Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2000

A Woman's Place Is...

by William Hall

The first female governor elected in Japan. Women being promoted to board level at major Japanese companies. Women entrepreneurs featured in magazines (including this issue). Are these the harbingers of a major attitudinal shift in Japan in regard to the status (as opposed to numbers) of women in the workforce? Or are these events simply statistical aberrations given lots of media play because it makes good copy?

With the recent exception of the United States and a few small matriarchal societies beloved by anthropologists, the negative impact on career development caused by the time and effort required to bear and raise children (and the lack of supporting facilities therefor) has been a major factor preventing women from rising to the top in business. Other important handicaps have been male chauvinistic attitudes as well as women's own priorities in regard to the balance between home and career. What is the situation in Japan today? What does the average Japanese female and, importantly, the average Japanese male, think about the balancing of the roles of mother and career woman?

As part of a February 1999 study conducted by the Prime Minister's Office on the "Decrease in the Number of Children," a random sample of 3,530 Japanese nationals (1,639 males and 1,891 females) aged 18 years and over were asked their perceptions about the division of roles between husband and wife in a number of household situations.

The following household situations were postulated: 1. General household duties such as cooking, washing, cleaning, et cetera (excluding child raising and caring for aged parents); 2. Child raising (up to around the end of elementary school); 3. Control of household expenses.

For each of the situations given, respondents were asked to choose one of the following: 1. Exclusively the husband's role; 2. Mainly the husband's role, but wife also helps; 3. Shared equally between husband and wife; 4. Mainly the wife's role, but husband helps; 5. Exclusively the wife's role.

As can be seen in the table below, with combined scores for "exclusively/mainly the husband's role" of only 1%, 2%, and 7% respectively for the three household situations, the running of the household is still very strongly perceived to be the job of the wife.

The 72% figure for "exclusively/mainly the wife's role" for control of household finances may be surprising to those not familiar with Japan, but certainly not to Japanese husbands. In the great bulk of salaried worker households, the wife (sometimes referred to by husbands as the "Minister of Finance") provides the husband with a small monthly allowance for his personal spending on cigarettes, drinks, et cetera. Except for these personal items, a product targeted at the household that does not meet the approval of the wife will normally not be purchased.

This general dictum can be considered to apply to computers, digital cameras, and printers as well as to traditional consumer durable products, housing loan repayment schedules, insurance, clothing, educational expenses, and so on. Thus, while the actual choice of model and specifications for a high-tech product may be decided by the husband, the trade-off decision on whether or not to spend on such a product and the spending limit for the product is likely to be heavily influenced by the housewife.

The overall averages in the study indicate that, for most wives, the husband might as well sleep outside with the dog for all the help he is around the household. But, if we focus on only those respondents who mentioned "exclusively the wife's role," we find, among the younger population, the glimmerings of a softening in the traditional division of male/female roles in Japan. Note also that there are almost no differences between males and females in each age group, an indication that a true shift in societal attitudes may be occurring between the generations, and that the data is not just the one-sided aspirations of female respondents.

For general household duties and child raising, the decline in the percentage of younger respondents considering the role to be exclusively the wife's is quite dramatic. For example, the percentage of those considering child raising to be the exclusive responsibility of the wife declined from 40% for females and 34% for males in the 60 years and above group down to 7% and 8% respectively in the 18-29 group. Despite these shifts, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that, when the overall percentages for exclusively/mainly the wife are combined, among both men and women respondents the figures are in the 60-80% range.

Note also that the decline among the younger population giving "exclusively the wife" is much less in the case for control of household expenses, indicating that the wife will continue to play the leading role in this area.

Respondents were then asked how priorities between work and child raising should be interwoven, respectively, in a male's life and a female's life. Five statements were provided, and respondents were asked to choose one from among these. The statements were 1. One should put priority on work ahead of child raising 2. Putting priority on work ahead of child raising can't be helped 3. One should strive to find a compatible way to be able to do both work and child raising 4. Putting priority on child raising ahead of work can't be helped 5. One should put priority on child raising ahead of work.

72% of the total sample (68% of males and 75% of females) consider that males should put priority on work over child raising. Conversely, 70% of the total sample (73% of males and 68% of females) considered that females should give priority to child raising over work. Thus, for at least two thirds of the Japanese population, "You've come a long way baby!" is not yet being shouted from the rooftops.

Interestingly, even for the sub-sample of married respondents with no children, the majority of whom are double-income households, there is no major difference from the overall figures on priority of work versus child raising. 62% of males and 66% of females respectively who are married with no children consider that males should put priority on work. Conversely, 75% of males and 69% of females respectively who are married with no children consider that females should put priority on child raising over work.

The one sub-sample where significant differences occur is among unmarried males and females. Some 40% of unmarried males and females consider that males should attempt to balance work and child raising compared to the overall average of just over 20%. When it comes to the perception of the female's role, however, the situation is less clear-cut. While 41% of unmarried females think that females should balance work and child raising, only 27% of unmarried males are of this opinion, not that dissimilar to the total sample. Is this another example of men having their cake and eating it too?

So what does it all mean? Irrespective of the brouhaha in the media to the contrary, there is still a very strong preference among married women to give priority to raising children. Further, to question whether this attitude might change with greater support from the husband is moot. With the possible exception perhaps of unmarried males (and even these seem likely to change their thinking after marriage), Japanese males do not appear to want to be involved in household affairs.

It has also been suggested that the provision of better child-care facilities near the home would facilitate a woman's ability to follow a career path in a company. But we must remember that, in Tokyo for example, the average one-way commute is well over an hour standing up crushed to death in a train. Further, full-time employees rarely leave the office at 5:00 to 5:15. Thus, if both a husband and wife were on a career track, they would be able to spend virtually no time at all with their young children, which as we have seen is still an unacceptable option in Japan. In short, don't hold your breath waiting for a rapid increase in women making it to the top in Japanese business. Some single women, perhaps, but only very limited numbers of married women.

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