How Japan’s biggest cosmetics company keeps 100% of its new moms amid a childcare crisis

In safe hands.
In safe hands.
Image: AP Photo/Toshifumi Kitamura, Pool
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Japan’s “waiting-list children” (taiki jido) are a national crisis.

More than 23,000 children are waiting for spots at government-operated childcare centers by the latest count. They’re emblematic of one of the toughest challenges facing the Japanese government, which has identified more participation by women in the workforce as key to reforming Japan’s moribund economy—often referred to as “Womenomics,” after the ambitious “Abenomics” reform program of prime minister Shinzo Abe.

So acute is the problem that one of the phrases of 2016 in Japan was “I couldn’t get my child into daycare, death to Japan!” It came from the title of a viral blogpost (link in Japanese) that castigated the government for its inept handling of the problem. Many women resort to putting their children in unauthorized daycare facilities, often staffed by unqualified carers. Injuries and even deaths have occurred at such facilities.

A lack of affordable childcare is hindering the ability of Japanese women to stay in the workforce after having a baby—a consideration that also deters many from having more children in a country with one of the world’s lowest birth rates.

As a result, the government is leaning on companies to try to ameliorate Japan’s childcare crisis, for example through offering subsidies to ones that do. Among the most proactive of these is Shiseido, Japan’s biggest cosmetics company. Some 80% of its employees in Japan are women, including an army of so-called “beauty consultants” who work at Shiseido counters.

Shiseido recently announced that it had started a majority-owned joint venture called Kodomology—kodomo means child in Japanese—with JP Holdings, Japan’s biggest daycare provider. The plan is to first build a childcare facility in one of Shiseido’s factories, with the aim of opening childcare centers in other companies later, according to spokeswoman Hiromi Anno.

Shiseido has been offering in-house daycare in its main office in Tokyo since 2003, and the facility, called Kangaroom, is open to workers in nearby companies in the Shiodome area, home to major corporations like advertising giant Dentsu and airline ANA. Even in the 1990s, Shiseido offered flexible working arrangements, including shorter work days for people who had children in school up to fourth grade, and time off for those who had to take care of elderly family members. However, a decision in 2014 to make beauty consultants with young children work weekends or late shifts instead was met with strong criticism.

According to the company, 100% of its female employees returned to work at Shiseido in Japan following their maternity leave.

Shiseido—which in the US owns the Bare Escentuals and NARS cosmetics brands—is also keen to highlight that it already exceeds Abe’s goals for women in the workplace. Some 30% of its managers are female—Abe wants Japanese companies to hit that target by 2020.

Shiseido president Masahiko Uotani also said that since he assumed the top role three years ago, the number of female board members has increased from one to three out of 18 seats—far above the 3% average (paywall) ratio of female directors among the top 30 companies Japan.