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Will Long Working Hours Stymie ‘Womenomics’?

As a 33-year-old working mother of two, Mizue Terasaki knows what it’s like to commute on a crowded train with a baby and a stroller. “It’s very hard,” she says.

“Why do I continue working?” she once asked in a monthly column she writes for the finance ministry’s public relations magazine. “I can get neither work nor child-rearing done to my satisfaction.”

Women are rare among the finance ministry’s career bureaucrats. Women with children are even rarer.

But those like Ms. Terasaki are just the ones Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to help as part of his “womenomics” plan to enhance the role of women in the workplace.

“I will create an environment where women can realize their aspirations both at work and at home,” the prime minister said in an address to parliament on Jan. 24. “Child-rearing is a valuable work experience itself. It should be capitalized upon in the workplace.”

In a speech at the United Nations in September, Mr. Abe also vowed to help career women. He has said he wants listed companies to have at least one female director on their boards, and women in 30% of all leadership positions by 2020, starting with the civil service. He has promoted women to two undersecretary posts in his own Cabinet, and has appointed the first female chief of a prefectural police force.

Just 2.0% of the finance ministry’s senior positions are now held by women. The government’s overall rate is 3.0%.

For Ms. Terasaki, now that her two sons are five and nine, she doesn’t need to worry about getting calls from a day-care center in the middle of the day asking her to pick up a toddler with a fever, or taking three days off on short notice to care for a sick child. But she still has school conferences to attend, laundry to do, and schoolwork to help out with.

“When I gave birth to the first baby 10 years ago, I thought I would be able to get fully back to work in a few years, or at least, close to it,” she wrote in another column. Then as her children went off to school, she realized they still required just as much attention as before, if not more.

Mr. Abe has set aside a budget to increase the number of day-care facilities, although he doesn’t have children himself.

So what are the prospects for womenomics? Expectations have been muted so far, with some criticizing Japan’s culture of extremely long working hours.

Career finance ministry officials routinely work past midnight, sometimes sleeping in their offices to prepare ministers’ responses to questions in parliament, and to address long lists of funding requests from ministries, political parties and lobby groups.

Ms. Terasaki’s fears that without changes to this culture of long working hours, womenomics will only increase the number of overworked women.

Ms. Terasaki suggests that one solution would be to find ways to make government work more efficient. Opposition lawmakers should submit their questions further in advance, instead of the night before, so civil servants can save on the midnight oil. Some work could be done from home, rather than face-to-face with stacks of paper, still the norm in government offices.

Ms. Terasaki believes working hours should be shortened for both men and women to give them more time for household chores and child-rearing, not to mention caring for parents and taking care of their own health.

“No matter how many support programs there are, working mothers can’t work as hard as they want unless Japan’s work culture changes,” she says.



This news was published on February 3, 2014.