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 last month. 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.
Because of its rapidly aging population, very low birth rate and long-standing opposition to any meaningful increase in immigration, Japan's working-age population is projected to fall to about 55 million in 2050 from a peak of 87 million in 1995, economist Chad Steinberg of the International Monetary Fund said.
Japan could add as many as 8 million workers if it brought the employment rate of women up to that of men, analysts calculated. That would provide a huge boost to household incomes, consumer spending and the broader Japanese economy, which has been stagnant and mired in deflation for most of the last two decades.
Abe is the first prime minister to formally include the utilization of women's labor in the country's growth strategy, said Shizuka Takamura, a Tokyo University researcher and former analyst at Japan's Gender Equality Bureau.
The government's plan comes amid other signs of change, Takamura said, including decisions by Tokyo and some local governments to increase the availability of day-care centers.
Even so, she and most other experts think change will come very slowly.
The pressure to quit that Tachibana experienced is illegal in Japan, just as it is in many other countries. Japanese law guarantees pregnant women six weeks of leave before birth and eight weeks after, and some companies allow up to three years of maternity leave.
But reality doesn't work that way at many companies, especially smaller ones.
Tachibana said she could have complained publicly or taken the case to arbitration or court, but few Japanese women do that because of cultural resistance and the stigma attached to such disputes.
"The bottom line is, the women's situation is not going to improve until you address more fundamental equity issues," said Mireya Solis, an expert on the Japanese economy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Experts cite numerous hurdles.
Japan's tax system generally discourages the lower-earning spouse in a married couple from earning more than part-time wages.
"Another barrier is women taking care of parents" in a society with a fast-growing number of elderly people, Takamura said. Even though today's young Japanese men are more open to family care-giving duties, the burden still falls mostly on women.
Japanese husbands with a child spend on average about one-third less time than their American counterparts doing housework and child care, according to statistics from the two governments.
Japan's full-time female employees made 71 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2010, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the U.S., the comparable pay gap was smaller — 81 cents on the dollar.
Japan's record of women in top positions in government, business and other institutions also lags behind those of many other advanced economies, though some companies are trying to change that.
At Lawson Inc., an operator of 11,000 convenience stores in Japan, about 20% of the 6,500 employees are women. Jun Miyazaki, a senior vice president, attributed that low figure partly to a former Japanese regulation that restricted women from working past 10 p.m. In recent years, half of the company's new hires have been women, he said.
The company also has set a goal of increasing the ranks of female senior vice presidents to 30% within five years. Currently, only one of the company's 28 executives at that level is female.
Lawson also is trying to retain more women who have babies; at present, half never return after childbirth, Miyazaki said. Since April, the company has invited employees on maternity leave to stay in touch with Lawson by home-testing new products.
"We are trying to keep them involved with the company," he said.
But such measures won't address the problems faced by women such as 26-year-old Risa Kumabe.
Ever since her teenage years, Kumabe has loved working. She never imagined herself as a stay-at-home mom. During four years at Chuo University in Tokyo, she took economics classes in the mornings and worked in the afternoons, selling vegetables on the Internet and doing marketing for other e-commerce businesses.
She worked a year past graduation but quit when she got married in 2010. The next year, she had her first child. When her daughter turned 1, Kumabe went back to work part time.
All the government day-care centers she checked out were full, and none of the semipublic ones in her area would take children of women working part time.
She turned to a private nursery, the costs of which ate up her entire salary. Kumabe said it was still worth it.
"I so enjoyed my work," she said of her job handling accounts at a credit company.
Then, Kumabe had a second child, quitting a month before giving birth. She said her employer had no system for maternity leave.
"When he becomes 1 year old, I'd like a chance to look for work," Kumabe said, cradling her 6-month-old boy, Yoshiki, while her 2-year-old girl, Miyu, pulled on her mother's arms for attention. "But even then, it's going to be difficult."
"Putting two kids into day-care, financially it doesn't make sense," she said. "It's not only that. My housework has doubled. I'm working really hard at home."
"My husband says, 'Do as you want to,' but …," her voice trailing off. Moments later, she said: "There are so many problems of working mothers."