When I recently visited Sayaka Osakabe at her sunny apartment in the quiet suburbs of Kawasaki, Japan, she spoke at length about her plans to transform Japanese society.
Osakabe, 37, has become something of a national symbol of women’s rights, leading a highly publicized campaign against “matahara,” a term she has turned into a buzzword for pregnancy discrimination. Two years ago, as a contract editor for a quarterly newsletter in Japan, Osakabe says she was taking time off in the middle of a trying pregnancy when her boss knocked on her front door and asked her to resign. (Her absence, she recalls him saying, had “caused trouble.”) She returned to work soon after, only to suffer a miscarriage. Following her recovery, she says, her boss asked her if she was still having sex.
Although Japanese law forbids this type of harassment, Osakabe’s story is strikingly common. According to a recent report by the human resources company Recruit, a majority of Japanese women quit their jobs after having a child. And that reality has exacted a heavy toll on diversity in the top echelons of corporate Japan: whereas women occupy 14 percent of executive posts in the United States, they hold only 1.1 percent of comparable positions in Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as part of his larger effort to revitalize a stagnant Japanese economy, has responded to the problem with a set of policies known as Womenomics. The government has pledged, for example, to ensure that all parents can access childcare. (Currently, more than 20,000 Japanese children are on waiting lists for a place in nursery school.) It has also aimed to boost women in leadership positions from ten percent to 30 percent by 2020, is debating tax incentives that would encourage women to work full-time, and is planning to allow more foreign laborers into the country to work as housekeepers.
Tokyo is taking its time, however, and so individuals have begun to take matters into their own hands—a rare sight in consensus-minded
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