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Japan in Depth

Support for Pregnant Workers

Atsuko Iwasaki

Women's rights advocate Sayaka Osakabe has won recognition in the US for her efforts to fight for the rights of working women. She was one of 10 recipients of this year's International Women of Courage Award. The award is given every year by the US State Department to those who advance the status of women.

"I hope Japanese people realize their work conditions don't meet international standards, and that my award will help them rethink their attitude," said Osakabe, the first Japanese to receive the award.

The organization she founded, Matahara Net, supports pregnant women harassed in the workplace, and is based on her personal experience. As an office worker, she regularly worked overtime late into the night, even after becoming pregnant. But that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. When she got pregnant again she needed to stay home for a week or risk another miscarriage.

Her boss, she says, came to her home and pressured her to quit. Reluctantly, she returned to the office, only to miscarry again. She says the director of human resources told her to forget about being a mother if she wanted to work, and she ended up leaving the company. "I was torn apart by that ordeal," she said. "I felt my absence had put an extra burden on my colleagues. To add insult to injury, my bosses spoke harshly to me. It hurt."

Last July, Osakabe founded Matahara Net to provide counseling to victims of maternity harassment. The group also promotes better workplace conditions.

Recently, Osakabe produced a report based on a survey of about 200 women who've experienced harassment. One woman said her boss told her her place was in the home, and fired her. Another woman was called "selfish" when she asked to be excused from late-night overtime. More than 80 percent of women's complaints are ignored, according to the report.

"Women who work shorter hours while pregnant or raising children are seen as a burden," Osakabe said. "At the same time, traditional gender roles make them responsible for household chores and childcare. The idea that women are to stop working outside the home when pregnant is still deeply rooted in Japan.

The law protects pregnant workers and those raising children. It also guarantees parental leave. But many workers don't insist on their rights, or are punished if they do.

"Japan's work culture makes it difficult to exercise employee rights," Osakabe said. "People frown upon workers who speak out. So, women often feel they have no choice but to be quiet and quit."

In a survey by Japan's largest group of labor unions, 80 percent of working women said they wanted to be working mothers. But 60 percent quit their job after giving birth.

"I want companies to understand that offering a balance between work and home life is the best way to make full use of their employees' abilities," Osakabe said. "I will do what I can to eradicate maternity harassment so that one day, everyone is able to work without fear."

Osakabe says that maternity harassment is not strictly a women's issue. She believes society will benefit as women thrive, both as parents and as workers.

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