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The key to Japan's economy? (Courtesy of Cartoon Network)

Will Robot Nannies Save Japan's Economy?

by Lisa Chow
Jul 19, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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More than half of all Japanese women quit their jobs after giving birth to their first child. That's more than double the rate in the U.S., and it's a problem for Japan's economy.

If more women returned to the workforce, it could give a huge boost to household income in the country, says Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. "Increasing income levels will boost consumption," she says. "Consumption would increase profits, profits would increase wages, and that turns into a virtuous cycle." (Here's a research note (PDF) Matsui wrote on the subject.)

Mothers are leaving the workforce mainly because there's no one else who can take care of their babies; it's almost impossible to find childcare in Japan.

It took Keiko Shima almost two years to get her son into daycare. In the meantime, she had to quit her job at a public relations firm where she had worked for almost 10 years."I had no idea that I myself would become a housewife," she says.

In other countries, childcare jobs are often done in part by immigrants. But Japan has very few foreign-born workers.

Daycare centers in the country are very hard to get into. To encourage more women like Shima to return to work, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to create 400,000 more daycare spots by 2017.

Matsui says government officials tell her that "eventually, robots will be able to take up and assume many of these tasks that women are currently doing at present."

For now, though, working mothers are stuck with scarce daycare, few nannies — and almost no support from their husbands.

Gender roles in Japan resemble those in the U.S. decades ago. Most Japanese men aren't in the room when their children are born. It's not expected that men cook and clean.

And everyone with a job in Japan — men and women alike — work incredibly long hours. It's not unusual for a Japanese professional to leave for the office at 7:30 a.m. and not come home until midnight. Almost nobody in Japan takes their full allotment of vacation time.

Hiroko, 38, has a 7-month-old son. She didn't want NPR to publish her last name for fear of losing her job. She's currently on maternity leave from her data analysis job at a pharmaceutical company in Kobe. She used to work long hours, sometimes staying at her desk overnight. She says of the 100 people in her department, 70 are women, and only four of them have children. She worries that all her colleagues will have to work harder while she's on maternity leave.

"So I really feel guilty for feeling like I'm taking too much advantage of having children," Hiroko says. "That always makes me blame myself." Hiroko says there's a 50 percent chance that she'll end up staying home with the baby.

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