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Japanese Women: Family and Workforce Challenges

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
7 Aug 2015

Historically in Japan, well-defined societal gender roles establish the husband as the family breadwinner, business leader, and decision maker. The husband is to rule with an iron hand. A Japanese proverb advises future grooms to "Beat your wife on the wedding day, and your married life will be happy." A closer look at modern women and marriages, however, reveals a very different reality, especially inside the home. Another proverb, "A good husband is healthy and absent," may draw a more accurate picture of modern rather than traditional Japanese marriages. Let's take a look at how marriages were, how and why gender roles have evolved, and what marriages are like now. As you know, general observations do not and cannot describe all situations, even when they are based on reliable statistics.

How things were

During the Aristocracy era, a new groom visited his wife nightly in her parents' home. Only after the wife gave birth to a child or the groom lost his parents would she be accepted into the groom's home. However, the aristocratic practices were not true of all classes during that highly stratified era.

Marriages between common people were different. The proverb, "A bad wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest," probably spoke loudly to these commoners. Human labor held a high value to this level of society, so when young people married, it could have a big impact on the family's ability to earn their living. A couple of marriage traditions emerged among the commoners to respond to that threat. Often, a groom would live with his wife's family to provide his labor to benefit her family for a while. By the way, even today the bride's family can adopt the groom legally as a member of their own family. As the groom worked for his wife's family, in some rural areas of Japan the wife also would work for her husband's family. A variation of these arrangements was that the couple each would work with their own families, and the husband would visit his wife at night.

Marriages also were used for political and diplomatic reasons, as to a limited extent they still are. They could be tools to bind together not only families but also territories and to consolidate power and authority. Indeed, the "Yome-ire," a system of arranged rather than free will marriages, was the norm during the Shogun age. The role of the "Nakodo," who served as the go-between for families and the matchmaker for marriageable youth, evolved and became a very important part of Japanese society. However, that was then, and things began to change.

The Transition

During WWII, eventually most men left the workforce to go off to war. That left the women to take over jobs that before were limited to men, such as working in arms factories, mines and other typically male dominated work environments, similar to what happened in the U.S. during that period. "Rosie the Riveter" and her sisters in spirit rose to meet work and family challenges, filling gaps that absent husbands and fathers left.

In Japan after the war, not only were the cities leveled, so was society, which fostered democratic tendencies. Women began to look for self-fulfillment and waited longer to get married and raise children. The trend was away from arranged marriages. Women often continued working, even after being married and having children. They seem to have taken to heart the Japanese proverb, "Marriage is a woman's grave," and aspired to more autonomy in marriages as well as the workplace. Has that worked for them? Yes and no.

Present Day

After marriage or during pregnancy, even now the majority of women still quit the workplace, as men are still viewed as breadwinners and business leaders. Women leave the workplace for a variety of reasons, such as personal or family preferences, but it also could be because there are even greater gender wage inequalities in Japan than there are in the U.S. And, while women in increasing numbers have risen to executive and administrative positions in U.S. companies, that is not true in Japan. Women hold less than 10 percent of those leadership positions in Japanese companies, and the jobs that women hold are not the ones that offer benefits, job security and career paths. Often, even well educated women work in low-level positions.

Teaching is one of the best professions for women because it offers equal pay for equal work. However, the teachers' union does not overcome the glass ceiling. Of education management positions, such as principals at all levels, upwards of 90 percent are occupied by men.

Although Japan has an equal opportunity law that protects discrimination against marriage, pregnancy and having children, it doesn't protect from deeply ingrained cultural influences. So, with no laws to address that form of discrimination, Japanese women report that discrimination is blatant. They are known as "office flowers." Women have been called victims of the past Confucian ideas of male supremacy by some observers. So, it seems that, rather than trying to crack that glass ceiling as well as fighting ingrained cultural influences, women flee the workplace environment to seek fulfillment in their homes.

Here there's a switch. Females are dominant in the home, which has been called a matriarchy. Women typically make decisions involving the children and finances. Through that, they have the most power and control in the family. Some have called the behaviors that allow wives to have control of the household "passive-aggressive." Yet, when men are in control of the family, that label is not applied to them, which smacks of what may be a familiar double standard. In reality, Japanese men work very long hours and are absent from the home. Nature abhors a vacuum, or so the English saying goes, therefore the vacuum presented by the absent husbands and fathers must be filled. Who better equipped and more willing to take over than the wife and mother of the children?

Having the main responsibility of home and family makes it difficult to juggle work and home life, which the majority of American women can relate to. Coupled with workplace inequality, some Japanese women choose to form their own businesses called "kagyo," meaning a household business. Typically, they are typing, running a farm or fishing. By stepping away from the corporate workplace and establishing her own business, she side-steps the inequality issues, can find personal fulfillment and (gasp) sometimes even earns more than her husband.

Age matters

Unmarried women over thirty, which is considered middle-aged, are called "make-inu," or loser dog. Women of the same age who have managed to get a husband are known as "kachi-inu," or winner dogs. What's wrong with this picture? Whether married or not, women are still dogs. As Elvis howled, "You ain't nuttin' but a hound dog." To be accurate, age isn't a consideration just for women. Japanese men who remain unmarried at the age of 35 fear being considered a failure and therefore unable to get job advancements.

Future directions

Cultural attitudes are difficult for young single women who have a yen (groan—sorry, but I couldn't resist) to travel. If they really get the travel bug, they may live and study overseas into their third decade, which makes them, well, you know, losers. Plus, when they return to Japan, they come back with different eyes. They may have different concepts of how men and women can relate, which can put a wrench in their dating scenes. First, her expectations have shifted, and she's seeing everything differently now, including the culture she grew up in. Secondly, she can be viewed as "sullied," or unduly influenced by Western cultures. Therefore, she may be perceived as unfit for Japanese marriage and business.

Japan, for all its deep cultural traditions, is evolving as exposure to the rest of the world is increasing. The wheels of that evolution may turn slowly, but turn they do. Stay tuned!

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