TOKYO—Raising a child alone is hard, no matter where you live.

But among developed countries, single parents—and they are usually mothers—may be worst off in Japan. There is no such thing, legally, as joint custody in Japan, and women there tend to be the ones financially responsible for their children. Women usually work part-time or low-paying jobs because they had previously dropped out of the workforce to raise their children, and find it hard to get hired into well-paying, full-time jobs. And because of safety-net reforms developed over the past two decades, they can depend on little help from the state. Today, Japan has the highest share of single mothers in the labor force of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), at 85 percent.

But working doesn’t mean that these single mothers are doing well, economically. The poverty rate of single parent-families where the parent is working is 56 percent, which is also the highest in the OECD. The poverty rate of similar working single-parent families in the U.S., by comparison, is 33.5 percent. “Japan is a warning—if you’re going to force single mothers to work, you’re not [necessarily] going to resolve those issues of poverty,” said Aya Ezawa, a sociologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied single mothers in Japan.

The number of single mothers in Japan is growing, and the country will need to make big changes in order to help its single mothers thrive. The number of households that include a single mother rose by 72 percent between 1983 and 2011 as divorce became more common. There were 1.2 million single parent families in 2011, according to a government survey.

Shinobu Miwa, a 45-year-old single mother, found her job as a part-time secretary through a government program called Hello Work designed to help the hard-to-employ enter the workforce. Today, she works five hours a day, but can still can barely scrape together enough for rent, food, school supplies, and other miscellaneous things that she and her 13-year-old son need. “Japan has this image, especially from the government, that every family is going to be two people raising their kids, and that’s the way it is,” she told me, as her son, who is on the autism spectrum, did his math homework in the next room.

The experiences of Miwa and other single mothers in Japan illustrate the problems that arise when divorce rates go up but women’s economic power remains minimal. Divorce has skyrocketed in Japan as women become less likely to tolerate cheating, abuse, and husbands who require that their wives’ careers take a backseat to their own, according to Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s Japan campus. The divorce rate in Japan jumped 66 percent between 1980 and 2012. In the United States, by contrast, the divorce rate decreased between 1980 and 2012. There are about 1.8 divorces per 1,000 people in Japan, compared to 3.2 divorces per 1,000 people in the United States.

Women in Japan tend to struggle economically following divorce. That’s because traditionally in Japan, men work, and women stay home to take care of the children. About 62 percent of women drop out of the workforce when they have their first child, according to Kingston. When couples divorce, women have often been out of the workforce for a long time. Many institutions incentivize this arrangement: Japanese corporations often give husbands whose wives stay home a bonus, and the Japanese tax system punishes couples with two incomes. When women do try to return to the workforce, they usually can only find low-paying part-time work, if they find a job at all. And women who do work earn 30 percent less than men who do. “In both the U.S. and Japan, you have a situation where women are forced to work, but if the economy doesn’t allow women to feed a family with 40 hours a week, you have a very difficult economic situation,” Ezawa said.

Although the practice is receding, many Japanese companies still operate on a system of lifetime employment, in which they hire workers directly out of school, train them, and then keep them on until they retire. Companies expect long hours and total dedication out of their workers, which is perhaps the reason that there’s a word in Japanese for death by overwork.

This system disadvantages single mothers for two reasons. First, because of their childcare responsibilities, they often can’t work long hours, and second, because these companies don’t hire people unless they’re right out of college, and many single mothers look for work only after they get divorced. While 77 percent of university-educated Japanese women want to rejoin the workforce after leaving it to raise a child, only 43 percent are able to land any job, compared to 73 percent in the United States, according to a chapter about the workforce written by Kingston and Machiko Osawa, a researcher at Japan Women’s University, in the book Japan: The Precarious Future.

Japanese companies also expect applicants to list their family members on their resumes. If a woman lists a child but no husband, she’ll inevitably get questions about whether she’s a single mother and about who will take care of her child if the child gets sick, according to Yumiko Watanabe, the founder of Kid’s Door, a nonprofit that tutors children from families in poverty.

“People who employ them are always worried about whether they won't come to work—single mothers are considered not reliable,” Watanabe said. Miwa, for example, has applied to other jobs, but the interviewers inevitably ask her about her status as a single mother, and who will take care of her son in an emergency, she says. She has to answer truthfully, that she’ll have to stay at home and take care of him, since she doesn’t have any family that can help, and because childcare companies don’t typically accept sick children.

Without being able to work long hours, and with gaps in their resumes, single mothers often wind up in part-time and temporary jobs—called irregular work in Japan—which make up an increasingly large part of the Japanese labor market. Between 1992 and 2011, the share of irregular workers in Japan rose to 35 percent from 20 percent of the labor force, according to Kingston. These workers make on average 40 percent of what regular workers make. Around 77 percent of Japan’s irregular workers are women, according to Kingston.  

Divorce is the reason most single mothers are single mothers in Japan—just 2.3 percent of children born in Japan are born to unmarried mothers. But having been married does not usually help women financially. Men are expected to do very little to help raise their children after divorce. In 2011, only 20 percent of divorced mothers were receiving child support, according to James Raymo, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has published a number of papers on single mothers in Japan. When a couple gets divorced, the divorce papers ask who will be the child’s custodian, and only allows couples to list one name, according to Masami Kittaka, a divorce lawyer at Otani and Partners who practices law in Tokyo and New York. Officially, there is no such thing as joint custody in Japan, she said. When couples get divorced, the woman usually takes the child and assumes full financial responsibility. “Only one person gets to be the parent,” she said.

Under Japanese law, mothers can sue for child support, but even that process is very difficult, Kittaka, the lawyer, told me. To file a court order to get a father to pay child-support payments, the mother has to know where the father’s assets are stored. If he gets a new job and doesn’t tell her, there’s no way for her to find out where he works and how much money he makes, and so she can’t sue for child support. Even if mothers do succeed in winning child support, the amounts that are mandated tend to be very low, Kittaka said.

The government has not done much to help single mothers succeed. Beginning in 2003, as more and more divorced women applied for government assistance, the country implemented major reforms aimed at cutting back on such benefits, according to Ezawa. Among other things, the reforms reduced an allowance for single women with children, introduced income limits to this allowance, and put time limits on the allowance. The government again cut payments to single mothers in 2006, according to Kingston.

Child-welfare advocates in Japan worry that the lack of support for single mothers is creating a cycle of poverty in which more and more children are growing up without the resources they need, and will in turn struggle as adults. About 20 percent of single parents have children who are performing below average in school, compared to 11 percent of married couples, according to Raymo. More than one-third of single mothers say they haven’t saved anything, compared to 17 percent of married mothers. More single mothers than married mothers also report having a child with a health problem. Parents like Miwa can’t afford the “cram” schools that most Japanese students attend outside of regular school to prepare for examinations, meaning their children fall even further behind academically.

Figuring out how to support single mothers is especially important in Japan, which needs to increase its birth rate as fertility falls. The country is trying to encourage more women to enter the workforce and better balance work and family, but it is doing little for the millions of women who are trying to strike that balance alone. “These efforts focus almost exclusively on promoting marriage among the unmarried and childbearing among the married, paying little or no attention to the steadily growing population of formerly married women who are typically both mothers and employees,” Raymo writes. If women—married or not—realize that they will be helpless to support their children without a partner, they might be even less likely to decide to have children.

Mari Takada, who chose single motherhood over marriage, shows visitors pictures of her daughter (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

There is a small group of women who are successfully navigating single motherhood in Japan. Their strategy: plan, from the beginning, to succeed without a man’s financial support. Mari Takada, for instance, the head of the Japanese branch of the group Single Mothers By Choice, told me that she was dating a man for years who never had any interest in helping with child-rearing. She knew, if she married him and got pregnant, that she’d be expected to stop working and take care of the child, while also taking care of the father. Instead, she decided to break up with the man but ask him to still father a child with her. He agreed, and she’s now a single mother to a 10-year-old daughter.

“I figured that I’m going to do everything myself anyway, so I don’t need a man,” she told me.  Takada, who runs her own web-design business, is able to balance childcare and her job by working from home—she also makes enough to pay for babysitters. She knows she’s at an advantage because she didn’t drop out of the workforce when she had her child, because she knew that she’d be responsible for her family’s income. “If you plan your career and how you’re going to raise your kid, you don’t have as many financial problems,” she told me.

Many women in Japan don’t have that luxury. But Takada’s experience highlights what would happen if women could be more financially independent in Japan. With higher salaries for women, more stable jobs, and more women in the workforce, women could be confident that they could raise their children outside of poverty. That, in turn, could motivate more women to have babies. Such goals are not out of the question—the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spoken of wanting to increase the share of women in the workforce, and of wanting to help more women into boardrooms and high-paying positions. But the government has taken little concrete action. To reverse the declining birth rate in Japan, the country will need to make sure that all parents, single or not, can raise children outside of poverty. That may require a shift in what types of families—and workers—it values.