Associate Professor MATSUO Miwa

Many countries, including Japan, are confronting problems such as widening economic inequality and poverty, as well as declining birth rates and populations. The vital role of social sciences is to pinpoint knowledge that can serve as a basis for policy formation and support scientific debates. Associate Professor MATSUO Miwa (Research Institute for Economics & Business Administration) analyses the following topics from diverse perspectives: issues relating to child-rearing and care work, people without transportation access, and the impacts of IT and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. We asked her about how she first became engaged in this kind of research and the themes she will explore in the future.

From Engineering to Economics

You started off studying architecture but later became an economics researcher.

Associate Professor Matsuo:

I entered the Department of Architecture (at The University of Tokyo's Faculty of Engineering) because of my strength in science and my interest in spaces where people live. While studying at university, I became more interested in public spaces and cities. My master's degree advisor (at the University of Tokyo) led me to think about how design could support cities with declining populations, and I participated in community development groups. However, I wanted to explore frameworks and theories further rather than get involved in specific community projects, so I decided to study abroad at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the United States. This School covers many research fields, including architecture, city planning, urban design, and landscaping. During my first year, I was impressed with the classes and research of the microeconomics professor and decided to major in transportation economics. Under the supervision of my advisor, I studied issues associated with urban transportation networks and development, such as workers' access to employment.

You shifted the focus of your research to socially disadvantaged people.

Prof. Matsuo:

After completing my PhD., I worked at the University of Iowa in the upper-Midwest of the USA. Iowa was a region famous for corn production, confined animal operations, and meatpacking industries. It was a declining rural area with a decreasing and aging population suffering from poverty. In addition, there were social tensions between the European-origin locals and Latino seasonal workers and immigrants. Iowa was totally different from where I spent my graduate school years. While Boston on the East coast of the USA is an urban city with many foreigners, Iowa is a predominantly White society. As a minority myself, I experienced a sense of not belonging nor being able to integrate into the community. Therefore, I became interested in how isolated Hispanic people live in the area, and this was the starting point for my research.

The Necessity of Car Ownership for Impoverished Single Parents

You have conducted research that specifically focuses on people without easy access to transportation.

Prof. Matsuo:

In the early stage of my career, I hesitated to explore socially vulnerable people and transportation-disadvantaged populations because the topics seemed "feminine," i.e., the themes predominantly taken up by female researchers. However, after experiencing life as a minority myself, I decided that it was my mission to leverage this experience. I have been working on this topic earnestly for around a decade. Even in the field of travel behavior, research on the travel behaviors of single parents, people in poverty, and immigrants is not a mainstream topic. However, the car is an empowerment tool that enables them to escape from poverty through increasing job opportunities for poor households, particularly those who care for children, disabled or older adult members. While we critically need to reduce car use from a global environmental standpoint, researchers must also address the multifaceted impacts of automobile-reduction policies and inform policymakers. If policymakers only make assumptions about automobile usage by healthy people without care-responsibilities, we may fail to consider the specific implications of car ownership for people in adverse circumstances. Ignoring the impacts on disadvantaged people could result in failure to build a sustainable society as a whole.

Whether welfare recipients should be allowed to own cars has been controversial in Japan for decades. Car ownership was basically not allowed for welfare recipients because cars are regarded as assets. However, it is not well-investigated what problem might occur if economically disadvantaged people give up welfare benefits due to the desperate need for a car. Likewise, what would happen if a person gives up their car to receive welfare benefits is not seriously discussed. Existing reports show that the relaxation of vehicle ownership restrictions for welfare recipients 25 years ago in the US resulted in a higher employment rate, job retention rate, and welfare exit rate for welfare-recipient single parents. My ongoing research on more recent data also agrees with the previous findings. If relaxing the restrictions for receiving welfare benefits makes it easier for people to escape poverty, relaxing these regulations should also lower social costs in the long run. However, if impoverished single parents have to give up their welfare benefits to keep a car, they may have to make their living by working all day at multiple jobs. In such cases, children may be left unsupervised unless they have reliable relatives. Such underinvestment in children's human capital and social capital outside school can result in a vicious cycle of poverty. Therefore, policymakers must consider the long-term impacts on individuals and society rather than focusing solely on the short-term costs of welfare payments.

However, if impoverished single parents have to give up their welfare benefits to keep a car, they may have to make their living by working all day at multiple jobs. In such cases, children may be left unsupervised unless they have reliable relatives. Such underinvestment in children's human capital and social capital outside school can result in a vicious cycle of poverty. Therefore, policymakers must consider the long-term impacts on individuals and society rather than focusing solely on the short-term costs of welfare payments.

Preventing Poverty Reoccurrence


It seems that this is not only a problem affecting impoverished single parents.

Prof. Matsuo:

In some ethnic communities, such as the Hispanic immigrants in the USA, cars are culturally considered to be a male domain. Thus, even if the family has a car, women in such communities are given low priority for vehicle usage. Research often reports that women are stuck at home without personal mobility. In a car-dependent society, people who cannot drive themselves face severe disadvantages in the labor market. Also, they can hardly reach public services or educational opportunities to obtain language and business skills. If a male household member drives to work, the remaining members have to manage their mobility in alternative ways. For example, they carpool with other community members to do grocery shopping or for commuting. Feminist geographers and sociologists have long-discussed mobility as an empowerment tool. Empowerment through mobility works not only for women but also for other minorities and disadvantaged people, such as foreigners and people with disabilities.

This has a significant impact on the next generation.

Prof. Matsuo:

If you don't have a car in the US, it is challenging to take children even to the neighborhood park. In Los Angeles, my family of four intentionally lived with only one car. I found that this restricted the children's social and educational opportunities (e.g. ability to take part in after-school activities). Mobility constraints limit not only the spatial extent of accessible options but also time availability and flexibility in life. Single parents in a working-poor condition often suffer from 'time poverty.' To help people who suffer from both time and monetary poverty, we need to develop a different set of poverty reduction policies from those for people who may not have money but have plenty of time, such as retired older adults. Parents' spatio-temporal constraints also limit children's activities and parent-child bonding time. I am currently investigating what happens to human capital investments in children when parents suffer from time as well as monetary poverty, using US data. This research tries to address the long-term impacts of transportation availability on child-raising households and society as a whole.

Even Working from Home has Negative Consequences for Women

Working from home has become more common due to the spread of IT (Information Technology) and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. What kind of effect has this had?

Prof. Matsuo:

Adopting IT and expanding work-from-home options were expected to improve people's work-life balance. However, US research papers show that working from home was not easy for women. For people who care for the elderly or children, there is social pressure as well as the individual's assumption that 'they should be able to take care of their family while they are working because they are at home.' In reality, family care often demands a full-time workload, and carers are prone to overburdening themselves.

I worked from home during the COVID pandemic, as did my husband, a researcher. Although my husband and I were home together, our children disproportionally expected more care from me. Children and older adults often request interactions and ask for things to be done if their mothers, daughters, or wives are there, even if they are working. It is difficult for the caregiver to say no in such situations because they are nearby. Such frequent interruptions lead to the caregiver working late at night or early in the morning, sacrificing sleep and health. At first, the spread of work-from-home practices seemed good news for all workers. However, an online survey conducted in February 2021 during the second state of emergency in Japan revealed that mothers and caregiving women suffered from the pressure to take on the increased burden of care-work and housework. The same thing is reported in Europe and the United States.

Please tell us about your future research plans.

Prof. Matsuo:

While many researchers study the relationship between transportation and commuting behavior/business locations, I am more interested in how transportation relates to people's personal lives. Specifically, I would like to research how transportation access alters how people spend their time at home. I would also like to consider how people's lives change, not only in terms of work, but also in terms of their children's education and communication with their families.

In economics, we often study how "budget constraints" alter people's behavior; however, time is another significant constraint. As a female transportation researcher raising children and facing time constraints, I aim to research transportation's impact on people's behavior.


March 2002BE from the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, The University of Tokyo
March 2004MS in Environmental Studies from the Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, The University of Tokyo
June 2005Masters in Design Studies (Real Estate and Urban Development) from the Harvard Graduate School of Design
November 2008Obtained Doctor of Design (Urban Planning) from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and became the School's postdoctoral fellow
August 2009Assistant Professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, the University of Iowa
August 2014Associate Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University
February 2016Associate Professor at Kobe University's Research Institute for Economics and Business Administration



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