1 Baran

Japanese Essay About Family

Japanese Families: Modern vs. Traditional


The Japanese institute of family is something that has changed a great deal in the past few decades, from one that was strictly centered around Confucian law to one that is now based much more strongly on Western democratic ideologies (Iwao, 1993). However, as we will see, it is still very different from the Western definition of "family."

Prior to the beginning of the Muromachi age in 1336, Japan was mainly a matriarchal agrarian society, where commoner women enjoyed many freedoms, including love and marriage, equality, and power. However, the women in elite classes were subjected to the strict rules of Confusion ethics. These women's lives "were bound by the 'three obediences': obedience to fathers when young, to husbands when married, and to their children in old age" (Iwao, 1993). When Japan opened up to the Western world in 1868, marking the start of the Meiji era, a metamorphosis of Japanese society took place. Industrialization and modernization slowly began to change many aspects of society, including social conduct and interactions, most especially the structure of families. The Confusion code of ethics, which once was limited to the samurai class, penetrated to all people of Japan, as the distinctions between classes were officially abolished. This meant that the women who previously had many freedoms were suddenly bound by much stricter rules, and Japanese society as a whole became much more male-dominated. Families now consisted of a superior father, an inferior mother, and their children, whereas in times past the parents shared many equalities (Iwao, 1993; Sano 1973).

For many years, this era persisted, and little changed in the makeup of most families. They tended to be large, extended families, housing many generations and many branches of the family under one household. It wasn't until the defeat of Japan in World War II that change was instituted, brought upon by the introduction of a new constitution written for Japan by the United States. This document clearly stipulated that "all of the people are equal under the law," (Iwao, 1993), something that changed the way Japanese people acted, learned, perceived, felt, and lived. In many ways, the structure of the Japanese family has changed dramatically since that pivotal point in history, but in other more subtle ways, it has held on firmly to its traditions (Iwao, 1993; Sano, 1973). In the following sections, several aspects of the Japanese family will be analyzed and discussed, including the organization of families before and after the new constitution was put into place, how love and marriage have been affected throughout the generations before and after the war, and the changes seen in parents' roles in the family. In addition to literature cited, observational data and examples collected from January to May 2001 will be included.

Pre-War Families and the Post-War Civil Reform

Before the end of World War II, Japan was predominantly a society based on the comings and goings of its male population. Women were given little to no economic, political, or sexual freedoms, and were "expected to behave in conformity to the norms and accepted roles of society" (Iwao, 1993). They were held to the standard illustrated in the old expression ryousai-kenbo, meaning "the good wife and wise mother" (Iwao, 1993). Women were handed down from her father to a husband, and then on to her sons in her old age, as dictated by Confusion law. However, much of this changed when Japan lost World War II, and what was referred to by many Japanese people as the MacArthur Constitution was established by the American Occupation following the war. This document mandated, among other things, that both sexes be treated as equals and that there would be no discrimination on the basis of sex (Iwao, 1993; Sano, 1973; White, 1993).

Prior to the end of the war, Japanese families lived in doozoku (compound households): they were large, consisting of the honke (main family) and several bunke (branch family), all of which spanned several generations. New brides, oyome-san, were brought into the family, and daughters were married away to be oyome-san in other households. The title of successor, atotori, was passed from father generally to the first-born son, and the family continued to grow in this manner. Occasionally, when a son was not present to be named atatori, the eldest daughter would marry a man from another family, and he would enter as a muko-yooshi, taking his new family's last name and becoming the male who would stand in line to become the head of the household upon his father-in-law's passing (Matthews, 1990). The women in these families, with the exception of the head wife, held a very low status within the family, and were expected to cater to the needs of the men in the household. This meant preparing and serving meals, cleaning the home, and caring for the children (Iwao, 1993). All of the customs these families followed were seen as the "beautiful tradition of the family system" (kazoku seido no bifuu), and were very highly respected and upheld throughout the society as a whole (Iwao, 1993; Matthews, 1990).

However, these standards of family structure were altered upon the creation of the new constitution. Females were now not only encouraged to attend school along with their male classmates, but required to through the end of chuugakkou, grades seven through nine (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999). Instead of staying home and caring for the family exclusively, diligently maintaining the "good wives and wise mothers" doctrine, women were given much more freedom to explore their own desires, and consequently, the formation of Japanese families was drastically altered. Though the transition of families from traditional to modern was slow, modern families appear almost nothing like their ancestral families on the surface, though some similarities remain, including a number of traditions and roles that are deeply engrained into Japanese society even today (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993).

One significant difference in the appearance of Japanese families is their size. Most modern families are straying from the tradition of living with an extended family, opting for much smaller nuclear families. In addition, the birthrate has dropped considerably over the generations since the war. Many Japanese couples today are described as DINKs - double income, no kids. For various reasons, including job opportunities, travel conveniences, the urge to remain free from too many responsibilities, and the increasing cost of education and housing, families are choosing to have fewer or no children than they have in the past (Iwao, 1993). In fact, the "average size of a family has decreased to 2.95 persons as of 1991" according to Iwao (1993). In addition, the average age of marriage for women in Japan has increased considerably over the years, due to many of the same reasons described above. These women are better educated and find themselves able to live freely with well-paying jobs and relatively few obligations and responsibilities. Many are not interested in settling down with a husband and raising a family, giving up their new-found freedoms. Instead, they choose to live as "parasite singles," remaining at home with their parents, sometimes even into their thirties, living a relatively care-free life full of shopping sprees, expensive trips, and above all, freedom to come and go as they please while their mothers cook, clean, and care for them (Yamada, 2001).

During my stay in Hirakata, Japan, a small town located between Osaka and Kyoto, during the spring of 2001, I lived with a host-family, the Teranishis. They were a typically modern family, consisting of a mother who stayed at home and raised the children, cooked, cleaned, and maintained the household; the father, who worked many long hours and was almost never home; and two children - a daughter, Ayaka, who was 14, and a son, Kenshou, who was 8. Though Mrs. Teranishi, who we called Okaa-san, the Japanese term for mother, was not employed outside the home and was responsible for all the cooking and cleaning, it was obvious that she and Otou-san, the father, shared equal amounts of power in the family, and were both responsible for finances and decision-making in the home. The four of them, along with a different foreign student each semester, lived together in a small house in the residential district of the city. Though they did not reside in the same house as Okaa-san's parents and sister's family, they were only a short train-ride away, and she visited them several times a week when her schedule permitted. On the other hand, my friend Aki Hamazoe's family was much more typical of a traditional family. They lived two hours outside of Kyoto in a small residential area, much more rural than the Teranishi's residence, in an extended family household. The Hamazoe house was home to Aki, her two younger sisters, her parents, and her father's parents. Both of these households represent modern families in Japan, though it is quite apparent how even today, family structure and levels of tradition can vary greatly.

Love and Marriage

In the past, marriages in Japan were almost exclusively all arranged, in a process referred to as omiai. In this process, a match-maker, either a professional or a friend of the family with many acquaintances, was contacted and meetings between the families were arranged. If the families deemed the match appropriate, the marriage took place, and the two families were joined. Oftentimes, these marriages were based less, if at all, on the feelings of the two people involved, and more on the and beneficial ties between the two families created by such a union (Iwao, 1993; Matthews, 1990; Sano, 1973; White, 1993). With the introduction of a new set of laws in 1948, however, people were given much more freedom to choose their own futures, and in the generations since, the number of people opting for love marriages instead of arranged marriages has increased drastically. While this number is in the majority, omiai is still a fairly common practice in Japan today. The concept of omiai in modern times has changed, nevertheless, and is much more flexible than in the past. Whereas in the days of Confusion ethic marriages were arranged by the family, and the couple had little to no say in what happened, modern omiai work more as a blind-date between two people, who are then free to choose whether to meet again or not (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993). "Many people ... prefer to have an objective mature adult behind an introduction, to take responsibility for an appropriate match" (White, 1993).

The Japanese concept of marriage, too, is and always has been different from a more Western ideology of the term. Many believe that "a good relationship between a married couple is 'like air,'" in the sense that "like the air we breathe, [it] is vital for the survival of both sides even though its presence is hardly felt" (Iwao, 1993). The traditional view on marriage in Japan is that passionate love (ren'nai) and marriage are not necessarily related, but that love can blossom between two people out of years spent together in marriage. More people are marrying for love in today's society, but the numbers are still quite small in comparison to those of Western nations (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993).

Because many Japanese marriages are not centered around a romantic love for one another, there is little enticing the couple to stay together when the marriage becomes rocky. In the past it was unacceptable to end a marriage, but because there was little emotion binding them together, it was quite easy for them to divorce themselves from each other within the home. Today, however, there are many more love marriages, and yet, divorce is something that is still somewhat frowned upon by Japanese society. Japan has the one of the lowest rates of divorce in the world, standing at 1.26 percent as of 1990. Unhappy couples many times will do the same thing their ancestors did, by divorcing emotionally and staying together legally. With husbands who work long hours and are forced to make frequent business trips, it's quite simple for the two to lead very separate lives, perhaps only sharing a bed on the evenings when the husband does come home from work.

In addition to the separation of love and marriage, a popular Japanese norm is the separation of sex and romance. Japan, unlike most Western nations, is not a puritanical society, and sex is not considered taboo by most of its general public. In fact, data collected from various sources reports that nearly two-thirds of Japanese teenagers have had a sexual experience by the age of fifteen, and over 80 percent of teenagers reported frequent masturbation (White, 1993). However, the appearance of sexual knowledge and public displays of affection are taboo in Japan, though it is more common to see people showing these displays among the younger generations in today's society. In addition, "Japanese do not consider sexual fidelity or the maintaining of a good sexual relationship with their spouse to be of critical importance," (Iwao, 1993), and as women become more economically, socially, and psychologically independent, the rate of extramarital affairs continues to increase. Many times, the wives who feel distant from their husbands, but cannot divorce for various reasons, will turn to other men for a secret passion in their lives, adding to the rise in this number of unfaithful spouses (Iwao, 1993).

While it is certainly true that many people still choose to arrange their marriages through omiai, none of the people I met in Japan claimed to have done so. Okaa-san and Otou-san told me a charming story of how they met at a ski resort one winter, and how their love grew from there. And it was still obvious that there was much affection left in the Teranishi's marriage even though they did not show many displays of their love, even within the home in private. All of my friends had boyfriends and had no interest in arranged marriages - they wanted to marry for love. Also, while most of my Japanese friends were not virgins, "saving" themselves for their future husbands, they were not sexually promiscuous. These encounters would seem to suggest that while many people in Japan are still rooted in tradition, certainly not everyone is, and there is much room for variation in trends.

Roles of Parents

Even after many changes in the Japanese social and political system, one thing has remained essentially the same on the part of the Japanese family: the man is still the primary bread-winner (or rice-winner, as the case may be), and the woman is the caretaker. While it is true that many more women, even those with children, are entering the workplace, their income is usually substantially less than their husbands', due to a variety of reasons: they are usually not as well educated as their spouses; they often take time off during pregnancy and in the years following, until their children enter elementary school, which disrupts their career; and they often do not want to take full-time jobs that require a lot of energy and self-sacrifice when they have children at home to care for (Iwao, 1993).

Women in the Japanese family are typically responsible for taking care of domestic matters. They do all the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, clothes-washing, and disciplining in the household. In addition, the mother is often the parent who ensures their children's success in school by acting as an "education Mama," checking their homework, meeting with their teachers, and pushing them to do their best. Three major appliances entered the Japanese market in 1957 that changed the way women worked in the home: the television, the washing machine, and the refrigerator. With these new domestic devices in place, women were able to spend much less time on household chores and much more time developing their own interests. More and more women joined neighborhood clubs or sought part-time jobs near their homes, further increasing the emotional gap felt by many modern couples.

As a result of these socially-engrained gender roles, fathers often work very hard at their jobs to provide the best lives they can for their family. This requires many long hours spent at the office and little time spent with their wives and children. In the days before computers, the father would go home on payday with an envelope filled with cash that he would present to his wife upon his return. His wife would have prepared an elaborate meal to thank him for his efforts in supporting the family, and his children would see what he had contributed and how thankful their mother was for all he had done. Today, however, salaries are often directly deposited into bank accounts, and the wife, who is usually the person who controls the purse strings, can merely withdraw the money as she needs it. Their children, as a result, see very little of their father, with his busy work-schedule, "much less the fact that he is making money" (Iwao, 1993). This new occurrence in modern Japanese society has led to the diminished "status of fathers and their authority within the family without any compensating change in the awareness and behavior of the fathers themselves" (Iwao, 1993).

Adding to the ambiguity of the father's parental status in the family is the increasing number of marriages that are temporarily split up by the corporation the father works for. At any given time in the early 1990s, nearly 175,000 Japanese men were living apart from their family because he had been transferred elsewhere by his company for a long period of time. Families often prefer to live in this "commuting marriage" instead of relocating the entire family, since moving costs are very expensive, children are in school, and there are often elderly parents nearby requiring assistance (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993).

As a result of these situations, the mothers are the ones who are responsible for raising their children, ensuring that their education is the best and that they are working to the peak of their potential. Ultimately, the mothers are typically the only real authority figure in the family. In some extreme cases, children today do not see their fathers as authority figures at all, and consequently treat them with much less respect than they do their mothers (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993). My host family fit this description of a modern Japanese family quite well. Otou-san almost never returned home from work before the rest of us had gone to bed, and often left early in the morning, only shortly after everyone had risen. Additionally, he was frequently gone on the weekends. Okaa-san, however, was always present in the home. Laundry was done every other day, each futon was aired on the balcony once a week, and breakfast and lunch was prepared and served every day. Ayaka was a studious girl, and Okaa-san did not need to nag her about her studies. Kenshou, however, often slacked off on his work, and several times, Okaa-san would scold him harshly. On the occasions when Otou-san was home during the day, he was treated by his children as more of a much-older sibling than a parent with authority. He would give them spending money, take them shopping, buy them candy and cakes, and take them on family outings. I rarely observed Otou-san raising his voice at them, and when he did, they often yelled back - something they would never do when Okaa-san scolded them.

On the other hand, Okaa-san's parents were much more traditional in the sense of family roles. Her father was the ultimate authority in the household, and her mother catered to his every need, as was the custom in past generations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my speaking partner's father worked from home as a juku (cram school) teacher, and her mother worked as a nurse. All these examples illustrate the various types of families in modern Japan, and the roles that each member plays in their family.


In the years leading up to the end of World War II, Japanese society was held strongly to a code of Confusion ethic, a factor of great importance in the structure and function of families of the era. These families were often male-dominated and large, with several branches of the family and several generations living in one house together. Women were subordinate and were expected to submit to the strict rules of society (Iwao, 1993; Matthews, 1990; Sano, 1973). However, the defeat of Japan in World War II brought about a change, as the American Occupation took over and instituted a new constitution that dictated that both sexes be treated as equals (Iwao, 1993).

Shortly thereafter, women began getting more education and were no longer subjected to the harsh principles of Confusion law. While still expected to be the caretakers in the family, they were given more freedom to choose how their lives would be. Couples began to marry at older ages and have fewer children than in the past, drastically changing the structure of Japanese families. In addition, there was a decrease in the number of arranged marriages, as both women and men were allowed to seek out love marriages (Iwao, 1993; Matthews, 1990; Sano, 1973; White, 1993).

As the structure of Japanese families changed, so did the technology available to these families, and both played a large part in determining the altered roles of men and women in modern Japanese families. With the introduction of modern appliances, women have much more free time to spend developing their own interests. Fathers, on the other hand, spend relatively little time at home, spending most of it at work. Their children almost never see them, and as an additional discredit to the father's authority, they no longer actually see their father's financial contribution to the family. Consequently, mothers hold nearly all of the authority in the modern Japanese family, while fathers are oftentimes merely seen as another son (Iwao, 1993; White, 1993).

In many ways, the structure, values, and roles of the Japanese family have changed drastically over the past century, from very large and male-dominated to much smaller and essentially female-dominated. However, there are still many ways in which these families are very similar to their ancestors' families: they share many of the same traditions, even though some ideas have been changed through the years (Iwao, 1993; Matthews, 1990; Sano, 1973; White, 1993). Nevertheless, in the end, they are all families in one form or another, and not even a drastically new constitution could change that.

Works Cited

Iwao, Sumiko (1993). The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Matthews, Masayuki Hamabata (1990). Crested Kimono: Power and Love in the Japanese Business Family. London: Corenell University Press.

Okano, Kaori, and Motonori Tsuchiya (1999). "Students' Experience of Schooling," from Education in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 53-83.

Sano, Chiye (1973). Changing Values of the Japanese Family. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, Publishers.

White, Merry (1993). The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yamada, Masahiro (2001). "Parasite singles feed on family system." Japan Quarterly 48(1): 10-16.

Key words: Japan, marriage, family, childrearing, parenting, mother


Chihiro is an articulate, outgoing Japanese woman who enjoys taking on leadership roles. A mother of two young children, she frequently volunteers to organize PTA events at her children's elementary school, is enrolled in a variety of enrichment activities, and has a part-time job. Yet, in several wide-ranging interviews with my research team, she revealed her deep ambivalence about the role of mother. Describing herself as lacking the temperament and "qualifications" to be a good mother, she admitted that her life as a stay-at-home mother was not fulfilling her intellectual or emotional needs: "Well I think I'm longing for a stimulation that I'm not getting from life now. I want to see the outside world. I feel like there are so many things that I can learn, like going to school, studying, getting a job." But, she believed, the opportunity to engage deeply in a professional career has passed forever. Although her undergraduate teachers had encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree, she chose not to do so, a decision she had come to regret: "So I wonder if I would be leading another life if I had done that. It might be more fun, you know...I think I made a mistake."

Chihiro is just one of many highly educated young women in Japan who are asking questions about the role of wife and mother. Indeed, many are deciding to postpone marriage and childrearing for as long as possible, if not entirely. Over the past 60 years, the birth rate in Japan has dropped from 4.5 to 1.3 and Japan has become one of the least fertile and fastest aging countries in the world. By 2055, economists project that one in four Japanese citizens will be 75 years or older (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2003). This drop will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects on the economy of Japan, and the government is rightly concerned about the future of the country.

Why are so many Japanese women postponing or opting out of family life? While many industrialized countries are experiencing similarly reduced birth rates, the Japanese phenomenon is particularly surprising due to the strong identification that women have had with the role of mother over the past half century. And they have not yet been able to break into the workforce in anywhere near the numbers attained by their counterparts in Western countries. Without attractive alternatives to becoming a mother, it is all the more striking that many are eschewing this role.

Politicians and pundits have developed many theories to explain what is going on, but the surprising fact is that little is known about Japanese women's own perceptions on these issues. In spite of Japanese officials' deep concern about the declining birth rate, they have paid little attention to the viewpoint of the women who are to make these important decisions. And as psychologist Keiko Kashiwagi (1998) has noted, most academic researchers have viewed Japanese women as an "environment" for producing children rather than as individuals whose own beliefs and feelings should be considered apart from their skill in producing high-achieving children.

To address these information gaps, I began a program of research in 2000 to learn how Japanese women perceived the role of mother and to understand more about their daily life experiences. Data from opinion polls and surveys administered at that time suggested that compared to their counterparts in the West and in other Asian countries, Japanese women tend to view child rearing as a difficult job with relatively few emotional rewards. And many Japanese mothers characterized themselves as doing a poor job at parenting and described feeling plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. What is it like for those women who go through daily life perceiving that they are failing at the one role deemed by many to be of utmost importance for women? And - on a more optimistic note -- what are the factors that contribute to the happiness of women who have achieved a degree of satisfaction with their lives? These were the questions that captivated me when I began this research project.


Listening to Women's Voices

In the summer of 2000, three Japanese doctoral students and I interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women. We kept in contact with the women over the next three years, and administered two additional surveys, one when their children were in first grade, and one when they were in second grade.

When we started the project, the average age of the women was 36 years old. All of them had at least one child in the last year of preschool. Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. About 60 percent of the mothers had pursued education after high school, including specialized vocational training, junior college, or university.

From these 116 women, we selected 16 mothers in Osaka to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of them had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. Within each educational group, we chose some women who demonstrated high parenting efficacy on the survey (i.e., who felt confident in teaching, disciplining and interacting with their children), and some who demonstrated low-efficacy beliefs. We conducted four in-depth interviews with each of the 16 mothers between 2000 and 2003.

The most recent product drawing from this data set is a book (Women and Family in Contemporary Japan) published in 2010. In writing this book, I wanted first and foremost to pay attention to the women's own individual experiences. I also wanted to set Japanese women's lives in a more general historical context, focusing particularly on the role of government policies and corporate actions in shaping the opportunities and barriers that women have faced in the modern period. And I was interested in how cultural norms and values - some persistent and some changing -- have interacted with these institutional actors to set the parameters of women's experience.

In this essay, I report some findings from the book, focusing on three factors that characterized the women who felt successful in the role of mother and satisfied with their lives: reasonable standards regarding their own parenting accomplishments, adequate emotional support from their husbands, and opportunity for meaningful employment.


Becoming "My Kind of Mother"

In contemporary Japanese society, mothers are often given very specific advice about how to engage in certain parenting activities. For example, a parenting magazine may offer detailed guidelines about how to enter a playground with one's child in a way that will gain acceptance from other mothers and their children. Although a woman can derive comfort from the idea of conforming to a clear blueprint, the danger is that she will come to believe that any deviation from the blueprint will have disastrous consequences for herself or her children. Indeed, reliance on "how-to" manuals has been linked in Japan to "manual syndrome," in which these guides, with their blend of "performance perfectionism, a curriculum of conformity, and high demands," ultimately erode rather than build confidence as intended (White, 1995, p. 271).

The cultural practice of following an established blueprint is linked to a second practice, that of hansei, or reflecting deeply on one's performance in order to identify and correct weaknesses. As our research team delved into women's thoughts about being a mother, we began to see that some mothers seemed tormented by endless speculation on what they were doing wrong, while others seemed to be able to engage in hansei without becoming overly self-critical and paralyzed with self-doubt.

Miyuki, a mother of three children, provides a good example of someone who was thoughtful but avoided excessive worrying about whether or not she was doing everything well: "I didn't really have the mental energy to think about not being confident. I was just concentrating on being my kind of mother because that's good enough." Miyuki thought that if she avoided comparing herself to others, she would feel more confident: "I think there are many kinds of mothers. I think it's pointless to say that this kind of mother is good or that kind is good. I think that I am myself and I've never thought about imitating other mothers."

Yasuko, another mother of three, believed that it was desirable (and inevitable) for mothers to engage in constructive self-questioning: "There's no such thing as doing something perfectly, so you will question yourself as to whether or not you're raising your children in the right way." However, she believed that mothers could evaluate their actions in a way that did not lead to emotional anxiety and behavioral instability. In our study, women like Miyuki and Yasuko who could forgive themselves for their imperfections were able to make room for an idiosyncratic approach to child rearing that was attuned to their own personal needs and those of their children. These women seemed to have happier and more satisfying lives.


Supportive Husbands: A Rare and Valuable Commodity

While parents - and mothers in particular - receive a lot of criticism in many societies, Japanese women seem to be subjected to an extraordinary degree of excoriation by politicians, media pundits, educators, and physicians. Certainly, it is worth considering whether this critical treatment is one factor contributing to women's discouragement about family life and disinclination to engage in child rearing. Many Japanese people accept the idea that negative evaluation by others can lead one to heightened effort and improved performance; this cultural model may be associated with the notion of "mutual polishing" in the Zen Buddhist tradition (Hori, 1996). In contrast, within Western psychological theory, the assumption is that other people's positive rather than negative judgments give rise to positive self-evaluation, which in turn motivates an individual to persist and do well (Bandura, 1997).

Our research team examined the support and criticism that the participating mothers received from various quarters. We found that husbands were the most crucial actors in this respect. Contrary to the stereotype of Japanese men as unimportant or peripheral family members, the behavior of the husbands in our study - as perceived by their wives -- was strongly related to the women's emotional well-being and sense of child-rearing efficacy. Most of the women did not expect their husbands to participate extensively in housework, but they wanted them to be actively involved with their children. The women also wanted their husbands to provide emotional support, mostly by listening carefully and sympathetically to their worries. To a lesser extent, they expected to benefit from their husbands' suggestions and advice.

Our interview data revealed that many wives felt quite frustrated and angry with their husbands, but there were a few women who were happy with the partnership they had created in their married lives. In general, these couples seem to be pushing toward some new ideas about marriage, moving away from an exclusive focus on economic stability and child rearing and moving toward a goal of emotional interdependence characterized by frequent and intimate communication.

Asako is one of these happily married women. She described herself as an atypical Japanese woman because she was very athletic and committed to the game of soccer. However, she had been fortunate to meet a man who shared her passion for soccer, and their mutual love of sports became a foundation of their marriage. In addition to supporting her involvement in soccer at a semi-professional level, Asako's husband participated actively and willingly in the rearing of their young son, Kaito. Asako jokingly told us that sometimes felt lonely on the weekends "because he takes our son with him wherever he goes!" Attuned to his son's interests and capabilities, Asako's husband tried to find activities that he would enjoy. For example, at a point when Kaito was interested in trains, the pair took train rides around the city for fun, and Kaito learned to identify numbers and characters by reading the train schedules and deciphering the signs posted at each station.

Asako felt more confident than most women about her child-rearing skills, in part because she and her husband discussed how to deal with problems and used teamwork to provide effective discipline. For example, her husband would avoid taking sides when Asako was scolding Kaito so that afterwards he could seek comfort from his father.

In summary, the women we interviewed were not expecting their husbands to spend much time on housework or childrearing. Their low expectations are borne out by survey results comparing Japanese men to men in Western and Asian countries. For example, according to a recent report, men living in Tokyo were reportedly less involved in housework and childcare than were fathers in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei (Benesse, 2006a, 2006b). But they were hoping for their husbands to be involved, communicative, and emotionally supportive. We found little evidence that women were satisfied with a silent, undemonstrative partner.


Staying in the Workplace

The story of women's employment in Japan makes it difficult to feature a positive story without at least prefacing it with some remarks about the challenges. The story of Miyuki illustrates the difficulties that women face in combining work and family life.

When Miyuki was a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a preschool teacher. Over the next ten years, thanks to her hard work and her parents' economic sacrifice, she was able to attend a junior college and receive a teaching certificate. She obtained a job as a teacher and plunged into her work with enthusiasm and dedication. Yet, two short years later, she became engaged and found herself confronted with the prospect of combining career and family life. Her parents believed that she should quit her job, telling her, "You are clumsy. We do not think you can handle both housework and your job." Her fiancée agreed with this assessment, remarking, "New computers can do so many things simultaneously, right? But old ones can handle only one thing at a tie. You are an old computer." Regretfully but convinced that her family members were correct, Miyuki gave up the job. When the youngest of her three children entered elementary school, Miyuki went back on the job market, but learned that the preschools in her area were only employing younger women fresh out of college. She eventually gave up the search for a teaching position and took a part-time job as a cashier at a convenience store.

Miyuki's story is one that is familiar across Japan. In spite of being highly educated, fewer Japanese women remain employed after they have children than do women in other countries, and most who leave the workforce do not return to jobs with comparable status. Japanese corporate policies - including a demand for continuous service and exclusive allegiance from workers - have made it difficult for women to move in and out of full-time work. The failure of the government and corporations to develop family friendly workplace has contributed to a striking drop in women's interest in full-time employment over the last decade, even as their educational attainment continues to rise.

Most of the women in our sample wanted to work at least part-time in order to supplement the family income; in particular they saw their own employment as making it possible to enroll their children in supplementary classes and lessons. Some enjoyed the feeling of independence that came with earning a paycheck, particularly because they no longer had to ask their husbands about personal purchases for themselves or their children. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of working, according to these women, was that it gave them the opportunity to interact with other people and see a bit of the outside world.

Although most women in our study had, like Miyuki, quit their jobs around the time they became engaged, a few were able to overcome these social norms and stay on the job, mostly through sheer force of will. For example, Masayo told us that she had received no encouragement from her parents to pursue an education beyond high school. Her father was a "traditional man" who "said that women need no education" and her mother expected her to "be feminine, help with the housework, and find a husband." Masayo's parents discouraged her from studying hard in high school and would literally turn off the lights when she was trying to do her homework in the evenings.

However, Masayo described herself as an ambitious girl who was determined to pursue her education: "I was a rebel. I had a strong will to go to the university... I felt like, why do I have to lose to men?" She was able to go to college when her father died unexpectedly and she became eligible for tuition assistance from the government. She eventually received a bachelor's degree and teaching certification and took a job as an elementary school teacher.

Although her husband wanted her to quit when they married, she resorted to the indirect strategy of procrastination:

I did not want to resign. Well, I did think about quitting, but I decided to wait to do so until after getting pregnant. Then, after we had a kid, I waited again until the end of my paid maternity leave. So in the end, I just kept on putting off quitting my job. [Laughs.] He [her husband] gave up on that for me.


Lessons Learned

The results of our research suggest that women's effectiveness in the role of mother was only partially a function of their own decisions. Their sense of competence and ability to engage fully and joyfully in parenting were also affected by the support they received from immediate family members and the more distal policies and practices of government and corporate interests. Thus, engaging in a systemic analysis of the institutions and policies that set the conditions surrounding the role of mother is essential to understanding how to support contemporary families.

The insights gleaned from the thoughtful mothers in our study have a number of implications for practitioners in the fields of psychology, social welfare, and education. In recent years, municipal governments in Japan have initiated various types of programs to support mothers but these playgroups and classes tend to promote the notion that child rearing should be "standardized and systematized" (Sasagawa, 2006, p. 142). Taking a top-down approach to teaching a "standard"' way of raising children may create a temporary feeling of security among some mothers but the cost of this expert-driven approach is high. The findings from our research suggest that it would be better to support women's own efforts to articulate what it means to be - as Miyuki said -- "my kind of mother."

A second set of implications concerns the practice and promise of psychotherapy. We noted that many women expressed a considerable amount of anger in talking about (and to) their husbands. While they reported that it was sometimes possible to vent these frustrations in conversations with friends, they often added that it was not always advisable to be candid with friends and that they sometimes experienced feelings of competition or inadequacy. The private and structured opportunity for self-exploration in a therapeutic relationship may offer possibilities for support and growth beyond what is afforded by peer relationships. Individual psychotherapy may help Japanese women find a private solution to their problems and a way to satisfy their deep need to feel cared for as well as to care for others (Borovoy, 2005). Local and national government agencies can work toward funding mental health programs and lessening the stigma of seeking this type of assistance.

A third set of implications pertains to the ways labor policies can be altered to support rather than detract from family life. First, corporate policy should stop making experience within a single firm the main criterion for advancement and remuneration, and it should start acknowledging experience garnered in other workplaces (see Rosenbluth, 2007). These changes will make it easier for women to move in and out of the workplace as their children's needs change over time. Additionally, companies should reduce or eliminate such practices as mandatory overtime, after-hours socializing, frequent job transfers, and pressure not to take vacation days.

The government should step up its enforcement of the Employment Measure Act to discourage firms from discriminating against older workers (Hamaguchi, 2007; Sakuraba, 2007). The government should also continue taking action against companies that fail to offer equitable opportunities and remuneration to males and females. In 1997, progress was made in strengthening the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) to enable parents to petition employers to exempt them from night shifts and to work shorter hours, and by encouraging employers to rehire workers who were attempting to return to work after taking a family-related leave. Further legislation approved in 2001 increased the penalties for companies that retaliate against parents who try to take child-care leave, and contained provisions addressed at fathers as well as mothers, such as a requirement that parents of young children can insist on limiting their overtime to 150 hours a year. However, employer discrimination continues to be directed towards women who get pregnant or take time off to care for their children and, as Schoppa (2007) writes, "the percentage of women in full-time, regular jobs staying in those jobs through marriage and child rearing is actually lower than it was in 1992!" (p. 178, emphasis in original).

In summary, the declining birth rate in Japan can and should be seen as an indicator that social changes are needed to make the role of mother more rewarding to the increasingly well-educated and socially powerful female population in that country. The women in our study expressed a variety of views and articulated diverse goals, but they did convey one clear message - namely, that it is imperative to heed their voices and respect their contribution to the ever-changing discourse about what it means to be a wife and mother in Japan.



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More information about Susan D. Holloway's new book, Women and Family in Contemporary Japan, can be found at the following link:

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