Childbirth and Japanese Corporations

ICU graduate
【The article below is the same as the article that appears in the eighth issue of the CGS Newsletter.】

“You are pregnant. The expected date of delivery will be December 1st.”
Wow. Toiling through the new personnel training this spring, it had never occurred to me that this larger-than-life episode could happen to me. I was quick in deciding to go ahead with my pregnancy, but my decision was obviously not met with a warm reception at work. In my subsequent dealings with the company, I was brought face to face with the harsh reality of the Japanese working environment for women and witnessed firsthand the unenlightened views of the Japanese corporate world with regard to pregnancy and child rearing.

There are two main obstacles for working women considering motherhood - institutional inadequacy and the lack of understanding or support from their colleagues. The company I work for has a reputation for providing better benefit packages for women, but I soon learnt that this only applied to employees who have worked for a certain number of years. New recruits like myself were not eligible and could only receive the statutory benefit entitlements of the National Health Insurance and the minimum period of maternity leave according to the Labour Standard Act. The benefit barely meets birth expenses and living costs during maternity leave. Moreover, the length of the leave – six weeks for pre-birth and eight weeks for post-birth – is the bare minimum required for maternal health. A large number of companies are yet to implement their own benefit packages. Female employees in such companies are forced to make do with just the statutory entitlements, regardless of their working years. The situation is even more difficult for single mothers and disabled women.

Furthermore, the inadequate system also undermines the minds of people under it. The other day, I happened to be talking to a senior female colleague who had just learned of my pregnancy.

“I too am considering when the ‘ideal time’ will be for motherhood.”

Her words astonished me. I learned for the first time that she, despite being highly efficient, skilled in languages and entrusted with many responsibilities, has been working with the unstable status of a contract employee. I realised that her indecision regarding pregnancy was based on the fear that it may affect the renewal of her next annual contract. Her words, “the ideal time,” also made me think; because her “ideal” was measured according to corporate interests rather than to such factors as age and her overall personal life plan. It shows that pregnancy for working women has become a career-oriented event rather than a personal event in life, as engagement or leadership is prioritized over family planning. It might also be argued that organizing natal schedules according to work schedules means that the female childbearing sex has been utterly and unquestioningly embedded in the male non-childbearing sex. Women would be greatly encouraged if they could receive social support at such an important time of their life. But in the Japanese corporate world, in which the working model is based upon a male perspective, it would be considered merely selfish for a woman to give birth on her own accord.

When I visited the in-house clinic the other day to report on my pregnancy, I nearly burst into tears upon receiving an unexpected word of congratulations from the staff. Looking back, it was the first time I had been congratulated for my pregnancy by an in-house personnel. I intend to continue expressing my personal perspectives with a view to realizing a society that allows a woman’s free choice in her life, job and working environment and offers every woman, regardless of her job status, heart-felt congratulations and support in motherhood.