Japan is experiencing a severe shortage in day-care slots, making it difficult for mothers to return to work. The country’s prime minister says his top priority is to get more mothers into the workplace to help the troubled economy. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

Ayumi Ito considers herself one of the lucky ones. She works for a relatively open-minded company — meaning she has to put her toddler, Saki, in day care for only 11 hours a day. Sure, she had to tour more than 40 child-care centers to find her daughter a slot, but eventually she succeeded.

Plus, her husband has cut back on his hours. Although he leaves their apartment at 7:30 most mornings, he is usually home by 1 a.m.

“It was worse before our daughter was born,” laughed Ito, 36, who manages the databases at a risk-management consulting firm in central Tokyo. “He’s trying, and that’s something I appreciate as a wife.”

The fact that Ito was able to continue working after she had Saki 2½ years ago is noteworthy. Only 38 percent of Japanese women return to their jobs after having their first baby.

Forget “leaning in.” Japanese women are opting out.

Now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change that. Abe has made fixing Japan’s moribund economy his top priority, launching an ambitious “Abenomics” plan that includes boosting female participation in the labor force. Among the goals of his “womenomics” initiative is raising the proportion of mothers who return to work after the birth of their first child to 55 percent by the year 2020.

“Abenomics won’t succeed without women­omics,” Abe told a women’s business forum this year.

Although Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, it is at the low end of most statistical charts when it comes to women in the workplace. The World Economic Forum’s most recent global ­gender-gap report — which tracks economic, political and other disparities — puts Japan in 105th place out of 136 countries, behind nations such as Tajikistan and Cameroon.

New mothers don’t return to jobs outside the home for a number of reasons. Japan’s workplace culture rewards long hours more than results, meaning 18-hour days are not unusual. Many men don’t even attend the births of their children, instead going to the office as on any other work day.

In addition, many Japanese think women should spend at least three years at home after giving birth. And the current tax system effectively punishes households with two working adults.

But a big part of the problem is logistical. How do you go back to work if you can’t find anyone to care for your baby?

Government figures suggest that more than 3 million women in Japan would like to work but cannot, partly because of a lack of child care.

Day-care centers in Japan range from heavily subsidized, publicly run nurseries to private centers where annual fees can top $20,000. But the country has such a severe shortage of day-care slots that there is a word for it: hokatsu, an abbreviation for “actively searching for a child-care center.”

To find a spot, some women reportedly divorce their husbands — on paper, at least — to gain preferential treatment as single moms. Others exaggerate their working hours to gain priority based on need.

Sixteen months after giving birth, Ito found a place for Saki. Such is her relief that she says she doesn’t really mind that she still has not received the promotion she was due three years ago, when she was pregnant.

Demographic worries

Japan is sitting on a demographic time bomb: With its low birth rate, the population is on track to shrink 30 percent by 2060, at the same time 40 percent of its citizens will hit old age.

Already, after two “lost decades,” the government is concerned that the economy will not have enough workers to help it grow.

That’s why it wants to close the gap between the number of men and women in the workplace, where male participation is 84 percent, 21 points above that of women.

“If you could equalize this, you could boost GDP by almost 13 percentage points, because you would be adding 7 million-plus workers to the labor pool,” said Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs and the person who coined the term “womenomics.”

Abe has asked all publicly listed companies to appoint at least one female board director by 2020, part of a plan to have women occupy 30 percent of leadership positions.

Some business leaders have criticized those numeric goals. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, has warned that such targets might backfire if women are promoted without sufficient experience or qualifications.

“We need to show successes,” he told reporters in Tokyo recently. If people see failures, he said, “I think it’s going to be counterproductive.”

Yokohama’s initiative

One of the most ambitious parts of Abe’s plan involves creating 400,000 new day-care spaces nationwide by 2018. The prime minister points to an innovative program in Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, which for two years running had the longest day-care waiting lists in the country.

After Fumiko Hayashi was elected mayor in 2009, she drew on her experience as that rarest of breeds here, the female chief executive, to overhaul the city’s child-care program.

“Without improving the child-care system in Japan, Japanese women will not be able to contribute to society,” Hayashi said in an interview. “I learned that through my own experience in a leadership position. Many of my female employees left when they had children and never came back.”

Realizing that the city could not tackle the problem alone, Hayashi — who started her career as a secretary making tea at a textile company and rose to become the head of BMW and Volkswagen in Japan — got businesses on board. She offered incentives, dramatically boosting the number of private providers, and created a “concierge” service to place children in care.

Last year, the number of children on Yokohama’s waiting list was zero. This year, there were 20 kids who could not get into day care, which officials attributed to unexpectedly high demand — there were more than 4,000 new applicants.

The Byobugaura Harukaze Nursery is one of the centers that opened under Hayashi’s strategy. Nestled underneath a highway overpass, it does not look like much.

But in the classrooms — which are open and minimalist, like something out of an Ikea catalogue — 60 children learn to count, read and perform gymnastic feats, such as walking on their hands and doing flips. On a recent day, cooks were preparing the children’s lunch: barley rice, fish with vegetables, cabbage and cucumber salad, and miso soup.

The city has almost doubled its spending on child care in the past four years, to $160 million. The most a parent pays is $775 a month.

A child-care staff shortage

Although many critics of the current child-care system have welcomed Abe’s initiatives, they say his plans do not sufficiently address core problems — for example, the severe shortage of day-care workers in Japan.

Abe’s plans would require an additional 75,000 teachers, said Noriko Nakamura, chief executive of Poppins, a Tokyo-based child-care company that is struggling to hire the 350 new teachers it needs this year.

“But there are 1.13 million people with the right certification and about two-thirds are not working [in the field] right now. Why is that?” Nakamura said. “The bottom line is because working in a day-care center is hard. The hours are long and exhausting, and it doesn’t pay much.”

The average salary of a day-care teacher in Japan is about $2,500 a month — although Abe recently ordered a pay increase of about $70 a month. Many who are qualified stay home or take more lucrative jobs.

A much greater hurdle is changing the mind-set of a country where a sizable chunk of people think women bear sole responsibility for home and children.

Matsui of Goldman Sachs points out that Japanese men spend an average of 59 minutes a day on housework and child care — the shortest amount of time in the developed world.

In Yokohama, the mayor suggests a cultural evolution is inevitable. “With our low birth rate and aging society,” Hayashi said, “there will simply be more of a need for women to participate in the economy.”

Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.