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Outsourcing Motherhood

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

By: Fahreen Budhwani

“After all, the female labour force in Japan is the most under-utilized resource. Japan must become a place where women shine. By 2020 we will make 30% of leading positions to be occupied by women. In order to have a large number of women become leading players in the market we will need a diverse working environment. Support from foreign workers will also be needed for help with the housework, care for the elderly and the like”

– Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the World Economic Forum in 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s declaration to make Japan a nation “where women shine” is a classic showcase of his ‘feminist’ rhetoric which is celebratory at most. It comes as little to no surprise for Japanese feminists that Abe is not the hidden hero of the Feminist movement or the ally we have been waiting for, but rather a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Japan currently ranks the lowest of any OECD nation on the World Gender Equality index. Frankly, any Japanese policy aimed at empowering women can appear to be a positive undertaking. However, feminists ought to interrogate the Prime Ministers words more thoroughly. It is about time that feminists call out Abe and his government’s hypocrisy and cooptation of feminist ideals. Through an intersectional analysis we uncover the deeply problematic nature of Abe’s intentions. What does it truly mean to make women “shine”? How are women actually empowered through policy? And most importantly, which women are entitled to shine in Abe’s utopian vision of Japan?

It is evident, through Abe’s own words, that empowerment is not equally available to all. In fact, those who will be most disadvantaged by Abe’s policy are, not surprisingly, women. In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015 Abe said that Japanese women entering the workforce will be supported by foreign workers who will “help with the housework, care for the elderly, and the like”. Although the Prime Minister does not explicitly say that these foreign workers will be female, existing information on labour migration demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of care and domestic workers are women. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are roughly 11 million individuals who migrate as domestic care workers, around 74% of which are women. These statistics demonstrate the highly gendered nature of foreign migration in the care sector and serve to illustrate how Abe’s policy will disproportionately affect women.

The Prime Minister’s policy to empower Japanese women to shine is part of a larger global neoliberal order which relies on privatizing care to promote economic growth. Since the end of the Second World War the international community has seen a “feminization” of labour migration which is directly linked to the growing participation of women in paid work. As women in industrialized countries are increasing their labour market participation they are being faced with a double, sometimes triple, burden. Women are juggling work, home, and community responsibilities. This is clearly evident in Japan where the corporate culture which demands that employees sacrifice themselves for the company (i.e. as corporate warriors or salarymen) puts pressure on women to decrease the amount of time they spend in the domestic sphere on care based tasks. This intense pressure to participate in the labour market is already having a negative consequence which is evidenced by Japan’s falling birth rate. Women in Japan have clearly signaled that they are unable to manage both care work and paid work in their current forms. As a result of the unsustainable nature of Japanese employment practices a demand for foreign care workers has been generated.

In other words what has been observed in Japan, like many industrial nations, is a care deficit as a result of women entering the workforce and the failure of governments to provide adequate social welfare services (such as childcare). Women from third world countries respond to this deficit and arrive as nannies, cleaning ladies, elder care nurses and other forms of care workers. In doing so these women cause a care drain in their own nations. Since Japanese law forbids migrant workers from bringing their families with them, migrant women leave behind their own families, children, and communities to care for the children of others. While we often think of migrants as atomized individuals who are unconnected or untethered, this is not the case at all.

This scenario may not seem particularly negative; in fact some have argued that labour migration has provided third world women with economic agency. The argument is that the demand for care takers in Japan provides women with the opportunity to leave their country of origin to gain independence outside of it. This view is oversimplified and it fails to interrogate the reasons for migration more deeply. Firstly this perception does not account for the social, cultural, and political factors in migrant women’s home countries which force them to leave in order to support themselves and their families. These factors include: the nature of global capitalism and its reliance on exploiting third world labour, the lack of good jobs for women in their home countries, and the failure of third world governments to provide adequate services for women. These factors all intersect to create a context which pushes women to migrate.

These examples trouble the idea that migration is synonymous with agency. Without looking at what the alternative choices really are, it is easy to argue that women have choice. In other words, if the alternatives presented are significantly worse than migrating, we can conclude that migrant women never had any true choice in leaving to become foreign workers.

Another concern is that although women are migrating as economic agents, they are still doing what is fundamentally recognized as “women’s works”. They are thus not challenging the gender relations which structure their lives. Abe frames his policy as something which ‘empowers’ women, solely on the basis of their employment. However, this ‘empowerment’ through increased labour market participation does nothing to change the existing gender order: an order which views women predisposed to the domestic sphere with men naturally predisposed to the market. In fact, it re-inscribes those gendered narratives along transnational lines only furthering the division between developed and developing countries.

The Japanese economy has always been reliant on the flexibility that wives/ mothers/ women provide male workers. In fact the unpaid work women do in the private sphere can be viewed as a subsidy which allows men to dedicate themselves fully to the company. This subsidy is the cornerstone of the corporate structure which allows companies to exploit male labour through extensive overtime and burdensome relocations. The current salaryman culture which dominates Japanese business practice is wholly unsustainable without women’s role in the unpaid care sectors. It is evident that the Japanese government recognizes this essential role that women play and the importance of care work for society and the economy. Without the unpaid domestic work which reproduces laborers and future workers the economy would collapse and this is obviously well understood. However, rather than creating policies which attempt to foster flexible working cultures or provide essential state funding for services such as childcare or eldercare, the government has adopted a policy which simply transplants care responsibility from one group of women to another While wives have historically provide flexibility for companies it is now transnational migrant workers who will be providing this same flexibility to a select, privileged, group of women. The reality remains that Japanese women who enter the workforce will not be breaking glass ceilings or altering gender norms but are more likely to be mirroring men’s participation styles, thus demonstrating that the only norms valued in society are male norms.

It is clear then that Abe doesn’t care about empowering women; he cares about improving the Japanese economy. This might not be surprising or revolutionary for those familiar with the Japanese government, but for those who are not, it can become difficult to disentangle the sloganisation and appropriation of feminist themes from their lived impact. When we add an intersectional analysis to Abe’s “feminist” rhetoric we uncover its deeply problematic nature. A government who claims to care about women’s empowerment but only really cares about economic growth is one which feminists must call out for its hypocrisy.


ILO, 2015,“ILO Global estimates on migrant workers: Results and methodology” International Labour Organization

Arat-Koç, Sedef. (2006). "Whose Social Reproduction? Transnational Motherhood and Challenges to Feminist Social Reproduction" in Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-liberalism, Luxton, M. and K. Bezanson (eds) Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press,

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