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Woman kinder-rupted

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My wife dashes out the front door, our six-year-old son, half-dressed in his karate "dogi," scurrying behind her. “We’re going to be late! You can tie the obi in the elevator.”

It’s Tuesday again, which means my wife had to pick our two boys up at their kindergarten bus stop at 2:40 p.m., then drop the older one off at his 3 p.m. "soroban" (abacus) lesson at the local community center. Fifty minutes later, she fetched him so he could have a quick bite at home before shuttling him back to the center. Like many of the other mothers, she will observe the entirety of his karate lesson, dutifully taking notes and occasionally videoing. Once home, she will go over what our son has learned that day, and admonish the boy if necessary, before putting him and his younger brother to bed with a book or 10. Tomorrow it is soccer practice. The day after that, “Play School.” Fridays are for English and, once again, karate.

Although Japanese women are said to be some of the most highly educated women among OECD countries, their participation in the labor force, at 48.7% in 2014, is much lower than the average, and falling. Part of the decline is due to Japan’s aging society — male participation in the labor force dropped from 78.2% in 1993 to 70.1% in 2014 — but the main reason that comparatively few Japanese women work is due to societal demands on mothers. According to The Economist, “When [Japanese] women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America. Quite a lot of those 70% are gone for good.”

To address this, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in 2013 that raising the female participation rate and allowing women to “shine” in the workplace would be one of the most important aspects of his Abenomics growth initiative. While I applaud any effort to support working mothers, my courtside perspective on parenting in Japan has me doubting how successful his proposal will be in the end.

Japanese corporate culture — the dominance of males in the workplace, "sabisu zangyo," i.e. unpaid overtime, "matahara" (maternity harassment), etc — is often cited as the one of the main obstacles holding Japanese women back. I find, however, that rather than this oft-maligned “honne"culture, it is the demands of the home culture — namely, the daily imperative of rearing and educating one’s own children — that has so many mothers in this country shunning full-time work.

Although the percent of Japanese children left at daycare peaks at 42.6% when children are three years old, from the age of four (the age at which kids enter kindergarten), 52.9% are in kindergarten, compared to 39.4% at daycare. By age six, 62.3% of kids are enrolled in kindergarten; and only 37.7% at daycare.

You might think that with the little ones parked in “kindy” all day, a mother would have a sudden windfall of free time — and so did I when our second son was also enrolled — but think again. For one, most kindergartens in Japan only keep the children for three to five hours a day, compared to seven or eight in the U.S. And, two, the typical kindergarten places great demands upon parents, the bulk of which falls upon the mother. Duties include serving lunch, taking part in excursions, attending monthly social gatherings for guardians (read mothers), event-planning, sitting in on lectures, serving on the executive board, and on and on.

Then there are the extracurricular activities to which mothers must ferry their young children to and from. The typical Japanese child attends two to three lessons a week, some as many as five or six. Many mothers believe that these lessons, which run the gamut from swimming and soccer to piano and cram school, are necessary to ensure their children’s future success and can spend upwards of ¥30,000 a month on them.

Many Japanese women so feel strongly that it is their role to not only raise, but to also discipline their children, that they are loath to leave much to chance. I can’t help but wonder how many mothers with young children would be willing to return to the workplace no matter how brightly they were permitted to shine.

I’d love to ask my own wife what she thinks about all this, but she’s scrambling out the front door again: it’s her turn to put the kindergarten’s library in order.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

8 Comments
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Very interesting read with a lot of good points. I disagree that most kindergartens only keep kidz for 3-5 hours and make you cook, go out together, etc. Most kindergartens I know even take kidz till evening if you pay and have full time cooks and organize excursions. But apparantly in middle school things can get pretty crazy if you join the PTA.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Our kindergarten does have after-kindy day care called "Takenoko" (bamboo shoot), but it's a lonely place. Most of the mothers, because they do not work, come and fetch their children at two or two-thirty when the children are dismissed. This may be due to the fact that ours is a private kindergarten. Public kindergartens, I suspect, have more kids staying late.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Difference between Yochien and Hoikoen.

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Yeah, great article, because the thing holding back women reentering the workplace is not just employers and their expectations/demands. It is Japanese society as a whole

If I may make a criticism, the article mentions lots of optional chores done by mothers like taking the child to abacus classes which could be omitted without much detriment to the child. There is no need to take your kid to a different thing every day. Believers in non-structured play would even claim that it is harmful to their development.

The real problem in Japan are the chores done by mothers that are not optional. These include school PTAs, residential associations, and being on duty for club activities (during office hours in the school holidays and/or weekends if your job entails working them). All three of these are coerced volunteering, and believe me, all the other parents and neighbours will be keeping very close tabs on you and how much you chip in. On top of this, schools can operate in a very working-parent-unfriendly way, having upper elementary and lower elementary go home at different times, taking funny half days off with no after-school club, setting all homework so its due for the following day, and just generally messing about in the expectation that one parent is always on call as a servant to the kids. One example of this is classes shutting down for up to a week when a low number of kids are sick (gakkyu heisa). This can force you to take time off work at one day's notice when your kid is not even unwell. We all know how Japanese employers look upon people who take time off.

Just our own experience in inaka, but we found that parental chores and running around actually increased once our daughter entered elementary school. Based on Western thinking, I thought that school age would be much easier, but the opposite has been true. I find the expectations of inaka school stifling and quite frankly would not have had three kids if I knew this is the way it was going to be.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Mr Crowe needs another school.

If the mother in this article were to drop the abacus, soccer, "play school", karate et cetera she and the child would have more free time, more fun time, and more learning-from-experience time.

Also, working women take their kids to hoikuen which keeps the kid until 5: 30 ~ 6:00 or 7:00 pm or so, depending on location. Those kindergartens organize their meetings around the work schedules of the parents. No meetings during the day; no parental cooking (god for bid), cleaning, organizing et cetera. Parents are almost never asked to go along with excursions. Even the school festival is organized by the teachers and it is held on a Sunday (poor teachers).

One of our friends sends his kid off to ‘activities’ everyday - soccer, karate, calligraphy, abacus, pottery, swimming so much so that the kid (at age seven) didn’t know the days of the week. Monday wasn’t getsyou-bi; it was sa-ka-no hi. Tuesday wasn’t kayou-bi; it was soroban-no-hi etc. Plus, he only liked soccer.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's good to hear that some kindergardens/hoikuen do not schedule things during the day. My daughters' does though, sankanbi, kondankai, the (unmissable!) sports day, a kamemeishikai, the grandparents day where parents go if gramps lives far away etc. They have days off too, when your child can only go in a different facility that needs to be booked several days in advance.

I also read that in Tokyo's 23 wards, they are actually serve the whole school lunch. In large parts of the country, you have a bizarre situation where the child has to take a bento of cooked rice to eat with the dishes provided by the yoichien or hoikuen, basically half a school dinner brought from home. Its not a packed lunch or bento, because you are free to put what you like in them. Its a bento box with plain cooked rice in it called a "shushoku bento". The reason it happens is that there is an old bureaucratic rule that says yoichien or hoikuen do not have to provide rice, and it is cheaper for them not to do so. So up and down the country, you have lots of parents spending say 10-15 minutes a day putting rice in a bento just so that kids can eat cold rice with the warm food the yoichien or hoikuen provides. Providing freshly boiled rice would presumably be easy for a yoichien or hoikuen already providing more far complex cooked food, but saving parents 10-15 minutes a day is not important. Note that millions of Japanese families no longer eat rice for breakfast (or for dinner for that matter), so they won't automatically have cooked rice available before the child goes to school. Hence, the 10-15 minutes. The reason I mention this is that it's a symptom of the system not caring about creating easily avoided chores for parents. "You're a housewife with loads of time, right?" is the assumption. The youchien my older kids went to insisted my wife sewed about fifteen different bags and covers before our kids could enter. They all had to be hand-made to a certain specification. Some of our friends had to buy a sewing machine especially for it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The only thing that irks my wife about our daughters yoichien is that the mums have to make certain shoe bags and other pouches from scratch.....whats the point in that?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Children need their fathers around too. Things just aren't balanced... This may even be a contributing factor of the "feminization" of boys in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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