When Michiko Kimura*, a sales rep at an ad agency in Tokyo, found out she was pregnant, she told the happy news to her boss. But when she sat down with him to work out her maternity leave, her boss didn't want to hear it. He told her that pregnancy would slow her down, that she wouldn't be able to keep up with her hours, that she should consider becoming a housewife.
"He basically suggested I leave the company," Kimura tells Broadly. According to Kimura, her employer told her she wouldn't be able to work overtime now that she was pregnant and that positions in the company were limited.
Maternity harassment, or matahara, where women are bullied, fired, or pressured into quitting by their employers once they become pregnant, is a growing problem in Japan today. According to a 2015 study by the country's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, one in five full-time, working women in Japan experience some form of matahara, while nearly half of temp workers said they dealt with maternity harassment and their jobs. And unless a woman takes her employer to court—which most don't want to do—there are no penalties.
"Telling your boss that you are pregnant is supposed to be such a happy occasion," Kimura says, "but it turned out to be such an awful experience. I was shaking."
But Kimura wasn't completely surprised, either—she'd seen her boss treat her female coworkers the same way when they became pregnant. "Every woman who used to work for this company, except for one, who lost her husband right after childbirth, got fired and left."
Kimura saw the landscape in her office and took what she thought were preventative steps. Two years before she got pregnant, she went to the president of the company to negotiate her potential future maternity leave with him directly. He assured her that if she became pregnant, her job would be waiting for her when she returned from maternity leave. Once she actually became pregnant, he told her he didn't recall the conversation.
Yukari Horie is working to help women like Kimura and to change the status quo. She heads Arrow Arrow, a nonprofit that advocates for work-life balance and teaches employers about harassment and how to talk to their employees.
"I always explain that taking maternity leave is constitutional," Horie says. In 2014, Japan's supreme court ruled it illegal to demote a woman due to pregnancy following a case in which a hospital physiotherapist who had requested a lighter workload during her pregnancy was demoted.
Still, enforcing these rules in the workplace is challenging, especially because, according to Horie, the traditional Japanese work ethic dictates employees work late into the night as a matter of common practice. "The longer you stay at the office, the more you'll be valued," Horie explains, "regardless of the quality or amount of work that is being done." Horie says pregnant women are often seen as "an inconvenience to employers" because they can't keep the long hours that are so often the norm.
Despite the harassment, Kimura stayed at her job: Her boss ended up being replaced, and her new supervisor agreed to let her stay.
"But I worked too hard, keeping long hours," she says. "Trying to repay the boss for what he did for me." Sadly, Kiruma miscarried when she was four months pregnant.
"I learned a lesson," she said. "I reduced the amount of hours when I got pregnant for the second time."
Although Japan has the world's third-largest economy, the country doesn't fare nearly as well in gender equality: According to the World Economic Forum's 2015 Gender Gap Report, Japan ranks 101 out of 145 countries on "how well they are leveraging their female talent pool, based on economic, educational, health-based and political indicators." (The United States ranks 28, and the number one spot goes to Iceland.) In Japan's parliament, there are nine women and 91 men. In recent years, Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to get more women in the workforce by encouraging companies to create more flexible hours and offer more childcare options, but Horie says the initiatives haven't yet trickled down to real women.
"The government has been recognizing the importance of women advancing in society," Horie says, "yet companies and employers still don't know how to face the matter or how to respond to this movement."
The second time Kimura got pregnant, her own husband resisted when she told him she wanted to work during her pregnancy and return to her job after having the baby. She didn't want to quit or reduce her hours to part-time.
"Husbands expect their wives to do so," Kimura says. "My husband was no exception. It took me a while to convince him why I want to keep the job so much."
While Kimura wasn't sure if she wanted to have children at all when she was younger, she definitely knew she wanted to be independent and to work. Her mother was a housewife; her father, overbearing. She wanted her life to look different. But she anticipates the difficulties in finding a balance once her child is born.
"It is still difficult, but not impossible, as long as your husband and company are supportive," Kimura says. "Even if you get to stay at your job, it's very difficult to share housekeeping or childcare with your husband because most men stay late at the office. I'm truly hoping that the government and employers will consider taking this matter more seriously."
*Name has been changed.