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Female workers in Japan asked to take 'turns' with pregnancies to delay leave, report says

Young mothers samba dance with their babies at the Mama Fes event in Tokyo.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images
Young mothers samba dance with their babies at the Mama Fes event in Tokyo.

Cultures of "matahara," or "maternity harassment," still present at Japanese workplaces, discourage women from having children, experts say, and may even influence when they become pregnant if they do. The issue came under recent focus after Japanese newspaper The Mainichi featured a man who said he and his wife broke an "unspoken rule" by becoming pregnant before their "turn" at her workplace.

The husband and his wife, a childcare worker in Japan's Aichi Prefecture, apologized for what her boss described as "selfishly breaking the rules," the 28-year-old man told the newspaper in a letter. According to the letter, the director of the child care center set up "shifts" for when female employees could have children to avoid too many workers taking leave in a nation facing a scarcity of child care options.

More than 47,000 children remained wait-listed for certified day cares in Japan last year, according to the Japan Times, placing mounting pressures on child care professionals. Yuichi Murayama, a child care researcher, told The Mainichi that the "system in which each individual child care provider accumulated experience over many years has collapsed," adding that any pregnancy scheduling "could be interpreted as a way for them to build experience over a long span of time without having to quit their jobs."

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But the problem may not be confined to child care centers: A Tokyo-area employee at a cosmetics-related company claimed "childbirth and child-rearing schedules" were emailed to her and her 22 female colleagues, according to the newspaper.

The Mainichi did not report the names of the employees nor the child care worker's husband. But Japanese journalist Toko Shirakawa, who's served on the government's panel on work culture, confirmed that pregnancy scheduling exists — both explicitly and not — at Japanese companies.

"Even when pregnancy rules are not strictly enforced, women are inclined to refrain from getting pregnant at the same time as their female colleagues who take maternity or child care leave, because they don't want to cause trouble to their other colleagues," Shirakawa told the newspaper.

The practice is illegal, Shirakawa told The Times of London, but women who sue receive relatively little settlement money. Brigitte Steger, a researcher on modern Japan at Cambridge University, told London's Daily Telegraph that post-war ideas on gender and labor remain active at many Japanese workplaces

"Women are being harassed for being selfish for taking time out to have children or look after them and for being inconsiderate towards their fellow employees — while women are also criticized for being selfish and not having children," Steger said.

Mounting pressures in Japan — including a shortage of child care and widespread overtime — have made giving birth so uncommon that "employers and colleagues increasingly view a co-worker's pregnancy as a selfish lifestyle choice," The Times reported.

Read The Mainichi's full report.