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Why ‘Maternity Harassment’ Was a Top Japanese Buzzword in 2014

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Photo from Pixabay user tasha. Creative Commons Deed CC0

Each year, Japanese educational publisher U-Can publishes its Japanese Buzzword of the Year, chosen from a list of 50 nominees. Many of this year's potential winners were lighthearted, but among the top ten buzzwords of 2014, however, was the very serious mata hara (マタハラ), meaning maternity harassment.

The term has been on the lips of many in Japan since the country's Supreme Court ruled in October 2014 that the decision of a Hiroshima hospital to demote an expecting female physiotherapist violated Japan's equal employment laws. The physiotherapist sued the hospital for 1.7 million yen (the equivalent of US$17,000) in damages.

On October 23 the Supreme Court dismissed the physiotherapist's suit, but also overturned to previous lower court verdicts and sent the case back down to the high court in Hiroshima, in effect ordering the court to change its verdict.

According to the Supreme Court's October 23 ruling, “as a basic principle, employers may not demote female employees without consent for being pregnant.” It overturned previous rulings by two lower courts.

Mata hara lawsuit: demotion due to pregnancy ruled illegal by Supreme Court.

Maternity harassment is in reference to when a female employee who is pregnant or has given birth is demoted, receives a pay cut, is laid off, or experiences other forms of negative treatment by employers. In recent years, even as the status of women has slowly improved in Japanese society, this sort of harassment has increased.

A variety of opinions about the October 2014 ruling could be found online:

“As a basic principle, employers may not demote female employees without consent for being pregnant.” 

- Yes! I totally agree with this. It makes total sense.

Others expressed their opinion of the buzzword mata hara itself:

The problem with “maternity harassment” is, while consideration should be paid to the needs of expectant mothers, on the other hand what about “I want a lighter workload without giving up my position as a manager. And I want to leave earlier while preserving my salary.” The fact is, others are having to pick up the slack. It's almost like “reverse maternity harassment” in practice.

Others focused on what effect the ruling would have on Japanese employers:

The “maternity harassment” ruling is ground-breaking and will have a profound effect on labour relations. Nikkei Shimbun: “Mata hara ruling sets wheels in motion for massive societal discussion. More than 3,000 cases pending.”

Others suggest that the mata hara ruling may help change Japan's culture of overwork, where employees are coerced into working late into the night:

This nails it: RT Japan's workplace, traditionally based on long working hours, may be about to change for both men and women. Mata hara is not an issue about sexual equality, but is just the tip of the iceberg that is Japan's toxic work environment.

There was also a lot of discussion about what the Supreme Court ruling means for Japan's significant number of part-time and short-term contract workers.

Traditionally, when compared to other G7 countries, few women in Japan have participated in the labour force.

Now, as Japan ages, mothers as a group are expected to play an increasingly important part in the country's workforce. According to Japan's Labour Ministry, between 2005 and 2009, 38 percent of mothers continued working after the birth of their first child. By 2020, the ministry hopes to boost this number to rise to 55 percent.

On October 15, 2014, the Labour Ministry announced it was embarking on its first serious study of the issue of maternity harassment.

It's expected that, thanks to this recent Supreme Court ruling, Japanese employers will be forced to consider and deal with the problem of mata hara.

At the same time, the issues of long working hours and overworked staff will be addressed. The mata hara ruling has the potential to create a better working environment for both men and women, while incorporating more women into the workforce, with the potential to increase profits for businesses as well.

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