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Tradition & Change –

Examining Gender Roles in Japan

   

“I don’t interfere with my husband’s business, not with my mouth, hands or legs.”[1] This statement, made by Kumiko Hashimoto, the wife of former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutario Hashimoto, underlines the traditional role of women in Japan. Indeed, as the former First Lady articulates, she had no “special duties” in her job, and her main roles were as a housewife, a mother, and in taking care of her ill mother-in-law.[2] Hashimoto’s comments on the traditional role of women underscore the deeply-rooted nature of inequality in the gender roles and relationships in Japan. However, in today’s Japan, such traditional attitudes are changing, as illustrated by the emergence of a class of young, educated and professional women, who are preferring to remain single, in order to preserve their freedom.[3] In examining the nature of gender roles and inequality in Japan, it is therefore important to consider the major traditional patterns, understanding how these patterns have changed today, and how the changes have affected society in general. In this manner, it would then be possible to re-examine the questions of gender inequality, and recommend a direction for future changes.

Traditional gender roles in Japan are characterised by a strong sense of patriarchy in society, which account for the bifurcation of the productive and reproductive spheres, with a distinct separation of gender roles. In the family, this refers to the idea of the man as the primary breadwinner of the family, and the woman as the primary caregiver in the family, an idea that is depicted in Iwao Sumiko’s story of Akiko.[4] Gender roles in the family bear a close relationship to the situation in the workforce, where there is a strong male dominance in the company hierarchy. Resultantly, males possess increased career opportunities, unlike females, who are marginalised in the workforce and are considered to be temporary labour, expected to resign upon marriage or childbirth.[5] As can be seen, there is an intimate family-work relationship in Japanese society and this hinges on the traditional gender roles within society.

The traditional gender patterns in Japanese society have however not been without their tensions and problems. For instance, traditional patterns in the family require women to be put their husbands before their jobs, as articulated by 33-year old interpreter Asaki Shimoda.[6] This has resulted in a tension between the status and economic security of marriage and the freedom of remaining single, where many women find themselves trapped in marriages that deny them personal freedom.[7] In addition, women in rural communities do not enjoy equal rights and status as their husbands, being expected to serve the families as “workers”, while at the same time not rewarded in terms of inheritance.[8] In the workplace, the idea that women play a temporary labour role has resulted in their limited career advancement. As Executive Director of Shisedo Sales Company Hisako Nagashima asserts, Japanese society generally adopts a “chauvinistic” attitude towards career women, and it is very difficult for them to climb the success ladder.[9] Moreover, there is a relegation of women to non-leadership positions, which one analyst has referred to like “serving as a decoration”.[10]

With the rising problems faced by the Japanese economy, there have been changes in the structured patterns of gender in both the family and the workplace. Economic recessions in the country have forced many women to enter the workforce in order to increase the level of income earned for the family.[11] With an increasing number of women in the workforce, the existing gender ratios have been altered favouring increased gender equality in that women now have a greater say in the family, and also participate more in the workforce. For instance, changes in the family can be seen in the rejection of omiai, the traditional arranged marriage. Women are also marrying later, with the average age of first marriage at 26.3 years in 1995, compared to 25.4 in 1983.[12] In addition, an Osaka Marriage Medical Guidance Survey found that a third of 400 women surveyed expressed a desire not to live with their husbands after marriage.[13] In the workforce, there has been a rise in the number of single career women who have been successful in the professional field. Hisako Nagashima of the Shisedo Sales Company is one notable example. Hisako rejected the comfortable job of running her aunt’s restaurant and being married to a man of her aunt’s choice, instead choosing to lead a single life, with the opportunity to choose her own life-partner herself. She joined a multinational company and rose in the ranks as an Executive Director, through her outstanding capabilities and hard work.[14]

In addition to changing trends in the economy, an increase in educational standards has also tipped the balance of gender equality. This has in turn led to an increasing awareness of gender inequalities, which when coupled with changing attitudes towards women’s roles, have led to an increasing demand for the government to decrease gender inequality. Consequently, the government began to pass legislation such as a Gender Equality Law, which aimed to set broad new principles for Japanese society.[15] In addition, government legislation such as the Equal Employment Opportunity and Labour Standard Laws were set up to outlaw workplace discrimination and set up a definition for sexual harassment.[16] These laws set the stage for a more equitable treatment of women and served as a positive step towards increased gender equality.

On the surface, it would appear that the changes in gender patterns have served to redress gender equality. For instance, the post-World War Two family system suffered a “shake-up” in the increasing feelings of emptiness among women after their children had grown up. Many of these women then re-entered the workforce in a bid to search for a sense of satisfaction.[17] There has also been a questioning of the old family system and its customs in rural communities in Japan.[18] As for increasing gender equality in the workplace, this can be seen in that women can now work late and take most dangerous jobs once reserved for men. There is also better treatment of women, as can be seen in more promotions of women to supervisory positions, reflecting a greater appreciation of women in the workforce.[19] In addition, there has been an increase in the number of sexual harassment complaints to local government, from 968 in 1995 to 7,019 in 1998.[20] There has also been a re-evaluation of the family-work relationship, in that more women are prepared to remain single, looking towards their jobs as the main avenue of expression rather than merely for the sole purpose of earning income.[21]

Despite such surface trends towards gender equality, many analysts have questioned the recent social changes, saying they have only been “cosmetic” in terms of their lasting impact on society.[22] Take for instance the case of Japanese official Hiromu Nonaka, dubbed the “Minister of Gender Equality” for his role in promoting gender equality. Hiromu had instead suggested to a female Cabinet member to get married, implying that by getting pregnant, she could help to reverse Japan’s low birth rate.[23] More concrete criticisms have targeted the equality laws themselves, saying that they are too “vague” and do not include any punishment for companies that disregard its provisions.[24] In addition, 1997 statistics show that Japanese women hold only 9.3% of professional positions, compared to 44.3% in the United States.[25] Another controversy had been the approval of the birth control pill in June 1999, which questioned the treatment of sexual equality in Japan. The approval of the pill had been postponed several times since 1965, with government experts saying that approving the oral contraceptive would lead to “promiscuity” and “moral decay” as it would reduce condom use and would increase the spread of AIDS.[26] On the contrary, the government introduced the more risky medium and high-dose pills officially prescribed to control menstrual disorders.[27] This was compared to the relatively quick approval of the anti-impotence Viagra drug only six months after its application. As one gynaecologist quipped, “Maybe some important guys in government wanted it”.[28]

As can be seen, the patterns of gender inequality in Japan are still deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche. Consequently, it is essential to embark on further changes so as to alter this fundamental trend. Hence, it is important to establish stronger government policies promoting equality in both the family and the workplace. In the family, this could take the form of laws altering the family registration system, for instance allowing women to retain their maiden name instead of insisting that married couples use a single surname under the current koseki system.[29] In the workplace this could be through legislation discouraging gender inequality in the company hierarchy, and through laws tangibly expressing the extent of punishment for sexual discrimination and harassment. Such policy changes, if implemented, would indeed promote greater gender equality. However, due to the ingrained mindsets of patriarchy in Japanese society, it is crucial to implement widespread educational reforms to alter such traditional notions, such as through public information campaigns or through the school textbooks. Considering Japan’s entrenched social traditions, such a task would be momentous. It would however be a considerable step towards establishing greater gender equality.

The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 14th March 2000.

   

Bibliography

Hindell, Juliet, “International:  Single Women in Japan woo their Valentines with a bridal message”, Sunday Telegraph [London], 14 February 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

Iwao, Sumiko, The Japanese Woman:  Traditional Image and Changing Reality, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994.

Jameson, Sam, “Japan’s glass ceiling”, The Denver Post, 24 May 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 8 May 1999.

Jordan, Mary, “A First Lady’s Secondary Role; Premier’s Wife stands behind her man, typifying gender roles in modern Japan”, The Washington Post, 15 April 1996, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 11 Mar 2000.

Lev, Michael A., “Japanese women see bias in quick ok for viagra”, The Buffalo News, 1 February 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

Magnier, Mark, “Equality evolving in Japan”, Los Angeles Times, 30 August 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 21 Feb 2000.

Mayo, Issobe, “Woman fights Japan to keep maiden name”,  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 26 March 1991, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 13 Mar 2000.

Mullen, Ruth, “Educated Japanese women in no hurry down aisle”, The Indianapolis Star, 15 November 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

Sharmini, R., “Hisako – mistress of her own life”, New Straits Times [Malaysia], 18 October 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

Urquhart, Alexander, “Doctors find Pill hard to swallow”, South China Morning Post, 7 March 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

Yoshimi, Nagamine, “Imported brides not the answer”, The Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo], 1 September 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 21 Feb 2000.

Yumiko, Miyai, “Postwar family system bound to change”, The Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo], 24 December 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 8 May 1999.

 

 

Comments? Email marklsl@pacific.net.sg to share your thoughts.

 

 

The Writing Page

 

[1] Quoted in Mary Jordan, “A First Lady’s Secondary Role; Premier’s Wife stands behind her man, typifying gender roles in modern Japan”, The Washington Post, 15 April 1996, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 11 Mar 2000.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ruth Mullen, “Educated Japanese women in no hurry down aisle”, The Indianapolis Star, 15 November 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

[4] See Iwao Sumiko, The Japanese Woman:  Traditional Image and Changing Reality, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994, pp.47-51. Iwao tells of the relationship between Akiko and her husband Kazuo. While Kazuo was solely responsible for his job, Akiko managed practically every aspect of the home, and was of the firm conviction that a mother should devote full time to raising her children.

[5] Ibid., pp. 42-7. Akiko was expected to resign from her job when news broke out that she was getting married. She eventually did so when she was pregnant.

[6] Quoted in Ruth Mullen, “Educated Japanese women in no hurry down aisle”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Yoshimi, Nagamine, “Imported brides not the answer”, The Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo], 1 September 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 21 Feb 2000. 

[9] Quoted in R. Sharmini, “Hisako – mistress of her own life”, New Straits Times [Malaysia], 18 October 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

[10] Sam Jameson, “Japan’s glass ceiling”, The Denver Post, 24 May 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 8 May 1999.

[11] Emiko Ochiai, quoted in Yumiko Miyai, “Postwar family system bound to change”, The Daily Yomiuri [Tokyo], 24 December 1998, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 8 May 1999.

[12] Ruth Mullen, “Educated Japanese women in no hurry down aisle”.

[13] Juliet Hindell, “International:  Single Women in Japan woo their Valentines with a bridal message”, Sunday Telegraph [London], 14 February 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

[14] R. Sharmini, “Hisako – mistress of her own life”.

[15] Mark Magnier, “Equality evolving in Japan”, Los Angeles Times, 30 August 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 21 Feb 2000.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Emiko Ochiai, quoted in Yumiko Miyai, “Postwar family system bound to change”.

[18] Yoshimi Nagamine, “Imported brides not the answer”.

[19] Mark Magnier, “Equality evolving in Japan”.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Asaki Shinoda, quoted in Ruth Mullen, “Educated Japanese women in no hurry down aisle”.

[22] Mark Magnier, “Equality evolving in Japan”.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Michael A Lev., “Japanese women see bias in quick ok for viagra”, The Buffalo News, 1 February 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

[27]Alexander Urquhart, “Doctors find Pill hard to swallow”, South China Morning Post, 7 March 1999, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 22 Mar 1999.

[28] Masako Horiguchi, quoted in Michael A Lev., “Japanese women see bias in quick ok for viagra”.

[29] Mayo Issobe, “Woman fights Japan to keep maiden name”,  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 26 March 1991, Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, 13 Mar 2000.