Are Women “Baby-Making Machines”?

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Yes, according to no less an expert than the health minister of Japan. Hakuo Yanagisawa made the comments recently as he addressed Japan’s low birth rate. According to Reuters:

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.”

Opposition-party politicians and men-on-the-street all over Japan are professing outrage and calling for the guy’s resignation. Me, I think it’s all a hoot. It’s hysterical that some crusty old geezers in my home country (Yanagisawa is 71) still think the way to get families to produce more kids is to guilt the women into bearing them.

The majority of Japanese women work, and 66% are or were married. And Japan has horrible maternity leave policies. Chizuko Ueno, a Tokyo University professor and well-known gender-rights advocate, spoke on the subject in a speech last spring (recounted here in the Japan Media Review):

Japanese women are being forced to choose between starting a family and pursuing their careers–and many plump for the latter. Although Japan has a law saying that firms are obliged to give one year of maternity leave, according to the Gender Equality Bureau, 70% of women are effectively forced to resign from work when they get pregnant. Barely 1 in 5 women take maternity leave, and despite being legally entitled to paternity leave, virtually no men (0.56%) take time off.

Many women report being told to quit or being bullied into leaving when they become pregnant. One young mother, “Miyako,” took maternity leave from her job at a trading company shortly before her son was born, but she doesn’t know yet if she will go back to work or not. “My boss told me, ‘Your position might not still be available when you come back.’” Despite that, she says that her company is relatively considerate to female employees. She said she has heard of expectant mothers made ill by the stress at other companies.

Other developed nations are at least making a stab at change. Korea, another nation ruled by crusty old geezers, is one. Here, from the Korea Herald today:

Last year, the government issued new maternity measures to support working moms. Under the policy, wages paid to female employees at mid-tier companies during their three-month maternity leave are fully covered by the state employment insurance program and government budget. Starting March, the government also plans to increase the maternity leave wages to 500,000 won a month from the current 400,000 won. The paid leave will also apply to mothers of up to three-year-old infants from the current one-year-olds, meaning that mothers can use their three months of leave anytime up to the time the child is four years old.

The really super funny thing is that the U.S. is just as bad at accommodating women who give birth–if not worse. Read this laugh-till-it-hurts study from the folks at Harvard and Canada’s McGill. It’s titled, “The Work, Family, and Equity Index: How Does the United States Measure Up?” The answer is: we don’t.

Here’s my favorite factoid, as interpreted by the AP report (bolds mine):

The U.S. is one of only five countries out of 173 in the survey that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave; the others are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

See? Funny! We’re worse than Liberia! Give me a sec to wipe my eyes.

More hilarious factoids:

• Fathers are granted paid paternity leave or paid parental leave in 65 countries, including 31 offering at least 14 weeks of paid leave. The U.S. guarantees fathers no such paid leaves.

• At least 107 countries protect working women’s right to breast-feed; the breaks are paid in at least 73 of them. The U.S. does not have federal legislation guaranteeing the right to breast-feed at work.

• At least 145 countries provide paid sick days, with 127 providing a week or more annually. The U.S. provides unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which does not cover all workers; there is no federal law providing for paid sick days.

• At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week. The U.S. does not have a maximum work week length or a limit on mandatory overtime per week.

In light of all this, this story, from WomensENews, about the National Chauvinistic Husbands Association, will sober you right up. It’s about a gang of crusty old geezers in Japan who suddenly awoke to the realization that they were lousy husbands and fathers (typically as they were being served with the divorce papers). A quote from the founder:

“I realized I had only communicated three things to my wife: ‘furo,’ ‘meshi’ and ‘neru,’ which mean ‘bath,’ ‘dinner’ and ‘sleep,'” he said. “It is the typical way for a strong husband to communicate with his family.”

Now that’s just sad. Well, change has to start somewhere, and home is as good a battleground as any.