When Mayumi Watanabe tells people what she does for a living, most struggle to hide their surprise, and not just because of her diminutive stature. As a truck driver with 23 years behind the wheel, she is one of a small but growing number of women coming to the rescue of an industry that is the beating heart of Japan’s economy.
“I can see they’re thinking, ‘How can such a tiny woman drive a big truck?’ ” Watanabe, who is 152cm (5ft) tall, told the Observer as she prepared for the busy run-up to the end of the year. “But I’ve always loved cars, so it felt natural to want to be a truck driver.”
When she started driving her first vehicle – a small truck – Watanabe was a rarity. “I found it strange, as all my colleagues were men,” she said, joking that at the time the stereotype about women being poor at reading maps really did apply to her.
Deciphering routes in the days before TomTom and Google Maps was not the only aspect of the job with which she struggled. Expressway truck stops did not have women’s toilets, and heavy-vehicle cabins appeared to have been designed solely with hulking male drivers in mind.
“It wasn’t the sort of environment where women could work comfortably,” said Watanabe, a representative director of Heartful, the first among Japan’s 62,000 trucking firms to employ only female drivers, who still make up just 3% of the industry’s workforce. But more than two decades after she started, Japan’s $300bn (£236bn) freight and logistics sector is looking to women to address what industry insiders believe could be catastrophic changes to labour regulations.
In an attempt to make trucking, with its punishingly long hours and low pay, more attractive, the Japanese government will cap drivers’ overtime at 960 hours a year, or 80 hours a month, from April.
The end of unlimited overtime, though, could have disastrous consequences that Japan’s media has dubbed the “2024 problem”. Transport companies warn that it will spark an exodus from an occupation in which most drivers depend on prodigious amounts of overtime to make ends meet. On average, they earn ¥4.46m (£24,540) a year, about 10% below the average for all industries, despite working 20% more hours.
The sector will struggle to meet demand fuelled by Japan’s e-commerce boom and enthusiasm for construction and building public works. The reduction in overtime would leave as much as a third of cargo undelivered by the end of the decade due to a critical shortage of drivers, the Nomura Research Institute said in a recent estimate.
The number of drivers, many of whom are nearing retirement age, would fall by 35% compared with 2015, it added. The government believes that could result in a ¥10tn hit to the world’s third-largest economy, where almost 90% of freight is transported by road.
The anticipated slump in the number of truck drivers will have consequences for every corner of the economy, not least for farms and fisheries, whose clients expect the freshest produce. Factories, hospitals and convenience stores could all be affected.
In the two decades that Watanabe, 43, has been driving trucks around her company’s base in Fukui prefecture, a largely rural region on the Japan Sea coast, toilet facilities have improved, while improved seat design and steering technology have made her job much easier. “Now it’s far more normal to see women drivers, and male drivers are getting used to it.”
With more women driving large trucks, companies are starting to customise their vehicles to better accommodate them, including fitting cabins with curtains to give their occupants more privacy during rest breaks.
“To avoid going under, trucking companies will have to harness women’s potential … and make a point of reaching out to them instead of just saying that they want to hire more drivers in general,” Watanabe said.
“A lot of companies that rely on the logistics sector are complacent about the difficulties coming their way. Some of them don’t even know what the 2024 problem is.”
She now drives a heavy dump truck filled with asphalt, sand or earth to construction sites, and works about 30 hours of overtime a week – meaning that her extra hours will fall dramatically from April. “My husband and I can make changes to cope with that, but I think a lot of drivers will just quit,” she said. But she has no intention of joining them.
“The women I work with help each other out with childcare and taking time off – the sort of things that men sometimes struggle to understand.
“And if you like driving as much as I do, being behind the wheel of a big truck is a real thrill. You’re out and about all the time. Driving gives you a sense of freedom.”