Planet Money
12:18 am
Fri July 19, 2013

Will Robot Nannies Save Japan's Economy?

Originally published on Fri July 19, 2013 6:40 am

More than half of all Japanese women quit their jobs after giving birth to their first child. That's more than double the rate in the U.S., and it's a problem for Japan's economy.

If more women returned to the workforce, it could give a huge boost to household income in the country, says Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. "Increasing income levels will boost consumption," she says. "Consumption would increase profits, profits would increase wages, and that turns into a virtuous cycle." (Here's a research note (PDF) Matsui wrote on the subject.)

Mothers are leaving the workforce mainly because there's no one else who can take care of their babies; it's almost impossible to find childcare in Japan.

It took Keiko Shima almost two years to get her son into daycare. In the meantime, she had to quit her job at a public relations firm where she had worked for almost 10 years."I had no idea that I myself would become a housewife," she says.

In other countries, childcare jobs are often done in part by immigrants. But Japan has very few foreign-born workers.

Daycare centers in the country are very hard to get into. To encourage more women like Shima to return to work, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to create 400,000 more daycare spots by 2017.

Matsui says government officials tell her that "eventually, robots will be able to take up and assume many of these tasks that women are currently doing at present."

For now, though, working mothers are stuck with scarce daycare, few nannies — and almost no support from their husbands.

Gender roles in Japan resemble those in the U.S. decades ago. Most Japanese men aren't in the room when their children are born. It's not expected that men cook and clean.

And everyone with a job in Japan — men and women alike — work incredibly long hours. It's not unusual for a Japanese professional to leave for the office at 7:30 a.m. and not come home until midnight. Almost nobody in Japan takes their full allotment of vacation time.

Hiroko, 38, has a 7-month-old son. She didn't want NPR to publish her last name for fear of losing her job. She's currently on maternity leave from her data analysis job at a pharmaceutical company in Kobe. She used to work long hours, sometimes staying at her desk overnight. She says of the 100 people in her department, 70 are women, and only four of them have children. She worries that all her colleagues will have to work harder while she's on maternity leave.

"So I really feel guilty for feeling like I'm taking too much advantage of having children," Hiroko says. "That always makes me blame myself." Hiroko says there's a 50 percent chance that she'll end up staying home with the baby.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK. You might think that the U.S. with its high unemployment and slow growth doesn't have much advice for other developed countries when it comes to how to get out of an economic slump. But the new Japanese prime minister is looking to emulate America in one way. He's trying to improve the economy by bringing more women into the workforce. Lisa Chow from NPR's Planet Money team reports.

LISA CHOW, BYLINE: Here is the problem Japan is facing. More than half of all Japanese women quit their jobs after giving birth to their first child. That's more than double the rate in the U.S. If Japan could just get more women to keep their jobs, it would really help the economy. Kathy Matsui is chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. She says getting women's participation to match men's would add about eight million people to Japan's workforce.

KATHY MATSUI: And as a result, you're going to increase income levels. Increasing income levels will boost consumption. Consumption would increase profits.

Profits would increase wages. And that turns into a virtuous cycle.

CHOW: So why are mothers leaving the workforce? Mainly because there's nobody else to take care of the baby. If you think finding daycare is hard in the U.S., it's almost impossible in Japan. Take for example Keiko Shima. She used to work at a public relations firm in Tokyo.

KEIKO SHIMA: (through translator) I couldn't get my son in baby care center and of course my job doesn't allow to take my baby to the workplace, so there was nothing I could do except for leaving my job.

CHOW: Daycare centers are largely subsidized by the government. There's very hard to get into. Long waits, lots of red tape. And there aren't many other options. Japan has very few immigrants - the people who in major American cities, do a lot of the childcare work. Again, Kathy Matsui.

MATSUI: And oftentimes when I speak to people in the Japanese government about this dilemma, many surprising often say to me but Matsuisan, that is exactly why we're developing a robotics industry, because eventually robots will be able to take up and assume many of these tasks that women are currently doing at present.

CHOW: Some women are skeptical of the idea of the nanny-bot 3000. Mariko Bando is one of them. She's president of Showa Women's University in Tokyo. For now, she says, working mothers are stuck - scarce daycare, few nannies.

MARIKO BANDO: And also husband's support. We Japanese women must do everything by ourselves.

CHOW: Husbands. They're another big issue. Japan is an incredibly advanced economy, it's the third largest in the world, but when it comes to gender roles, it's more like the U.S. in 1950s. For instance, most Japanese men aren't in the room when their children are born. It's not expected that men cook and clean.

Part of this is cultural and part of it is everybody with a job in Japan, men and women, work incredibly long hours. So a mother can't get her husband home in time by bath time, and she can't get out of the office early either. For instance, I spoke with one mother in Kobe. Her name is Hiroko. She's 38 and has a seven-month-old son.

She's currently on maternity leave from her data analysis job at a pharmaceutical company. She used to work long hours, sometimes staying at her desk overnight. She says most of the women she works with don't have children and she worries that they'll have to work harder when she's gone.

HIROKO: (through translator) So I really feel guilty for feeling like I'm taking too much advantage of having children. That always makes me blame myself.

CHOW: For a lot working mothers in Japan, in this situation, it's easier just to quit the workforce entirely. Hiroko says there's a 50 percent chance that she'll end up staying at home with the baby. So far, to encourage more women like Hiroko to return to work, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to create 400,000 more daycare spots by 2017. How to deal with the rest - the long hours, the gender expectations, the rigid immigration laws? So far, he hasn't presented any plans. Lisa Chow, NPR News.

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