“It’s really lonely being a woman who is a single parent in Japan,” says Maco Yoshioka as she recalls raising her now adult son alone. While she is grateful that she found support among family and friends, she knows many other mothers are struggling in isolation.
Their plight inspired her to found Single Mothers Sisterhood, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women who, for reasons including divorce, find themselves in a cycle of financial and social stress.
The group helps single mothers acquire digital and other skills that are much sought-after in Japan’s tight labor market. With the right training, they can dramatically improve their chances of finding rewarding jobs and overcoming traditional social prejudice and financial hardship, Yoshioka says.
Over the past two years, more than 2 million people in underserved communities across Asia have benefitted from inclusive digital training programs backed by Microsoft. These initiatives are not only changing lives but are also helping bridge the region’s digital divide. In Japan, 87% of single-parent households are headed by women and most of them (80%) have gone through a divorce, which means significant stigma in Japan’s relatively conservative society.
Surveys by the country’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare suggest that nearly half of Japanese single-parent households live under the poverty line with incomes of $9,800 a year (about 1.22 million yen) or less. That is a worse poverty rate than in the U.S. and many other western nations.
When Yoshioka started her organization in the spring of 2020 it was just as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the population into home lockdown. She had previously headed a well-being program for mothers, and she had already noticed single mothers around her were especially vulnerable to the debilitating effects of isolation that held them back from tackling financial and career issues.
“There is a lot of focus mostly on the poverty rate of single mothers in Japan right now, but it’s more than that,” Yoshioka says.
Despite the increase in divorces over the last half century in Japan, it still carries stigma for many women with children in Japan, and not exclusively in the more conservative rural communities. Both partners, but especially women, are expected to stay married “for the sake of the children.”
“Many divorced single mothers also often have to battle a sense of shame and a loss of confidence in themselves for having ‘failed marriages,’” Yoshioka says.
That often means these single parents, especially in small communities, hide their divorced status. They avoid seeking state or municipal benefits and don’t reach out to local nonprofit organizations that can help. In some cases, they stay in self-imposed isolation from their former partners for fear of domestic violence or feeling worn down by the breakup itself.
In Japan, an estimated 38% of married women are full-time homemakers. So, in the aftermath of divorce, many struggle to find jobs after years of being out of the workforce. Those who have careers also have to balance child-rearing with the demands of a corporate culture that expects long working hours.
Either way, many women suffer further by not properly looking after themselves mentally and physically, according to Yoshioka. “There are so many mothers who really put their needs on the back burner, thinking they need to force themselves to work hard for their children. Self-care needs to be at the foundation of being able to take care of yourself in both body and mind.”
Soon after she launched her organization, Yoshioka began holding online self-care classes as a first step to bringing women out of isolation. Next, she launched more online programs aimed at empowering women with new skills.
Together with corporate partners including Microsoft, she created courses on information and communications technology (ICT), financial literacy and speech and presentation skills. She also connected participants with mentors and online peer support. In January, cybersecurity training was added to the list of courses.
What started in 2020 as a small group of 100 moms grew to 2,355 by this year. The organizers say the goal is to help women build self-esteem and confidence, and to move ahead in their careers with a newfound sense of passion and fulfillment. So far, they are seeing success. Of the first group of 20 mothers in the program, 90% reported having a positive next move in their lives.
Tanaka (not her real name) is one such recently empowered mother.
When her marriage broke down a few years ago, she quit her job in Tokyo and escaped to the countryside. At the time she had one child and was expecting another. She had plenty of employable skills and experience, but no job offers.
“What I really needed was confidence and conviction from within to be able to properly use the skills that I had,” Tanaka said recently at a Single Parent Tech Empowerment program, a Microsoft-sponsored initiative.
It took her two years, but Tanaka eventually achieved her dream of becoming a university researcher thanks to the confidence-building, skills and empowerment courses she took.
The World Economic Forum ranked Japan 120th out of 156 nations in its annual gender equality gap rankings in 2021. The organization says it would take 135 years to close this gap if women were not sufficiently represented in boardrooms or in politics, and at home women continue to bear the brunt of housework and child rearing.
Yuko Kaburaki, a female executive heading a Japanese IT solutions provider, says part of the problem lies in Japan’s traditional expectations of women. In addition, the workplace culture followed by many Japanese companies demands long hours from employees and places an emphasis on seniority. This is a disadvantage for women in general, but especially those raising children single-handedly.
“It is considered a virtue to be modest, so most women are not used to asserting themselves or their rights, and find it embarrassing to do so,” she says. “This is compounded by the old-fashioned belief that if you don’t sacrifice yourself to work, you won’t be appreciated.”
Top Image: Maco Yoshioka, left, founder of the Single Mothers Sisterhood, and Akiko Yamazaki, right, a beneficiary of the program, meet in person for the first time. Photo by Alfie Goodrich.