At the age of 30, I found out that I was pregnant. I had imagined this moment all my life, that I would tear-up with joy, but to my surprise, I was in tears of disappointment. During my first visit to the obstetrician with my husband, I let out a complicated sigh, "Is it too early to have a child?"
The response from my husband, who rarely gets angry, was unforgettable. "Don’t ever say that in front of your child!" he asserted in a strong tone, as if our unborn child was there in front of him.
Having always wanted to work in developing countries, I had pursued a career in international cooperation. I flew around Africa, Middle East and Asia, reconciling with my assistant position, preparing contracts to be signed by my middle-aged male bosses. But just as I was gaining enough experience after seven years working, my pregnancy came as an unexpected fate.
I used to believe gender equality existed in Japan, until I gave birth to my first child.
I took a full year of maternity leave, and as I was approaching the end of my leave, I was interrupted by a sudden phone call while in a photo studio getting my baby’s pictures taken.
It was from a section manager whom I had never spoken to before. In a business-like tone he told me that I would start working in a new division from next week. It was mainly in charge of office work that didn’t require overseas business trips.
My heart sank instantly. I asked him why I was moved and he replied abruptly, "I can only say that it is the decision of the Human Resources. It's a rotation, so you will be there for the next couple of years."
After I returned to work, I kept hearing over and over again the expression, “Because Yamamoto-san is a mother." It may sound thoughtful at first, but I was annoyed by this excessive consideration for my newly acquired status that I had never asked for to begin with. I tried to tell my bosses multiple times, but it seemed that I spoke a language that Japanese men could not understand.
I waited patiently and endured the discomfort for years, while I witnessed my male counterparts rose to became project managers or even section managers, and, yet, the subject of overseas work or promotion continued to elude me. There were several women who were promoted to managerial positions, but they were all single women or women without children. To me they were treated as women – by gender – who can work just like men.
Japan enforces one-year paid maternity leave, which, compared to other OECD countries, is quite progressive. But does this make Japan a great country for women? What do men do while women devote themselves to childcare for a full year? The male childcare leave acquisition at the time was as low as 1 percent and has since only increased to 6 percent. In other words, while women focus on childcare, men work overtime, often past midnight, as corporate warriors benefiting from the sacrifice of women's parenting. Japanese society is operating based on the assumption that women will raise her children by herself.
Also read: Is Asia a Refuge for Patriarchy?
The word "Ikumen" became a phenomenon in Japan a while ago. The term, which I hate with passion, is used to compliment a man who actively participates in child-rearing – literally meaning "a man who raises a child." Women are not given the choice of "participation" or "non-participation" when it comes to child-rearing, whereas men are praised by "participating" in raising their own child. Every time I hear this word, it gives me the creeps.
When they moved me to the same division I was in a few years back for the second time, I decided it was high time to leave. After 17 years with the organization I had had enough. I desperately searched for a way to work overseas. There were secondment positions at overseas Japanese embassies, but when I asked the manager of HR for any openings, he answered, "Those positions are for younger people.”
How dumb of me to believe that women have equal chance in Japan? While I was too busy raising my kids, hair disheveled and all, my market value was supposed to be at its highest. But when I finally returned to sanity at the end of my thirties, I was a regular employee who could not be given a substantial job.
I wish someone had briefed me on the existence of the unspoken mommy track, and warned me never to step into this dungeon when I was still young with all the ambitious dreams. I was torn.
Just then, I came across a job vacancy at an international organization with the headquarter in Jakarta. My husband seemed a bit troubled at first, "What will I do in Jakarta? What are we going to do with our home in Tokyo? What will happen to the cat?”
I chuckled and told him that I probably wouldn’t get the job, while filing out the application form. Later, I was informed that my application passed the screening, and I proceeded to the video interview. After the usual job-interview questions, at the end of the interview, the only Japanese man in the panel asked me an unexpected question: "Why do you want to change jobs abroad now, when you have young children?"
Not this again, I thought. My voice shook with anger, knowing he would have never asked the same question if I were a man. "In Japan, there is a stereotype that women should act in a certain way,” I said. “I applied to the position to break that boundary for the younger women to follow in my footsteps.”
I shouldn’t have said that, I probably sounded too feisty. While I was completely immersed with regret, there was an international call from Indonesia: “We want to give you an offer. When will you be on board?”
Still in disbelief, I immediately went through the procedure for resignation, putting my house up for sale, and planning for the big move three months later. My husband, who had not thought that I would get accepted, decided to resign from his job after much conflict.
My parents, who lived in the US and Europe for a long time, congratulated me without hesitation: "Well, Jakarta is closer than Europe – we look forward to travelling around Southeast Asia while you are there."
But it was my mother-in-law who stood in our way. She graduated from a national university and became an elementary school teacher back in the 1970’s. She had continued to work while raising her two children until her early retirement in her 50s. I had been too optimistic to think that she would support our decision to go to Jakarta, so her reaction was unexpected.
My mother-in-law was clearly opposed to letting her son, who went to graduate school, leave his permanent employee position to tag along with his wife and the kids. She listed various other reasons such as children missing out on education in Japan and security issues in Jakarta, but it all boiled down to the reputation of her eldest son leaving his job because of his wife.
There is an expression in Japanese that values men and undervalues women derived from the Confucianist scripture. While we were taught that men and women are equal for decades, women are also guilty of holding onto this belief, my mother-in-law was no exception.
Nonetheless, my husband reassured me that we are already adults and his mother’s disapproval should not affect our decision. We wrote letters to persuade my mother-in-law. While it’s true that he would leave his job in Japan, his career of over ten years in sales will certainly find himself a job at one of the 1,500 Japanese companies in Jakarta. Our effort ended up in vain, as she still did not agree. But at least she understood that our decision would not change, so she wrote back that she would no longer try to convince us.
It has been almost two years since I came to Jakarta. The active roles of Southeast Asian women in the workplace are remarkable. In addition, there is no need for a woman to raise children alone here. I can only thank my live-in babysitter and a domestic helper who help me with child care and house work. I had been struggling all this time to juggle child care and work, which was impossible in Japan. For the first time in a decade, I can focus on my work without the feeling of guilt. I’m grateful to my husband, who found a job in a Japanese company after working as a stay-home dad for nearly a year.
Sometimes I wonder about myself in a parallel world: If I had decided to stay in Japan, would I have destroyed myself? I can only say that my first career change at the age of 40 was a huge leap of faith that turned out to be not so bad after all. In fact, I am trying not to get too comfortable here, or I will never be able to work in Japan again.
As for my mother-in-law, we gave her a tablet as a farewell gift, a devise she had never used before in her life. At first, she was reluctant to even start the device, blaming her failing eye-sight. But I kept sending her photos of her grandchildren and communicated via LINE more frequently than we ever did back in Japan to persuade her. Every time she sees pictures of us enjoying our life here, I can feel her heart opening more.