Author: Naomi Koshi, Otsu
Japan’s population has been falling since 2011. In 2014 Japan’s total fertility rate stood at 1.42 children per woman — one of the lowest in the OECD. Population decline has led to labour shortages, decreased consumption and a related hit to the economy, with GDP growth at an anaemic 0.8 per cent in 2015. Decreased tax revenues further raise the spectre that social welfare programs, such as social security-type benefits paid to the elderly, may no longer be fiscally sustainable in the near future. Embracing diversity is a key factor in solving these issues.
In Japan discussions of diversity tend to focus on gender. In 2015 Japan’s central government passed the Act for the Empowerment of Women in the Workforce. This legislation sought to both, encourage women to stay in the workforce after starting a family, and to encourage businesses to promote women to positions of power.
Around 60 per cent of Japanese women leave the workforce after having their first child. A primary cause for this labour-related exile is the state of Japan’s childcare system. Restrictions on immigration have limited the number and affordability of home-based childcare providers. Most women who choose to continue working after having a child are forced to seek out a coveted spot in a nursery for their newborns.
In April 2015, some 23,000 Japanese families could not find a suitable nursery for their children to attend. This has become so common that the term taiki jidō, or ‘waiting children’, has been coined to describe the situation. Women struggle to balance work and children. This dichotomy has created a scenario in which women must choose one over the other.
Since becoming mayor of Otsu four years ago, I’ve focused a great deal of energy on improving childcare programs and encouraging women to stay in the workforce. To achieve this, I’ve increased city subsidies to private nurseries and have successfully pushed for the construction of 29 new nurseries able to accommodate around 2000 children. This objective has become even more vital as the birth rate in Otsu has recently increased and the number of full-time working mothers with children under the age of five has doubled.
Working women also face difficulties in climbing the corporate ladder. Only 7.5 per cent of Japanese corporate executives are female. To address this, the Act requires certain companies to set goals to increase the number of female managers. While it is heartening to see such action from the Japanese government, it is essential to note that only 12 per cent of national legislators, 4 per cent of governors and 1 per cent of mayors are women. When first elected mayor of Otsu at 36, I was the youngest woman ever elected mayor of a Japanese city.
The situation is the same at Otsu City Hall. Though technically speaking 22 per cent of City Hall employees holding management positions are women, if nurses and kindergarten teachers are excluded the number falls to 5 per cent. To address this issue, I set up a committee to improve the work environment for women. Some women on the committee have said that they do not want to be promoted because promotion may require them to work longer hours. Unlike their husbands, they stress that they are often also responsible for household chores, taking care of older family members and child-rearing.
In Japan, long work hours and working overtime are considered the norm. But labour productivity is lower than in many other OECD countries. To improve this, Otsu City Hall now allows overtime only two days a week. We have also been shifting the employee evaluation system from one based on hours worked to one that stresses results and efficiency.
Though women are granted legal equality under the Japanese constitution, true equality has yet to be attained in practice. It is important that women be able to stay in the workforce after they have children and that they be able to take on the same leadership roles as men in the workplace. If more women had children while staying in the workforce, the birth rate would also likely rise, further minimising the population crisis that Japan faces and addressing the ongoing labour shortage. An OECD survey indicated that granting such employment equality to women in Japan would increase GDP by an additional 20 per cent over the next 20 years.
Another solution to population decline is immigration. Though Japan has extremely strict immigration controls, more immigration could initially be centred on specific industries. For example, Japan currently suffers from a lack of professionals working in both child and senior care. This is a critical reason why many cities cannot provide enough nurseries for their citizens.
Due to high costs, Japanese people rarely have home-based nannies or domestic carers. The Japanese government is very restrictive in issuing visas to foreigners who intend to work as either domestic workers or nannies, and these restrictions greatly affect the cost of these services. The national government has recently begun to select several designated test cities where foreigners with special visas are permitted to do such work.
Unlike other OECD countries, a discussion on immigration has yet to begin in Japan. Anti-immigrant sentiments recently emanating from the United Kingdom and other countries in the European Union will likely further delay liberalisation of Japan’s immigration policy.
Japan’s population is declining rapidly, and the nation is being forced to make a choice about how to move forward. Fear of change and the consequent inaction will likely lead to a shrinking economy and cuts to public services and facilities. Japan must chose the path of diversity in embracing an inclusive society open to women, non-ethnic Japanese and many other people. Diversity is not only a human rights issue but, in the case of Japan, a key policy solution.
Naomi Koshi is the mayor of Otsu, Japan.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Reinventing Japan’.