The difficulty of improving gender roles in Japan (Jun, Part 2)

(photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee /

In Part 1 of this interview, we discussed how the Japanese economy has downshifted, but that assumptions about family structure and job security appear to not yet have adapted.  Here, we explore what specific challenges married couples face now, and what are the implications for manhood in Japan.

* * *

Andrew:  What are some of the challenges for modern families?

Jun:  Well, to start with, dual-earner couples are very common now.  Part of that is because it’s a hedge, economically.  It’s pretty easy, with no kids.  But the second you have one, it gets very difficult to get a family leave.  It’s technically possible, but people frown upon it, don’t want to put too much burden on their coworkers.  Usually the wife quits her job, in that case.

A lot of women do want to keep working, but I think about 70% of women who do but have a kid end up quitting their job. [Editor’s note: this compares to 30% of American women.  Japan also has a lower labor participation rate for women as compared to other OECD countries.  And even for Japanese women who do work, most of them work in unfulfilling part-time or temp jobs.  Via The Economist]

In Japan once you have a blank period in your resume, it’s almost impossible to get a new job with similar benefits and salary.  The way companies hire employees may seem weird to someone from the States or working for a multi-national.  You get hired after college.  You can’t go travel the world for year, then go work.  There’s very little flexibility if you step off that path.

Andrew:  What about child care?

Jun:  In Japan, you can put your kids in a preschool, but it’s a fixed pickup time, and if they get sick, they have to stay home.  In the past you’d ask your neighbor to take care of them for a day or two.  But in an urban area, the husband or wife would have to leave early from work, and you don’t have that support system.

It’s even more difficult if you’re a single mother.  They’re often the poorest, income-wise, and no one around to support them.  It’s also a negative stereotype – if you’re a single parent, then others think basically you’re a bad person.

Andrew:  What impact are these tensions having on marriages in Japan?

Jun:  Couples are slower now to start marrying – both men and women.  There are lots of data showing that people’s age when they have their first child is going up.  I think this is mostly because of gender role ideals being in conflict with practical realities.

The thing is, people want to get married.  But if you ask, ‘what is keeping them from getting married?’  The first issue is not meeting a good partner.  But for a man, one of biggest reasons is not feeling confident that he can support a family in the old breadwinner model.  And yet we know it’s unrealistic to be in your twenties to get a high enough salary to afford that.

And once couples are married, I’ve read studies that report that a woman’s sense of being in love declines steeply after the baby is born, probably because of a grudge that develops because the men aren’t doing enough at home (cooking, cleaning, child care, etc.) and there is not enough communication to bridge the gap in expectations in the early stages (when the relationship could probably still be saved).  And increasingly, women are working more as well – perhaps full time, but more likely part-time.  The man’s feeling of love also declines, though not as drastically, from the first year of child’s birth.

(For more on the stress that American married couples face, click here, and for more on communication strategies that work, click here)

At work, the senior-level bosses (say men in their mid-40s or higher) – they are maybe the last generation (for both husband and wife roles) where it was still strongly expected that the man works (breadwinner) and the woman stays at home. With many of these executives lacking first-hand experience in splitting the home/child roles with the wife, it is difficult for the younger men to discuss such issues with them or seek advice, or hope to be understood. So men are also left with no outlet or help when they are having trouble at home.

Similarly, women of this age who are right now in senior positions who have had children of their own – one would think that they would be very understanding of younger women facing challenges in juggling work and child care. However, sometimes these women end up being an even bigger obstacle than men, because they have the mentality of “back in my day, we had much less support then now and we made much larger sacrifices, so you (younger women) should not complain, stop being selfish!” When this happens, young women find it almost impossible to seek help or advice from those at work – and when they bring these stresses home and see a husband who seems less than adequate in helping out (despite their best intentions), things can blow up.

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"Yokohama Top Viewpoint Landmark" (c) 2nix /
“Yokohama Top Viewpoint Landmark” (c) 2nix /

Andrew:  What does manhood mean to you?

Jun:   Being flexible enough to discard old assumptions and ideals when they no longer match reality.  For me it’s recognizing that the model which used to work no longer does, and then being nimble and flexible enough to change your ways, and not let old-school type “pride” get in the way of practicality.

Being able to do this also requires truly respecting and treating women as equals and partners, not as beings that need to be protected or supervised. It’s not always the best mindset to imitate your parents and automatically assume their model as best practice, as times do change.  Though I think it’s important to reflect on your parents and where they’ve come from and how they raised you.

I think men should have more interest in child rearing.  This relates to feeling we have to be relatively macho all the time.  In earlier times, it was almost cool for a dad to not show much interest in bringing up a child.  That model was ‘lead by example’, in a way, of being a higher person that the child would try to imitate or reach.

Men need to treat their partner as an equal, not subordinate.  It’s easier to say gender equality is important, but harder for men [in Japan] to actually do that.

Andrew:  Do you have any modern role models that represent new archetypes of manhood in Japan?

Jun:  No, I can’t think of any one person that I know personally and fills all the roles above.

Andrew:  What does spirituality mean to you?  How do you think a typical man in his twenties to forties thinks about spirituality in Japan?

Jun:  Aside from people who have obvious religious beliefs, such as Christianity, as the basis for their spirituality, I think many people don’t have anything specific.  Myself – I’m not sure.  This is the question that is taking me the longest to answer, because I really don’t seem to have a concrete one.

Andrew:  Anything else?

Jun:  One final comment – I wanted to be clear that I don’t feel too pessimistic about Japanese society and the future.  There is a lot of potential here.  I also want to say that I am a pretty happy person.

I’ve learned how to “let go” of stuff and be more laid back.  Having that mindset makes life easier and less stressful (I rarely feel “stressed out”).  That there are very few “best practices” that are universal and apply to everyone for anything and everything.  Realizing this has allowed me not to fret or worry as much, and at the same time be more lenient.  I think it’s very important in relationships with people including family to be lenient and not let differences in method get to you.

Andrew:  Well, in this interview we’ve focused on challenges and changes, which are not always upbeat or simple topics.  On the upside, a first step to embracing change – in society or our own lives – can be understanding problems and their possible causes.

* * *

As in America, Japan appears ripe for inspiration and change as far as new archetypes for manhood are concerned.  For further reading, we recommend “Holding back half the nation” (The Economist, May 2014) and David Pilling’s book, “Japan and the Art of Survival” (2014).

Reflections for readers:

  1. Who is your support network when you have questions of changing gender roles, and don’t feel comfortable turning to members of an older generation? What might we still learn from adults in our parents’ or grandparents’ generations?
  2. What does manhood mean to you? What elements are fixed and which are changing in American society?  How does all this make you feel?
  3. If you’re in a long term relationship, what are the major sources of conflict for you and your partner? If you haven’t identified them or talked about them yet in a constructive manner, please click here to start our book club series on how to heal and strengthen your relationship, based on science.

If you like what you’re reading, click here to subscribe to our email newsletter for future access to full-length interviews, eBooks, and more!

2 thoughts on “The difficulty of improving gender roles in Japan (Jun, Part 2)

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing this material. It was forwarded to me by Lisa Brown; I’m a “Declared Elder” in the ManKind Project, and have been actively working on and writing about men’s issues since 1988. E-mail me at . best regards, Steve Brown


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