Asia: Women and work in Japan We're busy. Get an abortion
Pregnant women are furious about how they are treated at the office.
“Abenomics is womenomics,” Japan's prime minister declared, marrying two atrocious words in a single phrase, at a glamorous shindig called WAW! , or the “World Assembly for Women in Tokyo”, on August 28th-29th.Before an international audience of high-powered female leaders and businesswomen, Shinzo Abe promised to help women “shine” at work as a way to boost Japan's talent pool and economy.As the conference opened, the Diet (parliament) passed a long-awaited law calling on companies to find ways to promote more women.Yet such grand visions are beside the point for most working women.Sayaka Osakabe, founder of a new non-profit outfit called Matahara Net, which campaigns for the rights of pregnant women at work, says that before “shining” women just need to be allowed to work without being harassed.
Matahara, (a contraction of “maternity” and “harassment” ) , is illegal but rife.The worst examples involve bosses urging pregnant women to have abortions.One woman who now works for Matahara Net landed a prized “career-track” job at a big bank alongside her boyfriend, who worked in another department.After she became pregnant, a manager told her he would “crush” both her own career and that of her boyfriend if she went ahead and had the baby.In 2011 she took the hint and had an abortion.Ms Osakabe herself suffered two miscarriages.She says that stress caused by ill-treatment at work was partly to blame.
Other women have had to apologise in front of co-workers for becoming pregnant.Those on precarious part-time contracts are particularly vulnerable to being fired while on maternity leave.A fifth of young mothers experience some kind of office harassment, according to Rengo, Japan's biggest trade union confederation.Part of the problem is the country's culture of pointless workaholism—office workers are expected to stay late even if they have no work to do.
Anyone exempted from this ordeal—mothers with young children, for instance—is envied.Also, since companies seldom hire cover for women on maternity leave, colleagues have to pick up the burden.Twice as many female as male colleagues dish out verbal criticism of pregnant women.It is one reason why seven out of ten women give up their jobs on having their first child.
Not all women think this is a problem.Ayako Sono, a conservative who was once on a government panel on education, calls matahara a “dirty” expression that signifies women's overreaction to minor social discomforts.Yet it is hard for the government to ignore the harassment, since it contributes to the relentless decline in the Japanese population, policymakers' biggest headache.Women who find it hard to combine work and motherhood often forgo the latter.Last year the Supreme Court ruled for the first time on matahara.It found in favour of a mother who had sued a medical practice in Hiroshima for demoting her.This judgment, and Mr Abe's championing of working-women's rights, have emboldened more women to speak out.Those expecting are starting to expect better treatment.