A royal bride marries - and quits work

As Japan's Princess Sayako weds Tuesday, her decision to focus on domestic life spotlights challenges for working women.

When Princess Sayako of Japan marries a middle-aged Tokyo city bureaucrat of average means Tuesday, she will lose her royal status and be thrust into the role of an ordinary woman.

Far from the fairy-tale extravaganza one might expect for the only daughter of the current emperor, the streets of Tokyo are bare of trappings, department stores are devoid of commemorative crockery, and even the tabloids are mostly sticking to sports and politics. The Shinto-style wedding will be attended by around 30 people from both families at the plush Imperial Hotel, and followed by a press conference rather than a parade.

Raised in the cloistered atmosphere of an ancient imperial dynasty, with her every need catered to, the 36-year-old princess may wonder what to expect as the wife of town planner Yoshiki Kuroda. Royal watchers have noted that Sayako has quit her part-time job an ornithologist to spend time receiving last minute survival tips from her once- commoner mother, and bone up on such domestic practicalities as grocery shopping.

Her decision to quit work mirrors the life paths of millions of her female subjects, but is an option younger Japanese women increasingly eschew because of the damage it can cause their careers in a society that is only slowly moving to address the needs of working parents.

The problems that "highly skilled women have in finding work of a similar quality once they have left the work force to raise children has become a major issue," says Naohiro Yashiro, an expert on economics and society at International Christian University in Tokyo. "The system needs to be reformed so as to allow people to both work and live their lives so that raising children is possible," he says.

The government wants to encourage people to get married and have children to stem Japan's falling birthrate. But lawmakers also realize that tax revenues to fund pension payments for a rapidly aging population will dwindle if mothers face large obstacles in reentering the work force.

In 1971, the average number of children a Japanese woman was expected to bear in her lifetime was 2.16. But as men and women delay marriage and childbearing, this number had slipped to 1.29 by 2004, far below population replacement levels. At the other end of the life-span graph, the proportion of those aged 65 and over in Japan is now around 18 percent, second-highest in the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). And Japan is soon expected to overtake Italy to reach almost 30 percent by 2030.

The government has scrambled in recent years to come up with solutions. But programs such as those providing economic support to families with young children have met with only limited success.

Measures to help women return to the work force also "haven't really been effective because there is a mismatch between the kinds of jobs that are offered and the kinds of jobs women want," says Glenda Roberts, an expert on gender and labor issues at Waseda University. Part of the problem is the highly conservative attitudes at Japanese firms, she adds.

"Companies would rather hire temp workers because it's cheaper (than offering full-time employment) and they are reluctant to hire women with children because they figure they will be absent when children have illnesses," she says.

Prevailing attitudes also affect men's options. Expected to stay late at the office or to network with associates at irregular hours, they can't help their partners raise kids. "If the notion of a regular worker is that of someone who works till 11 or 12 at night, then anyone who has responsibilities for a child isn't going to be able to do that," says Ms. Roberts.

A few companies have begun to introduce measures to curb late-night overtime. Mizuho Corporate Bank forces nonregular workers out at 8 p.m. and Pfizer Japan asks all employees not to stay past eight. A number of local governments have also introduced "no overtime days."

Other companies have been even more proactive. IBM Japan allows employees to work from home if child-raising responsibilities intervene. "We are currently expanding the system, but at the moment around two-thirds of those using it are men," says Yukako Uchinaga, a director in charge of software development at the firm. "The result is that both men and women are able to create a work-life balance," she says. "As the key resource of any company is its talented personnel, keeping gifted people regardless of their sex helps the competitiveness of the firm in the end."

In a further sign of change, Daiei Inc. and Sanyo Electric Co. this year were the first major Japanese corporations to appoint female CEOs. The government also created a new cabinet position last month to specifically focus on the declining birthrate and gender equality.

Still, a recent UN study showed that the share of women in senior positions in Japan was 10 percent in 2003, only a shade ahead of Bangladesh and Turkey. The same study showed that women's wages averaged just 46 percent of men's wages, while figures for other Asian countries such as Vietnam were as high as 69 percent.

Even in such progressive companies as IBM Japan, many women quit their jobs within five years of joining, and the proportion of full-time women workers in the firm still remains under 20 percent, says Ms. Uchinaga.

So where does all this leave Princess Sayako? Her 40-year old fiancé currently lives with his mother, but life outside the palace might look relatively inviting despite the inequalities faced by women in Japan. Having been brought up in such a strict environment, "maybe she'll feel liberated (as a Japanese housewife)," says Ms. Roberts.

Reports say that Sayako is busy improving her cooking and learning to drive. But if Japan can get its gender equality measures right, then perhaps someday - after mastering the delicate art of parallel parking in downtown Tokyo and helping to boost the national birthrate, of course - she will be able put her ornithology skills to use again.

"She would be a great role model if she one day returned to her job - that would be wonderful," says Ms. Roberts.

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