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.