Mum's not quite the word in Japan's office culture

Benefits like flexible hours to woo mothers back to work often lead to them being bullied

TOKYO • Ms Akane had always enjoyed her job at a Tokyo call centre until, unlike many Japanese mothers, she decided to return to work after her maternity leave.

It was not long before colleagues started picking on the 30-something mother for working shorter hours or being away from the office due to childcare issues.

She is is not alone. Harassment of working mothers is a growing problem in Japan, possibly aggravated by government policies aimed at keeping women in the workforce, experts say.

Ms Akane said her superiors were of little help and the harassment - mostly from female colleagues - forced her to make a decision.

"I said 'I'm leaving, I can't stand it'," said Ms Akane, who asked that her surname not be revealed. "The surprising thing was that this was mostly the attitude of my female colleagues rather than the men."

Nearly half - 48 per cent - of pregnant women say they have been subject to bullying at work, according to a recent labour ministry probe.

To stem a shrinking labour force, rapidly-ageing Japan is offering benefits such as flexible working hours, including no night shifts, to young mothers to staff the nation's offices and factories. But the moves have stirred jealousy and resentment in many workplaces.

"The situation is downright serious," said author Maeko Takenobu who has written several books about female employment. "Many (women) suffer in silence as they have no other choice but work."

In response, Tokyo unveiled a public service campaign to stop the harassment of working mothers, including a hotline for whistleblowers, although many women are still afraid to report workplace abuse.

Nearly half - 48 per cent - of pregnant women say they have been subject to bullying at work, according to a recent labour ministry probe. The same study found one-third of working women have experienced sexual harassment, and most did not report the abuse.

And harassment is not just confined to the workplace.

A decade ago, Japan rolled out a small badge to be worn by pregnant women, which said: "I have a baby inside me."

The button was meant to create a welcoming environment for pregnant women on subway trains and in other public places.

It was also to help emergency first responders so they would avoid treatment potentially harmful to an unborn child.

But the outcome has been a disappointment. Users are sometimes treated rudely on public transport, resulting in some women refusing to wear the badges for fear of becoming targets of harassment.

"Unfortunately, the badge is often seen as a sign of the vanity of being pregnant," said an editorial on akachan no heya, a widely followed website for pregnant women.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to pledge his support for working women as part of a wider bid to kickstart the country's struggling economy. Economists have said for years that Japan needs to make better use of its well-educated but underemployed women, which could go a long way towards plugging the labour gap as it faces an ageing and declining population.

In speech after speech, Mr Abe has urged Japan to open up to "womenomics", encouraging some of the nation's biggest firms to adopt targets for boosting the number of female executives.

While women are well represented in poorly-paid, part-time work, only a fraction of executives at 3,600 listed companies are female.

Japan was ranked 101 out of 145 in the Global Gender Gap Index 2015, released by the World Economic Forum, lower than Suriname and Azerbaijan.

Last year, cosmetics giant Shiseido created a stir when it changed a scheme that let young mothers employed as department store beauty consultants work shorter hours and have more flexible schedules.

The programme, in place since 1991, annoyed other colleagues because working mothers were often absent during the busiest periods, such as evenings and weekends.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Mum's not quite the word in Japan's office culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe