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In-depth Japanese Women Today
The Plight of Japan’s Single Mothers

Akaishi Chieko [Profile]


The number of single mothers in Japan is on the rise, and half of all fatherless families fall below the poverty line. Akaishi Chieko shines a light on a segment of Japanese society in which the old problem of gender discrimination converges with the new problem of growing poverty and income inequality.

What is it like to be a single mother in Japan? The discussions one encounters on the Internet tend to portray the lot of the single mother as either a grueling struggle or a rewarding challenge. Which portrayal is closer to the truth?

Most women in Japan who take on the “challenge” of single motherhood do so because they have no choice. Many are also reluctant to dwell on their struggles lest they lose heart altogether. That said, there are certainly single mothers who genuinely rejoice in their freedom from an oppressive marriage and are making the most of life, economic hardships notwithstanding. Which category an individual woman falls into depends on a number of external and internal factors, as we shall see.

Single women with children are eligible for a certain level of public assistance in Japan. But the inadequacy of these benefits is evidenced by the 54.6% poverty rate for households headed by single mothers. In the following I examine some of the reasons for this situation and attempt to illuminate the faces behind the statistics.

Japan’s Working Poor

The number of single mothers is definitely on the rise in Japan. According to the Nationwide Survey on Fatherless Families, conducted every five years by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of families with single mothers was 1,238,000 in 2011 (as compared with 220,000 families with single fathers), twice the number recorded in 1973.

The average age of Japan’s single mothers is 40. Of the total, 80.8% are divorced, while a mere 7.8% are unwed mothers. Another 7.5% are widows. Their average annual income, including all government benefits, child support, and alimony, is ¥2.23 million, about half of Japan’s median household income. Although a full 80.6% of single mothers are employed, their annual wage earnings average only ¥1.81 million, less than half the average for all Japanese households.

Part of the reason for this situation is that wages for women in Japan are low overall. According to figures released by the National Tax Agency, in 2010 about 43% of all working women were earning ¥2 million or less annually. Nonregular employment, which has risen among both men and women, now accounts for almost 70% of the positions occupied by women. The fact is that poverty is a growing problem for Japanese women in general, not just single mothers.

Japan’s gender pay gap is among the widest in the industrial world, and when it comes to parents, the disparity is particularly pronounced. According to a 2012 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the “price of motherhood” in Japan is exceptionally high, with working mothers earning some 60% less than working fathers on average.

Casualties of the System

The root cause of this vast income disparity is a social system built around the concept of the husband as breadwinner. The system took root in the 1950s and 1960s to support a standard family structure consisting of a husband who worked long hours outside the home; a wife who stayed at home to handle all household chores, take care of the children, and nurse the elderly (supplementing her husband’s income through part-time work when necessary); and their children. The system gives preferential treatment to households with dependent wives by means of pension payments to dependent spouses, a spousal income tax exemption, and spouse allowances paid by corporate employers.

This system had and continues to have its intended effect. Even today, 60% of Japanese women quit their jobs when they marry or have a child so that they can devote themselves to domestic affairs full-time.

The economic burden the system imposes on those who depart from the norm falls disproportionately on single mothers, who face the challenge of earning enough to support their children in a labor market set up to provide no more than supplemental earnings to women in their childrearing years. At the same time, divorce tends to exact the highest penalty from women who initially conformed to society’s expectations by interrupting their careers; those who keep their jobs tend to fare better.

Only about 40% of single mothers are classified as regular employees. More than 50% are nonregular employees, and the ratio of nonregular to regular is growing year by year. Single mothers who are able to find and keep regular positions earn ¥2.7 million a year on average. Those who must make do with temporary, part-time, and hourly work average a mere ¥1.25 million.

Class, manifested in educational background, is another factor behind the economic challenges facing single mothers. The percentage of single mothers with no more than a middle-school education is 13.3%, as compared with 5% for mothers in two-parent households. The average annual income for single mothers who failed to complete high school is ¥1.29 million. In Japan, a high school diploma is a prerequisite for many professional licenses and certificates. People who have completed only middle school have very limited career options; many find themselves unemployed or in low-paying non-regular jobs.

Let us turn now to some fairly typical real-life cases of single motherhood in Japan.

  • [2015.08.24]

Director, Single Mothers’ Forum, and former single mother. Also serves as an organizer for the Antipoverty Network and a member of the Expert Panel on Support for Single-Parent Families within the government’s Social Security Council. Publications include Boshi katei ni kanpai! (Here’s to Single-Mother Families!) and Hitori-oya katei (Single-Parent Households).

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