The `Mommy Track,' Japanese Style

Naomi Watanabe is one of the lucky ones. Saison Group, where she is an insurance agent, gave her a year off after her son was born. Now, each day, she packs up 16-month-old Shohei for the commute to the day care center in the Saison building. For $350 per month, including meals, he can stay until he's three. "I'd have to quit without this," Watanabe says.

Companies such as Saison, which runs department stores and supermarkets, are out front on a major shift in Japanese life. Until recently, women were expected to stay home and tend to family matters. If they worked at all, mostly as retail or office clerks, it was only until they married or had kids. Now a severe labor shortage is pulling women in record numbers into jobs from gas station attendants to managers. Fully 40% of the work force is female, and the number of women entering it hit a record high of 2.44 million last year.

With unemployment at a tight 2.1%, even Japan's most traditional companies are forced to find ways to attract and keep women workers. "To formally address the problems of working women is a radical change for Japan," says Kazue Sakamoto, a sociologist at Japan Women's University.

The "mommy track" has become such a hot topic that it tops the agenda for Japan's annual March bargaining session that covers 12 million workers, 28% of them women. The unions are pushing for a revolutionary one-year leave for new parents, as well as for higher wages and shorter working hours. So far, only about 20% of companies, including Toyota Motor Corp., offer leaves.

TAX BREAKS. The Labor Ministry is also drafting a child-care-leave bill for debate in the March Diet session. Opposition parties failed three times to enact such a law, but now the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, sympathetic to big business, is on board. "They're finally realizing it's a waste to throw women away when they have children," says Ryuko Fujii, director of women's welfare at the Labor Ministry. One reason for the Establishment's support is a spreading panic over Japan's birthrate, now at 1.57 per woman and falling. To encourage women to mix motherhood and work, lawmakers may raise the level of nontaxable part-time income by 50%, to $11,500, and give tax breaks for children.

Many of the brightest women still flee to foreign companies for better treatment. But some Japanese companies are catching up. Last year, Nissan Motor Co. adopted a generous child-care policy, including a five-year leave. New female graduates also praise Japan Airlines, Asahi Breweries, and Suntory. And a government study shows that from 1979 to 1989, the number of female middle managers in companies with more than 100 employees doubled, to 55,710.

Still, Japan remains very much a man's world. Despite a 1986 equal employment opportunity law, Japanese women make only 57~ for every dollar men take home. Now, thanks to a little economic shock, companies are realizing they can't compete without women and are starting to do something about it.

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