By Michael Schuman
Isana.net now allows employees to bring their children to the office and adjust their hours to care for family. (Ko Sasaki for The New York Times)
TOKYO — When Hiromi Otsuzuki joined the Japanese software company Isana.net as human resources manager four years ago, she was the only part-time employee.
Working just 15 hours a week so that she could care for her stepson made Ms. Otsuzuki an outcast in a country that is notorious for the long hours office workers spend at their desks.
Her colleagues called her “part-no obasan,” or part-time auntie. Despite being a specialist, she was asked to organize bags for recycling.
“Within the company, nobody would accept me,” Ms. Otsuzuki, 48, said.
Her situation is better now. She is no longer the only part-time worker in the office, and she has been promoted.
Things are looking up for other mothers in the Japanese work force. According to a survey released in July, nearly 71 percent of women with children were working. That is the highest level on record.
But the figures mask some major problems.
Under pressure to maintain their child-rearing responsibilities, many mothers opt for part-time work. In Japan, that means accepting meager benefits, little job security, few opportunities for advancement and low pay.
Only one in four mothers in Japan was employed full time in the last fiscal year.
“Every company thinks that opening doors and hiring women is the end goal,” said Kaori Sasaki, head of the Committee for the International Conference for Women in Business. “But actually, that is the starting point.”
Many mothers find that the pull between home and office makes it difficult to stay in jobs.
Such challenges frequently derail women’s careers and contribute to a gender pay gap that is the third biggest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s member countries, behind only South Korea and Estonia.
Severe economic pressures are forcing some change. Managers are experiencing labor shortages amid low unemployment and an aging labor force.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the inclusion of women in the workplace part of his campaign to revive Japan’s economy. He has promised better access to child care, and Parliament has introduced legislation that would require large companies to state their goals for hiring women.
Advocates for womensay more needs to be done. Tougher laws that promote gender equality are necessary, they argue, and training is required to sensitize male executives to the needs of their female workers.
As of now, progress is coming on a smaller scale.
Since hiring Ms. Otsuzuki, Isana.net has built a team of eight mothers who work part time — out of about 45 workers in total.
Isana Ishitani, who founded Isana.net in 2001, now allows Isana.net employees to bring their children to the office if necessary and to switch between full- and part-time hours to care for children or older parents.
“We want the employees to work for our company until they retire,” he said. “In order to do that, people need to adapt to a lot of things in their lives.”
In the meantime, Ms. Otsuzuki said, the rest of Japan has no choice but to include people like her.
“Luckily, Japan is so short of workers,” she said, “that even ‘part-no obasan’ are welcome.”