In Japan, these single moms and shrinking cities are trying a new start – together

Women face deep-seated challenges in Japan's work culture, all the more difficult for single moms. But amid a nation-wide demographic crisis, some particularly hard-hit areas are reaching out to these families with relocation programs, hoping that both sides can benefit.

Susie Armitage
Mitsue Murakami (left) stands with Tomoko Shinkai, a city employee who helps single parents settle in Hamada, Japan as part of an initiative to counter depopulation. Ms. Murakami moved to Hamada last year with her twin boys.

Mitsue Murakami was newly divorced and living in Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, when she typed a few words into a search engine on her phone: “single mother,” “work,” “countryside,” and “cheap rent.”

Her ex-husband had gambled away their money. Ms. Murakami worked part-time in a hospital. The hours were convenient and the pay was pretty good, but it wasn’t enough to support their 10-year-old twin boys.

Her search brought up around 10 government programs to subsidize a move and help her find a permanent job. The most compelling benefits were in Hamada, a city of 55,000 on Japan’s southwest coast: training as an assistant at a local senior care facility; half her rent and a child support subsidy for her first year there; and a roughly $9,000 bonus after completing her course.

With Japan projected to lose 30 percent of its population by 2065, some fast-shrinking areas are pulling out all the stops to woo single-parent families like Murakami’s. Single mothers, in particular, face an uphill battle in Japan, where most fathers do not pay formal child support, and full-time, full-benefits employment for women lags behind men’s. For many mothers – and their new communities – the relocation programs are a lifeline, though critics say they’re more of a patch than a long-term solution.

Before long, Murakami crammed everything she could into a rental car and drove her sons more than 500 miles across Japan to start their new life. Now they wake up surrounded by mountains and brilliant green rice paddies. Murakami commutes to work in a used car provided by the city. At night they can see the stars.

“I like the model family with a father as well as a mother, but when things like this happen and you end up as a single parent, you just do what you have to do for your children,” Murakami said in a recent interview at Hamada’s city hall.

Women's work?

Murakami’s sons have settled in well at school, though they stay home alone sometimes while she works. Neighbors helped her plant vegetables, and seniors at a nearby shrine teach the twins kagura, a traditional dance. She says the boys are happy and she’s grateful for the city’s help. But Japan still has a lot to do to improve life for single-parent families, women’s and children’s advocates say, and address child poverty overall.

Eighty-five percent of Japanese single mothers work, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), yet 51 percent still live in poverty. In part, that highlights systemic issues that plague women in Japan’s labor market. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put increased female participation in the labor force at the center of his “Womenomics” policy, Japanese work culture is still built around traditional expectations of a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home wife. Long hours are commonplace and it’s a big no-no to leave before the boss does.

“That basically ends up reinforcing a gender division where you can only make a career if you have somebody else who does all the care work and the housework for you,” said Aya Ezawa, a lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied Japanese single mothers.

“People look at the single mothers as if they are the problem,” she adds. “The problem is with the work culture that doesn't make it possible to combine work with family.”

Married mothers often quit their jobs after giving birth and go back to work when their children are in school, leaving a resume gap that further limits their career prospects. A majority only find part-time or temporary jobs, and though dual-income families are on the rise, tax policy encourages married couples to limit one partner’s earnings. With out-of-wedlock births rare in Japan, most single moms are divorced, making it likely that they’ve gone years without full-time, regular employment.

Women who work full-time make only 74 percent of the men’s median wage. But it’s not just earnings that make single parenthood difficult. Single motherhood and divorce can still carry significant stigma. In part, Murakami moved to Hamada because she wanted a fresh start. She doesn’t mind that people there know she’s a single mom, but she didn’t tell people in Yokohama that her marriage ended, or even where she was going.

Survival strategy

When single parents call to learn more about Hamada, Tomoko Shinkai is at the other end of the line, at her desk in the city’s Residency and Marriage Promotion section. (“But I’m single,” she laughs.) Ms. Shinkai has a wide smile and brims with energy. She organizes welcome events for the new arrivals and helps them adjust.

Natives can feel their hometown shrinking. When Shinkai was in elementary school in the late 1970s, she remembers close to 40 children in each room. Today, Murakami’s sons’ class is around half of that. Shimane prefecture, where Hamada is located, is aging especially rapidly, with one of Japan’s highest concentrations of centenarians. One of Hamada’s closed schools was recently repurposed as a nursing home. Another facility has a waiting list of more than 200 seniors.

Nationwide, Japan is facing a demographic crisis: more than a quarter of the population is over age 65, fertility levels are below replacement rates, and the country tightly restricts immigration. For the national government, opening up women’s employment opportunities isn’t only an issue of equality: it’s a matter of economic survival.

For many smaller cities and rural areas, it’s an even more pressing existential challenge – but these communities hope that relocation can help make up for the lack of babies. Many court not only single parents, but any Japanese citizen willing to move.

Since Hamada’s program started in 2015, 12 single mothers have settled here. Eight have stayed. For some, it’s been a lifeline. One mother moved to escape a stalker. Another, reeling from her husband’s affair in a town of 4,000, had thought about suicide. Six months after arriving in Hamada, she said the program had transformed her life.

'I don't need pity'

However, advocates point out that such programs fail to address the underlying challenges that made moving across the country these women’s best option. Rather than enticing single parents to relocate, critics say, the government should focus on making it easier to support a family anywhere. The recruited moms aren’t the only single parents in Hamada, of course. One nursing home director says the city program caused friction between employees who received the settlement benefits and those who did not. The city has since reduced fees for babysitting and after-school care for all single parents based on their income, but acknowledges there is more work to do.

In a recent op-ed in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Chieko Akaishi, the director of the nonprofit Single Mothers’ Forum, wrote that while the Hamada program has brought increased attention to single mothers, it wasn’t designed with their needs in mind. Many have survived domestic violence or experience social isolation and need more comprehensive services. Ms. Akaishi also criticized hopes that the women should marry local men and give birth to more children. (Shinkai said this was “desirable” but that the city did not prioritize women who wanted to remarry or pressure them to do so, and that single fathers were also welcome.)

Dr. Ezawa takes issue with the focus on channeling single mothers into elder-care work, which is physically demanding, may require overnight hours, and is often not well paid. “If there’s a labor shortage anyway, why not open it up to other occupations and then improve the work-life balance for everyone at these places?” she says. Hamada is considering recruiting nurses as well.

One mother, whose name is withheld because she moved to escape a stalker, sometimes has to work the nursing home’s night shift while her 9-year-old son stays home alone. “Your mom is a single mom so you don’t get any birthday presents,” girls in his class have taunted him. “Your mom is poor.” The home is adjusting her hours to try and give them more time together.

“I don’t need pity,” she says. “I’m determined to hang in there, and while I really appreciate everyone’s support and I do ask for help, I feel like I’m doing the same thing all other mothers or fathers do. So I don’t want people to make assumptions about a child because they have a single parent.”

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