Drama Aside, Women Workers Still Struggle in Japan

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The thing about working at TIME is that some days you find yourself chatting over coffee about foreign policy; other days, you find yourself chatting over coffee with the people who make the policy.

That’s what happened late last month, when a senior adviser to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe trooped into our conference room with his entourage. (The chat was on the record, but he asked not to be identified by name.)

Earlier in February, I’d written in this space about a case of foot-in-mouth disease that afflicted another cohort of the PM, health and labor minister Hakuo Yanagisawa:

On January 27, Yanagisawa told his supporters in a speech touching on Japan’s low birthrate: “Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head.”

I didn’t have to ask about it; the politician brought it up. We had asked about Abe’s plummeting popularity ratings in the Japanese public. The adviser smiled a little and shook his head. The so-called drop in popularity, he said, was due to a number of scandals that had befallen the administration–among them, Yanagisawa’s little verbal booboo.

Yet many women still struggle in the workplace, I said, despite their growing numbers. Economic realities dictate that they work; yet, if they do, there are few social safety nets in place to help them raise their children. Thus Japan’s abysmally low birth rate. (That, and the fact they allow no immigration–but that’s a different topic.) “So what is the Abe administration doing to ease working women’s burden?” I asked.

Again the pol smiled. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, had launched some initiaitives, including opening more state-subsidized childcare centers and offering tax rebates to parents of young children. “But that didn’t address the real problem,” he said.

We leaned forward.

“The real problem,” he said, “is that young Japanese do not want full-time jobs anymore. Everyone has a part-time job, and, of course, if you lead such a lifestyle, you do not want to have children.” Why, just this week, he said, grandly, Abe had appointed a commission to study the problem.

Okay. He’s not totally wrong here; Japan does have an enormous youth employment problem. In this terrific story, TIME’s Bryan Walsh and Yuki Oda report on a new hit drama in Japan on exactly this point. In the TV show, a young “freeter”–which sort of translates to freelance, part-time worker–showcases her prodigious skills and work ethic during a stint at a failing company, yet rejects offers to go full-time there. She’s the model of a generation, many of them women, brought up with no expectation of the lifetime jobs promised–and taken away from–their parents. Full-time work equals responsibility without reward; part-time work equals freedom.

But the joke may be on full-timers and part-timers alike. Although the salaryman’s lifetime employment is still considered the Japanese ideal, today nearly one-third of workers in Japan are part-timers like Haruko, up from 20% in 1994. The change is the result of a painful transformation that saw Japanese corporations drastically cut back on hiring while shedding tens of thousands of workers during the economically disastrous years of the 1990s and early 2000s.

As our Tokyo team reports,

The trouble is, few temps can actually earn a living wage. Almost 40% of contract workers receive salaries that are less than 80% of a full-time wage, contrary to government guidelines. Haruko may command top yen on TV, but good luck jetting to Madrid on your off days when you make less than $11,000 a year, as 34% of male and 55% of female part-timers do.

This doesn’t excuse the Japanese pol of such obfuscatory malarkey. Working women in Japan need help if they’re to raise families as well as hold jobs. On the job front, they need access to decent opportunities, something approaching equal pay, and chances to advance beyond tea-serving roles in the office or bento-making stints in the factory. On the home front, they need access to decent childcare, something approaching equal caregiver status from their husbands, and a chance at what most of us in America take for granted: both family and career.

It’s a crying shame that a country as advanced as Japan isn’t there yet, nor even close.