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Economy

Japan's female employment tops 50% for 1st time in half-century

Labor drought brings more women into workforce, but mostly in service jobs

Japan's female employment rate has tended to drop for women in their 30s as they have and raise children, then rise again in their 40s.
A worker retools a production line at an Aisin Seiki autoparts plant. Japanese manufacturers are taking steps to attract more women, but most still go into services. (Photo by Yukihiro Omoto)

TOKYO -- For the first time in five decades, over half of Japan's women were employed in 2018, new data showed Friday, amid a worsening labor shortage and continuing efforts to accommodate working mothers.

The country had 29.46 million women at work, or 51.3% of the total, up 870,000 from a year earlier, according to a labor force survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The growth was nearly double the 450,000-person increase in working men.

The last time more than 50% of Japan's women were in the workforce, many were in farming or small family businesses. Now, the bulk are going into services like hospitality, food services and nursing -- these industries absorbed about 40% of 2018's increase in workers -- where productivity is lagging.

Pay also tends to be lower in fields like nursing and restaurants than in other jobs. With the rise in employment among women ages 25 to 44 due to "hit a ceiling as soon as the early 2020s," according to Koya Miyamae at SMBC Nikko Securities, Japan faces the twin challenges of raising both productivity and wages in the service sector.

While the rising share of women in the workforce indicates efforts to reform Japanese employment practices are bearing fruit, the ratio still lags far behind men's roughly 70% employment rate. In Scandinavian countries, about 80% of women ages 15 to 64 are working, compared to about 70% in Japan, pointing to further room for improvement in support for working parents.

Japan's sharpest increase in female employment in 2018 was among women ages 15 to 24, with the rate rising 3.9 percentage points to 46.8%.

Employment in this age group was boosted by a labor shortage that prompted employers to offer shorter hours or accept people with little or no experience, making part-time work easier to find. These jobs also pay more than before. Offered hourly wages in the country's three biggest metropolitan areas averaged a record-high 1,058 yen ($9.66) in December for part-time work, according to employment information provider Recruit Jobs.

The percentage of working women ages 25 to 34 rose 1.9 percentage points on the year in 2018 to 77.6%, and that of women ages 35 to 44 climbed 2.5 points to 75.8%.

Employment has tended to fall among Japanese women in their 30s as they leave work to bear and raise children, then rise again for women in their 40s. But the country's ongoing work-reform efforts have helped improve the environment for working parents, softening the drop among 30-something women.

The hospitality and food service industries employed an average of 2.6 million women in 2018, up 200,000 from the previous year -- the greatest jump of any sector -- followed by nursing and other medical services, which grew by 140,000.

According to a survey by the nonprofit Japan Productivity Center, Japan's per capita labor productivity -- a measure of the added value workers generate -- advanced by 0.3% on average for 2015 through 2017 once adjusted for inflation, compared with 0.6% average growth for 2010 to 2014. The decline appears to stem in part from workers shifting toward service industries and away from higher-productivity sectors like finance.

Employment last year climbed to 24.3% for women ages 65 or older and to 9.8% for those 75 and older. As Japan's healthy life expectancy continues to swell, the number of elderly people willing and able to work is expected to keep expanding.

Japanese law currently requires major companies to have mandatory retirement ages, often around age 60. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is considering legislation to help ensure people have work opportunities until age 70.

2018's average employment tally was 66.64 million for men and women combined -- the highest since 1953, the first year of comparable data.

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