How economic changes can influence gender roles (Jun, Part 1)

(photo by Vincent van der Pas via Flickr / Creative Commons)

I recently interviewed a Japanese man, Jun, who lives and works in Tokyo, about his observations on Japanese culture and shifting gender roles.  If you live in the US and are wondering how his perspective could be at all relevant to your own life, then read on.  He has a unique perspective in that he went to college in the US (only about 1% of Japanese college students do this), then returned to Japan to work for a multi-national company.  One of his hobbies is reading and reflecting on current events and Japan’s history.  In this first installment, we explore how economic, political, and cultural factors can influence gender roles at home and work.  If you’ve ever felt alienated from or confused by the way your parents raised you, then read on for some fruitful discussion questions that can help deepen your understanding of yourself, your parents, and your own particular social and historical context.

Andrew:  How have economic trends affected gender roles in Japanese households?

Jun:  For most of Japanese history, it wasn’t just the man who worked – the sole breadwinner model.  Japan was mostly an agricultural society, so everyone had to work.

It was only in the postwar period, in the high-growth fifties to seventies – until the oil shock – that it became typical for the father of a suburban family to be a “salary man”.  It was almost lifelong employment guaranteed, and salaries would go up with seniority.  Rules were very well-defined.  The man would go out and earn money, and the wife would stay at home – with the kids, cooking, cleaning, and education.

This was seen as the success story:  you get into a nice company by your thirties, get a home and mortgage, and you could handle the debt because your salary is also going up, and property values, too.  That became the dream life.

That went on into the eighties.  Then there was the bubble shock of the nineties [double bubble crashes in stocks and real estate], and stagnant growth since then.  The economic model is no longer there – the rising home prices, salaries – but people still think that way.  Nothing is guaranteed now.  The working age population has been declining since 2007, when the baby boomers started to retire.  Since then there has always been a shortage of [skilled] workers.

(For a good review by the Financial Times on the economic challenges in Japan, read here; and for a comparison between Japanese and American recent college graduates, as well as speculations about the resurgent appeal of comic book heroes and “cosplay,” read here.  For a more extensive review of economic and cultural shifts underway in Japan, see David Pilling’s book, “Japan and the Art of Survival” (2014))

There’s also been a lot of restructuring – especially in the electronics industry.  In some cases, employees who were let go were able to find new job in another industry.  But there’s not a system or culture of retraining workers for new sectors.

People who came into the workforce in the nineties and later didn’t get all the good stuff.  But they often still have that same mindset of what a family should be like, because they grew up in that model, and everyone around them seemed to encourage that.

Now, the work climate is very risky.  You never know when you’re going to get laid off.  Education is expensive, though I don’t think it’s as much as in the US in terms of annual inflation.  And it’s true that parents want their kids to have better educations than the parents.  But our generation in general had great educations already, so it’s pretty hard to beat that.

Reflection questions for readers, Part 1:  Under what economic or financial conditions did your parents grow up?  How did that influence how they raised you?  If you are a parent of young children, what elements of that upbringing do you want to keep, and which do you want to let slide?

Back to the interview…

Andrew:  How about home ownership?

Jun:  I think buying a home is a risk – you don’t know where your finances are going to be in 5 to 10 years’ time.  But still many people who think that’s required for a family.

I view housing as a variable cost, not a fixed cost, because having a huge debt load, and repay that loan, is a fixed cost you have to pay forever – for thirty years, right?  There’s no way I would buy a house right now.  Especially after the earthquake [in 2011].  And with the declining population.  Typical bed-towns [commuter towns] won’t necessarily be as popular or desirable.  Inner city areas could become even more popular, while the bed town areas face declining younger population.

Thirty years ago, that would have been ideal – you commute into the city, 30-60 minutes, own lawn, neighbors with kids, own community.  Already in those areas you’re facing an aging population – like my family’s former home in the Yokohama area.  But the same people are still living there, the kids have already left and grown up.  I haven’t seen a replacement cycle – where new families with younger kids move in.  So I would never take on debt there.

It’s a little different than in the States, especially if you live in a high growth area like the Bay Area.  I remember you lived in an old house that had been renovated and people keep moving in there, renting, and the city kept growing.

In Japan, you have even more earthquake uncertainty and a difficult building climate.  We had the Great Kanto earthquake [of 1923].  We had World War II, which flattened most big cities, and not just Tokyo and Kyoto.  It’s also a very humid country.  Not a good place for wooden buildings.  And with earthquakes, you can’t build with stone.  In more modern times, the land prices have gone up or down, but the housing prices almost always go down. The concept that the value of houses is much more likely to be down than up when you’re done paying your mortgage may be a little difficult to imagine in western countries, but that is almost a given in Japan. It is probably rare that people are able to sell their house 20-30 years later and actually make a profit from it.

Reflection questions for readers, Part 2:  How important is it to own a house in America, and why?  How, if at all, did your views change as a result of the Great Recession?  What would you like to change, if anything, about our society (e.g., housing policies, bank regulations, tax laws)?

Like what you’re reading?  Please join hundreds of email subscribers who receive our biweekly digests of recent posts, and access to special content like full-length interviews and eBooks .

“Tokyo – JR Yamanote Line” (c) Matthew Fern via Flickr / Creative Commons

Andrew:  What about the sole breadwinner assumption for fathers – does that still hold?

Jun:  Yes.  It feels like Japan is about twenty years behind the US in terms of the women’s movement.  For instance, there is still an outdated expectation about the man being the breadwinner.  Within that, there is an expectation that husbands will handle big ticket budget items, but that wives will manage the day-to-day budget and small purchases.  In some cases, often for salary men, they give their husbands a spending allowance, and it can be a source of the men complaining at work, like, “Oh my wife only gives me such and such.”  (though this sort of complaining is sometimes saying implicitly that the wife is good at controlling the micro-level finances of the household, and not a pure complaint.  If it was a pure complaint, it would be almost the same as admitting that the man’s earning power is low, which a man wouldn’t actually brag about).

Regarding the expectation of husbands handling big ticket budget items versus wives managing the day-to-day budget and small purchases, I personally feel that this is an implicit reflection of gender inequality.  For a man to be stingy and fret about small change is not seen as “manly.”  He should be generous and seemingly unconcerned, in order to show that he has the capacity – both financially and mentally – to do so and be okay with it.  That is the sort of “high ground” a man should take.  This implies that that sort of (lowly) role is “reserved” for women to take on.

All this is why it’s hard for modern men to commit to marriage – there’s a high bar, high expectations and pressure from society, as well as put upon by himself.  Men are making the calculation that, like their fathers, they’ll need to be the sole breadwinner and eventually be able to buy a house before settling down.  But how are they going to do that at such low salaries?

Reflection questions for readers, Part 3:  If you are in a long-term relationship and don’t yet have children, have you discussed when you might have children?  If do plan to have children, how might you change your family and working roles in order to care for them?  Will you seek or be able to afford day care?  If day care, what sort of caregivers and values at a care center will be important to you?

Unititled, (c) spinster cardigan via Flickr / Creative Commons

Andrew:  Have any new family models or role models stepped in to point the way?

Jun:  No — not many people have established a new model for success.

* * *

This may be a downer to end this installment, but struggle can spawn new solutions — if we work to understand a problem, its causes, and how we can adapt or create new solutions.  This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.  In the next installment, we’ll look at the stresses modern couples are feeling in Japan and how that compares to the US.

Like what you’re reading?  Please join hundreds of email subscribers who receive our biweekly digests of recent posts, and access to special content like full-length interviews and eBooks .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: