Reviving Japan With ‘Devil Wives’

Working mothers could boost the economy, the government says | Angry relatives “asked if I hadn’t had a miscarriage on purpose”

Chris Cooper and Yuki Hagiwara

Working mother Suzuki is in the minority


After her son was born, Terue Suzuki moved back to her childhood home on weekdays so she could work while her sister cared for the baby, leaving her husband alone in the house they shared. “It was like a weekend marriage,” Suzuki says of the arrangement 14 years ago. “I had a satisfying job and really wanted to go back to it. In Japan, when a woman chooses work instead of staying at home to look after her husband, she’s called a ‘devil wife.’ ”

To spur the country’s moribund economy, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda aims to boost the proportion of working women aged 25 to 44 to 73 percent by 2020, from 66.5 percent in 2010. Limited day care, peer pressure, and job inflexibility mean Suzuki remains a minority in Japan, where 70 percent of women quit work with the birth of their first child, says Nana Oishi, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. In the U.S., about a third of new mothers don’t return to work, according to a 2010 Goldman Sachs report.

Suzuki, who remains happily married with two children, says she was fortunate to have the support of her husband and employer. The telecommunications company where she works let her switch departments to leave the office earlier and offered shorter hours, though she chose to remain full-time. She moved to her parents’ place in Yokohama after failing to find a day-care center near her home. Her sister quit a temporary job and looked after the baby for six months until an opening came up at a nursery near her parents’ house. Suzuki, now 45, continued with the “weekend marriage” when her second child was born, for a total of eight years.

A Japanese newspaper called her oniyome, popularizing the term devil wife, in an article on flexible office schedules that highlighted her determination to return to work. The phrase gained widespread awareness in 2005 when national television aired an 11-episode drama called Oniyome Nikki, or Diary of a Devil Wife.

In a survey of more than 6,000 couples in Japan in 2010, 70 percent of respondents said mothers should stop work to focus on raising children when they’re small, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. While Japan topped the list of 144 countries for innovation capacity in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report, it placed 87th for women’s participation in the labor force, the second-lowest, after Italy, among Group of Seven developed economies.

More than half of the 700 respondents in a survey by recruiter Robert Walters Japan said the main challenge for working women is balancing career and family. And 7 in 10 said starting a family makes a woman less employable. “I wanted to have kids but I kept putting it off because I wanted to gain recognition for my work,” says Yoko Ogata, an employee at a trading company who has no children.

After she married a co-worker, colleagues told her to “be a good wife,” while others told her husband he “shouldn’t make his wife continue working,” she says. In her mid-30s, Ogata started managing small teams, and when she became pregnant, she says, “I wasn’t sure what to do ... I was finally being given responsibility to handle projects, and by getting pregnant I worried that people would say, ‘This is why we can’t use women.’ ”

Ogata, now 46, had a miscarriage after coming home late at night during the seventh week of pregnancy. “My husband and mother-in-law were very angry and asked if I hadn’t had a miscarriage on purpose,” she says. Ogata didn’t tell co-workers about the pregnancy or miscarriage, and she and her husband later divorced.

If Japan’s female employment rate rose to match the 80 percent rate for males, the workforce would grow by 10 percent, or 8.2 million people, spurring a 15 percent expansion of gross domestic product, Goldman Sachs economists wrote in a 2010 report called Womenomics. Easing rules, such as outdoor-space requirements for child-care facilities, would help make that happen, says Kathy Matsui, Goldman’s chief Japan strategist and a mother of two. The government can encourage more women to stay in the workforce, she said in an e-mail, “through greater deregulation and better enforcement of rules regarding equal employment opportunity and pay.”

The bottom line To boost the economy, Japan wants to increase the proportion of young women who work to 73 percent from 66.5 percent.


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