with that income cap for dependents?)
At the same time, I absolutely appreciate the maternity leave and childcare leave benefits in Japan. I don’t think I would have had the same positive experience without my city’s social programs for new and expecting mothers.
Overall, the one thing that could make my motherhood in Japan experience go smoother is support at home. And I’m not alone in this matter:
“Latest figures show that women earn on average 44% less than men while also spending five times more time on housework and child care.” The Japan Times, “Pandemic magnifying household gender roles in Japan.”
(And that’s a work in progress and a whole ‘nother story for another day, because whew chilay, I got stories for y’all!)
An Unfiltered Look at Working Mom Life in Japan is just my experience.
I know a lot of women out there absolutely killing it as a working mom in Japan. I know plenty of homemakers giving their all 100% everyday to their children and spouse.
Every household is different, everyone copes differently, and we never know people’s circumstances. But, we can be more supportive of our neighbors and be willing to listen when they share their story.