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Watch: Switching up household gender roles could fix Japan’s biggest problem

AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Japan’s population shrank by its largest amount on record in 2014.
  • Jake Flanagin
By Jake Flanagin


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Yoshie Komuro is the CEO of Work Life Balance Co. Ltd., a Tokyo a consultancy that works with companies on striking optimal work-life balance for their employees—with a special focus on those who leave the office temporarily for maternity and paternity leave.

Komuro gave a TedxTokyo talk recently, in which she espoused the merits of maintaing work-life balance—a distinct problem for Japanese nine-to-fivers, who are more often than not five-to-niners. In Japan, this is also an especially gendered problem. After giving birth to her eldest son, Komuro recalls what a struggle it was to get him to fall asleep. “When he’d finally fall asleep, and I gingerly put him down into the crib,” she recounts for TedxTokyo, my husband would come home as if he knew it was the right time, and he’d wake up the baby by slamming the door.”

“I even told my husband I would rather he didn’t come home!” she jokes. But then she gets serious: “Because of this experience, I never wanted to have another baby. I believe the long working hours of husbands cause the low birth rate in Japan.”

Low birth rate is no joke in one of East Asia’s most affluent nations. “Japan’s population shrank by its largest amount on record in 2014,” reports Ana Swanson for The Washington Post. “Japan’s declining population has a powerful impact on its economic situation, and not for the better. An aging population leaves the country with fewer workers and more dependents. And conventional wisdom says aging leads to slower economic growth and more deflationary forces, both of which make it more difficult for Japan to chip away at the substantial debt burden from its economic crisis at the beginning of the 1990s.”

In essence, what may have contributed to much of Japan’s economic success—the world-famous Japanese work ethic—might, in the long run, spell economic doom.

Komuro, a former Shiseido beauty executive who knows her way around the board room, is a smiling prophet with a way out. She adds that since striking out at developing a more sane work-life balance, her husband has been able to alter his schedule, take on his fair share of household chores and parental duties—“doing as much as I do,” Komuro says. “My attitude has also completely changed, and I began to want to have another child. In fact, I am pregnant!”

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