Japan's tax laws get in way of more women working full time


One of the key elements of the Abe administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy is getting more women into the workforce. As it stands, Japan has one of the highest rates of working women in the developed world, so the problem is not so much jobs but rather the quality of the jobs women get and how much money they make.

According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 56 percent of all women who worked in Japan in 2018 had nonregular jobs, meaning part-time, temp or contract work that usually lacks benefits. The corresponding rate for men was 22 percent.

In order for more women to secure the kind of work that would further stimulate the economy, certain cultural norms will have to be discarded, the most obvious one being the notion that homemaking is the responsibility of women.

In her 2017 book “Kaji no Shisugi ga Nihon wo Horobosu” (“Doing Too Much Housework Will Destroy Japan”), Noriko Sakoh contends that not only are women in Japan expected to do all the housework in a family, even when they work, this housework must adhere to an impossibly high standard. They spend too much time making state-of-the-art bento boxed lunches and folding towels just right because society places a great deal of value on these things.

And Japanese men are notoriously negligent when it comes to housework.

In a 2016 OECD report on time use in developed countries, Japanese households actually spent less time on housework than the world average, but by far Japan manifested the greatest difference between men and women in terms of time spent on housework: 46 minutes a week for men versus 263 minutes for women, according to Toyo Keizai magazine.

These cultural norms are mirrored by legal structures that encourage limited participation of women in the workforce, implemented during a time when almost all married women were full-time homemakers. The most important of these is the tax deduction for spouses, which was revised last year in order to encourage women to work more.

Prior to 2018, a person who made no more than ¥1.03 million a year in income did not have to pay income tax and could be claimed as a dependent on their spouse’s tax return, meaning a deduction of ¥380,000. Last year, this ceiling for tax deduction was raised to ¥1.5 million. If the person makes more than ¥1.5 million, the amount of the tax deduction gradually decreases until the salary reaches ¥2.01 million and the deduction becomes zero.

If the government really wants to encourage women to work more, it should revoke the tax deduction framework. As things stand, women who hold part-time jobs to supplement household budgets work only up to the point where their income is less than the ceiling in order to avoid taxes and ensure their spouse gets the full deduction.

The problem for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is that there are still many full-time homemakers, so getting rid of the exemption is politically risky.

Also, if a wife makes over a certain amount of money and no longer qualifies as a dependent, she would have to pay into the national pension system. Dependent spouses enjoy what is called Category III status, entitling them to their own pensions even if they never work and pay premiums. But once they enter the workforce and earn above a certain amount, they have to start paying, and if they look at the matter in the long term, they might conclude that they will get a better pension as a dependent than they would as a nonregular worker.

Another holdover from the days when men were exclusively considered breadwinners are the various benefits that companies give to regular employees with families. Not all companies offer such allowances, and those that do vary in the amounts they provide, but in many cases they cover housing and dependents.

If the spouse works or makes more than a certain income, however, the allowance is reduced or withdrawn. So when a married woman decides to work, she and her husband have to calculate whether the extra money is worth it compared to the various benefits he might lose — in addition to the loss of tax and social security advantages.

In a Feb. 15 report on employment statistics by the internal affairs ministry, the preponderance of women in nonregular jobs is apparent. The workforce in 2018 consisted of 34.76 million people in regular positions and 21.2 million in nonregular positions.

The breakdown by gender for regular employees was 23.39 million men and 11.37 million women. More significantly, there were 6.69 million men and 14.51 million women in nonregular jobs. Women account for two-thirds of all nonregular employees.

And then there’s the matter of pay.

About 44 percent of women in nonregular jobs earn ¥1 million or less a year, and 39 percent earn ¥1 million to ¥1.99 million. That means 83 percent of nonregular female employees make less than ¥2 million a year.

How many women in nonregular positions would actively try to make more money if the spouse exemption were removed? It would appear that a good portion of these women are purposely limiting their workloads in order to remain below the ceiling and qualify for the deduction and tax-free status.

Another reason to remove these legal structures would be to reduce working hours.

The spouse exemption and Category III pension status were implemented in the 1980s specifically to encourage women to stay home and “support” their husbands, who, thanks to this support, could work longer hours. Now, however, there is a concerted movement to limit hours worked in order to prevent exhaustion and protect workers’ mental health.

In a lecture she gave in January at the Japan National Press Club, Naoko Kuga, an economist at Nippon Life Insurance Research Institute, explained that the Japanese workplace has been gradually changing to accommodate more women as regular, career-track employees, while supermarkets and convenience stores are offering a variety of side dishes for households with working parents, but the lack of corresponding changes in attitudes toward family structures prevents women from being fully fledged members of the workforce.

Despite lip service to the contrary, husbands are still breadwinners and wives are expected to keep house and raise children, even if both work full time. Women who take time off to have children invariably find themselves on the “mommy track” when they return to the workforce, a career trajectory that stifles motivation.

According to Kuga’s research, 30 percent of female regular employees quit their jobs when they give birth, while 75 percent of female nonregular employees do likewise. A female university graduate who works continually until retirement can expect a lifetime income of ¥200 million to ¥260 million, depending on how much time she takes off for childbirth and child-rearing.

However, many working women in Japan, regardless of education, still quit their jobs when they have a child and get a new one later, usually as a part-timer. Those women make on average about ¥60 million in their lifetimes.

This represents a huge loss of potential for the Japanese economy, and in that regard women in the workforce is not strictly a “women’s issue.”

Kuga focuses on how women who make money spend it, and typically spend more of it than men do, particularly if they have children. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that people with kids spend more, but Kuga found that working women spend much more freely than full-time homemakers.

What holds them back is the traditional family structure, which persists not only because of cultural norms but because of outdated legal prescriptions and lack of assistance infrastructure, like day care.

Contrary to received wisdom, Kuga believes young women would be much more willing to have children if they are working full time in a job that has an assured future than they would if they were simply “supporting” male breadwinners.

In fact, if you look at all the evidence with an open mind, you might conclude that the traditional sensibility has it backward: Wives should be the breadwinners, not the husbands.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan.