In Abenomics' shadow, Japanese women fight 'maternity harassment'

Wed Sep 24, 2014 5:10pm EDT
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By Ayai Tomisawa and Ritsuko Ando

TOKYO - When Sayaka Osakabe returned to work after a second miscarriage, one of the first questions her boss asked was whether she was having sex again.

Despite laws guaranteeing equal opportunity and a near parity of sexes attending university, Japanese women have yet to gain an equal footing in the workplace.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up the role of women in his push to revive a weak economy, pledging they would occupy 30 percent of all leadership positions by 2020, but Osakabe and others say the reality for regular female workers is bleak.

"Rather than focusing on a small portion of elite women who are top managers, I'd like them to start by dealing with problems affecting women like us at the bottom," the 37-year-old Osakabe said.

With an aging population and low birth rate, lawmakers and economists say Japan must encourage more women to both work and have children.

After winning a settlement through a labor tribunal in June, Osakabe has been speaking up on behalf of pregnant women and young mothers who are harassed at work. Their plight has spawned a new term: "matahara," a shortened form of "maternity harassment".

Osakabe's case has pushed bullying over pregnancy at work into the media spotlight, and coincides with the first-ever hearing on maternity harassment in the country's Supreme Court.

The court case involves a woman demoted during pregnancy. The plaintiff, who is seeking anonymity for fear of a backlash and trouble at her new job, is suing for about 1.7 million yen ($15,661) in compensation plus costs. A verdict is due on Oct. 23.   Continued...

Sayaka Osakabe, founder of "Matahara net," a support group calling for legislation outlining more support for working women, reads an educational magazine for expectant mothers in their first trimester, in her house in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo September 11, 2014.   REUTERS/Yuya Shino