Tokyo — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has an unprecedented plan to boost economic growth and shore up his country's shrinking labor force — help more women return to work.
About two-thirds of Japanese women leave the workforce after the birth of their first child. Most do not return for years, if ever. It's a major reason the employment rate of Japanese women is one of the lowest in developed economies, particularly among those married and well-educated.
Abe's government wants to change that situation for women such as Saori Tachibana.
Drifting in a dead-end clerical job despite her college degree, Tachibana figured that, at 30, she had better buck up if she wanted financial independence. So, for 10 months, she juggled her full-time work with Saturday classes and studied day and night to become a certified labor consultant.
Her efforts paid off with a good job at a legal and accounting firm in Tokyo. But when she got married and became pregnant, her company pressured her to leave.
"They didn't say directly for me to quit," she said on a recent evening, sitting in a 700-square-foot apartment in Tokyo's Koto district that she shares with her husband, Shingo, and their 2-year-old son, Harushi.
"I told them that my husband was even planning to take a long child-care leave so I could keep working," she said, "but the company wasn't willing to let me stay."
That kind of outcome doesn't sit well with Abe's government, which won a convincing parliamentary election in July. It has pledged to raise Japan's labor participation of women to the world's highest level and is urging companies to promote women.
"It is essential for the 'power of women' — Japan's greatest potential, which had not been leveraged fully to date — to be fully utilized," according to Abe's growth plan.
The government's plan promotes maternity leave and would expand public child-care centers. Firms would get financial incentives to hire more women. In addition, some groups are trying to break ages-old cultural norms about women single-handedly raising children by portraying men who play the role of child caregiver as caped heroes.
Behind that drive is the country's acute need to expand its labor pool. READ MORE
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