Japanese Women Today

The Plight of Japan’s Single Mothers

Politics Society

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.

Refugees from Debt

A— is a single mother with two children, who are currently in high school and college. A— found work as a regular employee at an event management company after graduating from high school, but she was obliged to leave her job when her husband, a civil servant, was posted to a different area. When the due date for her first child was approaching, she went to stay with her mother and father (a common practice in Japan). In her absence, her husband began gambling, and by the time she returned home with her new baby, he had run up several million yen in high-interest consumer loans. The couple managed to pay them off with help from relations, and the husband vowed never to gamble again. Yet when A— went to stay with her parents while awaiting her second child, her husband again succumbed and turned to loan sharks to cover his losses. Loan payments left the family destitute. During the winter, A— and her children sat shivering in a house with no gas, pretending not to be home when the loan collectors came to call.

Fortunately, A— was not a helpless victim. She read up at the local library and came to the realization that her only way out was divorce. She returned to her parents’ home and secured a divorce through mediation. At first, the only work she could find was through a temporary staffing agency. The illness of one of her toddlers, which necessitated her presence at the hospital, made it impossible to continue in any one post long enough to stabilize her situation. After her children had begun elementary school, she was finally able to secure regular employment with a small company.

Then came problems with her older son. He managed to gain admission to a public high school, only to stop attending classes. After a confrontation with his mother, he ran away from home. Fortunately, a caring adult tracked him down. He returned home and eventually, with some academic support, was able to earn his diploma through correspondence education and enroll in college.

Quite a few single mothers cite debt problems as their reason for leaving their husbands. After the divorce, they generally have little to live on, and it can take years to achieve economic stability. Then come the challenges of parenting an adolescent. A— was fortunate in that she had the inner resources to cope with the crisis caused by her husband’s gambling debts, and the network of social relationships that she built after her divorce helped her and her son through the crises of adolescence. Still, her circumstances are by no means easy. She has had to take out substantial student loans via the Japan Finance Corporation and the Japan Student Services Organization, and the burden of repayment will fall heavily on her son.

Victims of Abuse

Another common reason for divorce is domestic violence. According to Japanese court statistics, the top reasons cited by women in divorce petitions, apart from incompatibility, are violence, emotional abuse, and the husband’s failure to provide living expenses.

B—’s case is not unusual. She married the eldest son of a farmer and moved in with her parents-in-law, who for years treated their son’s “bride” as a menial. She was expected to heat the bathwater with firewood for the rest of the family and only take a bath herself after everyone else was done and the water was cold. Even after bearing four children, she remained stuck in the role of persecuted bride. Unable to endure such treatment, she eventually prevailed on her husband to move out.

Around the same time, her husband switched jobs. Unhappy at work, he began borrowing money and subjecting B— to physical and verbal abuse. Finally, she called the police and moved out. After her divorce, she found work as a waitress but was able to earn no more than ¥50,000–¥60,000 a month. Problems with her eldest son, who had begun displaying violent behavior toward his younger siblings, made it impossible for her to devote herself to a full-time job.

The after-effects of domestic violence can linger long after divorce, and in many areas, Japanese women have little access to follow-up social services.

Inadequate Public Assistance

Compounding all these difficulties is the inadequacy of the public assistance available to Japan’s single mothers. In many countries, progressive social security and tax policies have been used to offset single mothers’ low earning power and reduce the poverty rate among single-parent households. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Japan, and the outlook remains dim.

The two major forms of public assistance available to single mothers in Japan are the child-rearing allowance (jidō fuyō teate) — primarily for divorced parents— and the child allowance (jidō teate), a benefit for low-income households with children. But payments are low, and the government offers no relief whatsoever from the uniformly high social-insurance premiums Japanese households must pay into the health insurance and pension systems. While some help is available to cover school expenses, once the children enter high school, families are responsible for the bulk of education costs, which are considerable.

I have been lobbying for years for a more generous child-rearing allowance and other welfare benefits to support single mothers and their families. The policy makers I have spoken to are well aware that the government could alleviate poverty significantly among single-mother families by boosting the child-rearing allowance. In my view, the main obstacle to such a policy change is the persistence of hidebound attitudes toward the family and a belief that women should take personal responsibility for any hardships resulting from divorce.

As the foregoing suggests, life as a single mother in Japan is a precarious affair, often hovering between desperation and fulfillment. The outlook in given case depends heavily on the individual woman’s educational background, employment history, and social network, as well as her inner resources. While most single mothers here manage to make ends meet and give their children a decent upbringing, many are in truly dire circumstances. Until the nation rethinks its basic welfare, taxation, and employment policies, this situation is unlikely to change.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 21 and published on August 12, 2015.)

employment welfare poverty income gender gap domestic violence single mothers child allowance