Abstract

The burden of family work in Japan falls disproportionately on wives, even those who work full time and have relatively high incomes. Japanese household gender culture shows little of the progress toward equality seen in other industrialized nations and this is contributing to delayed family formation and low birth rates. This study of dual-income Japanese families with young children found a degree of increased mutuality in family work being negotiated. Nevertheless, couples’ actions continue to be oriented strongly to symbols of patriarchal prestige, such as husbands’ birth order position and breadwinner status. To the extent that they embraced tradition, respondents’ negotiations were colored by gender displays that preserved the certainties of historically contextualized gender identities and reproduced their associated unequal family work differentials.

How Does Persistent Inequality in the Division of Family Work Matter?

This paper examines how some dual-income Japanese couples divide family work (housework and childcare). The evidence and interpretations advanced contribute to the larger question of continuity and change in Japanese gender cultures. The gender equality clause (Article 24) of Japan's Constitution and statutes such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and Fundamental Law for a Gender Equal Society seem to represent the post-World War II shrinking of the gender gap seen in other wealthy, industrial economies. But despite becoming a great economic power, Japan's gender practices continue to manifest the patriarchal orientation inscribed in prewar law and custom through the ie family system, a venerated template from which Japan's distinctive ‘pattern of civilization’ (Murakami 1984) is said to have evolved.

Questions about men's levels of family involvement and persistent inequality in Japan's division of domestic labor are of interest for two reasons. First, they reveal an imbalance in our knowledge. English-language studies of Japanese men overwhelmingly emphasize work (Abegglen 1958; Cole 1971; Rohlen 1974; Clark 1981; Lincoln and Kallenberg 1990; Roberson 1998), while those that do take up men's home lives (Vogel and Vogel 1963; Rohlen 1974) are rather dated.

Scholars critical of ‘the salaryman doxa’ have broadened our understanding of the varieties of Japanese masculinities and diverse male motives for living (Mathews 1996; Roberson and Suzuki 2003). Nevertheless, portrayals of the home lives of mainstream men frequently remain superficial stereotypes (e.g. Jolivet 1997). With the notable exception of work on involved fathers by Ishii-Kuntz (1993, 1996, 2003), we largely lack what Shwalb, Imaizumi and Nakazawa (1987: 264–265) called for in their review of studies on modern Japanese fathers: (a) observations of men's parenting and family life that would allow us to see cause and effect directly; (b) research on how family structure, social sex roles and social structure affect fathers, (c) knowledge about how Japanese fathers are adapting to social changes and (d) understanding of how husbands and wives relate to each other, especially the relationship between motherhood and fatherhood. In sum, we need to know more about how fathers live and how they feel about their relations with their spouses and children.

Second, what Japanese men do at home is an important developmental indicator. Dōzoku family traditions and associated norms for social relations dampened the shocks of rapid industrialization, promoting high marriage rates and conjugal families, while suppressing divorce. Continuity was a virtue which enabled a smooth ‘fit’ between industrial capitalism and family form without the disruptions seen in other countries (Goode 1963). Japan's post-industrial family transition (Ochiai 1997) is also unfolding differently.

Japanese Gender Exceptionalism

Practices and policies, such as women's hours of employment and the availability of parental leave for men, set national, structural contexts for men's family work (Hook 2006). Japan's female labor force participation declined across most of the 20th century, growing only about 7% since 1970, a period when other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations saw average growth of 25% (Ochiai 1997: 17–18; Danjo Kyōdō Sangaku Kaigi 2005: 6). Due to a decline in family businesses and an increased demand for part-time workers, married women workers today generally work for wages outside the home (Rebick 2005: 114). But while 68% of employed women were regular (seiki) employees in 1985, only 46.5% were in 2007 (MHLW 2008: 10). Between 1985 and 2007, the portion of female workers employed part time doubled and those employed on fixed-term contracts tripled (Nakamura 2006). Some analysts see this as evidence that indirect discrimination against the 43% of the labor force that is female is spreading (Sato, Osawa and Weathers 2001).

As nonregular work has increased, the number of dual-income households in which both spouses work full time has gently declined (Danjo Kyōdō Sangaku Kaigi 2005: 32). Also indicative of continuing trends, the curve representing women's labor force participation over the life course retains an ‘M’ shape due to withdrawal from employment for childrearing (Rebick 2005: 26).

Despite Japanese women's comparatively low rates of participation in paid labor and correspondingly high level of devotion to children, Japan is experiencing a crisis of under-reproduction. Marriage and fertility rates are falling together, as women avoid or delay marriage and have fewer children (Usui 2005). Less than 2% of births take place outside wedlock (NIPSSR 2004: 8), meaning that declining marriage rates have a direct impact on fertility rates. Total fertility fell below replacement level (2.08) in the mid-1970s, and when it hit 1.25 in 2006, Prime Minister Koizumi called it the government's ‘most pressing issue’ (Botting 2006). Koizumi's successors have continued to grope for answers, so far without success. Two so-called ‘Angel Plans’ (1994 and 2000) and other measures, including provisions to expand childcare leave and provide more childcare centers with longer hours, as well as a ‘plus one’ campaign to encourage mothers to have one more child each, have failed to stem fertility decline (NIPSSR 2004: 14).

Although there is a popular discourse that says wives’ reluctance to have more children is due to husbands’ failure to help shoulder the burden of raising them (Japan Times 2006), and although it is true that wives typically do about 90% of family work (Danjo Kyōdō Sangaku Kaigi 2005: 24–25), the primary reason couples do not have the 2.56 children they say they would like is financial (Naikaku-fu 2005: 38–43). The costs of raising children, especially educating them, create incentives for husbands, whose incomes are generally higher, to be devoted company men, absent from the home.

Increasing husbands’ family work contributions would require major changes in their time at work. A quarter of men aged 30–40 years, the prime fatherhood years, work 60 or more paid hours per week (Asahi Shinbun 2006). Long commutes, unpaid ‘service overtime’ and obligatory socializing also reduce potential family time. Less than a quarter of Tokyo men return home before 8 pm (NIPSSR 2004: 20).

International comparisons rank Japanese men at the bottom in the proportion of family work performed. They average only 30 minutes per day on housework, childcare and eldercare whether their wives work full time, part time or not at all (Danjo Kyōdō Sankaku Kaigi 2007: 20), even when their children are under age five (Otake 2008). Past age five, Japanese fathers’ total average time with children falls to less than 10 minutes per day and less than three minutes a day for children over age 10 years (Rōdōshō Joseikyoku 1998: 57).

In a 34-country comparison of national context, gender empowerment and spouses’ hours of housework (Knudsen and Wærness 2008), Japanese men were clear outliers whose 2.5 hours of housework per week (childcare was not measured) was more than 10 times less than their wives’ 27 hours per week. In terms of gender empowerment, Japan's United Nations Development Project score was only 0.2 (1.0 being perfect gender equality) putting it in a neighborhood it shares with Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil.

This context of falling fertility has drawn attention to the persistence of the unequal division of family work in Japan. Consciously or otherwise, Japanese women, especially the more highly educated (Nemoto 2008), are avoiding marriage because it is an extension of the institutionalized sexism of the workplace and Japan's patriarchal past. Dual-income marriages are struggling because of the specter of the ‘second shift’ for wives. Low birth rates and working wives’ dissatisfaction over family work are intertwined strands of an emerging crisis of care seen in hypercompetitive, capitalist societies (Hochschild 1989: 11, 2003: 2–3), but Japan's care deficit may become particularly acute because expectations of female care are high.

Traditional premises about gender and care forestall open discussion about the gendered division of labor. Japan needs to have this debate, but is avoiding it (Schoppa 2006). Open talk threatens the tacit foundations of male supremacy. In current government deliberations about work-life balance, the talk is mostly about doing things to enable women to work and care rather than helping men to care. Despite tripling since 2005, less than 2% of men take any childcare leave and the government's modest ambition is only to raise it to 10% by 2014 (Nikkei Woman 2008). Japanese society is riding ominous demographic trend lines toward economic and social deflation, but countermeasures equal to the challenge have been stubbornly slow to emerge.

Theorizing Persistent Inequality in Family Work

Research on this issue is comprised of two lines of questioning. A comprehensive review of the sociological literature on the division of household labor (Shelton and John 1996) identified ideology (traditional or egalitarian), time constraints (including number of children) and relative resources (especially income) as the relevant independent variables. Time constraints matter most, but even statistically significant associations tend to have small real effects on the negotiation of the division of family labor (ibid.: 304–309). Sociologist Brines, (1994) influential article agreed, concluding that research on discrete variables limits understanding of how spousal economic dependency and gender culture interact to reproduce family work as women's work.

The second stream of theorizing on persistent inequality in family work sees it as the outcome of displays of a prestige hierarchy derived from gendered consciousness. This research emphasizes subjective meanings of gender over structural factors in determining task allocation. Adding gender measures to multivariate analysis makes other variables diminish or disappear, suggesting that they are subsumed within a gender display model (Brines 1994; Shelton and John 1996: 312; Ono and Raymo, 2006).

Joan Williams, an American legal scholar, distills the consilience of this evidence into concrete precepts explaining why women, whether working or not, do the lion's share of family work. She locates the unequal division of labor as part and parcel of a historically evolving system of gender consciousness. She calls the current iteration ‘domesticity’. It rests upon three tacit entitlements:

  • (1) Employers are entitled to ‘ideal workers’, who put organization goals first.

  • (2) Men are entitled (required) to be ideal workers in a male-centered workplace.

  • (3) Children are entitled to a full-time parent whose life is organized around caregiving. That is, a mother (Williams 2001).

These entitlements underlie gender displays: women are not entitled to much but motherhood and men are not entitled to much but work. One asserts and affirms position and identity by performing gender appropriate tasks and repudiating those that feel inappropriate (Chodorow 1975; Pascoe 2007). Gender is achieved through routine social action (including inaction) that is felt to be in accord with the putative natural essence of masculinity or femininity (Coltrane 1989).

American couples generally report feelings of fairness, suggesting that their unequal division of household labor is a purposeful social construction that validates essential gender identities, contributing to psychological well-being and marital satisfaction (Shelton and John 1996: 315–317). One recent US study concluded that shared church attendance has the strongest impact on wives’ marital satisfaction (Wilcox and Nock 2006), while others find that men's time spent on female-typed tasks predicts wives’ level of satisfaction (Shelton and John 1996: 313).

Japanese society is neither Christian nor very feminist, and its discursive justifications for ‘fair’ gender practices are probably different. By what standard is fairness judged? What premises engender feelings of appropriate entitlement that add up to the exceptional gendered gap in Japanese family work set out above? To find out, I examined the ways negotiations regarding family work were enabled or constrained in particular marriages.

Analyzing the Culture of Spousal Social Action

Marriages are intimate partnerships, influenced by and reflecting the people, cultural milieu and material circumstances that surround them. I approached the division of family work in Japan as an aspect of social life best studied by ‘looking at and listening to real people doing real things in a given historical moment, […] and trying to figure out how what they are doing or have done will or will not reconfigure the world they live in’ (Ortner 1996: 2). My aim was to interpret couples’ division of family work in terms of subjective meanings—the gender consciousness that informed their motives for doing the things they did or did not do.

This perspective revealed the spousal division of family work as ‘social action’, action oriented purposefully toward others and given meaning by how they respond. For Weber, who originated the category, social action excluded gender relations. According to the 19th century prejudices, marital roles were manifestations of immutable male and female natures, the taken-for-granted basis of patrimony and masculine domination (Adams 2005). Unpacking the intersubjective creation of meaning in spousal social action exposes rationales for gender differentiation in family work as examples of ‘culture in action’: durable, but not ‘natural’ or immutable, socially constructed strategies for organizing social life (Swidler 1986). In times of stability, these strategies are used unconsciously. Times of instability, however, set the stage for open conflict and negotiation between competing alternative ideologies and practices.

Table 1.

Respondents’ Family Characteristics.

Family(* = First Son) Age
 
Education
 
Length of Marriage
 
Type of Marriage Children Age of Youngest Home: Own, Loan, Rent 
A* 35 30 HS HS Own 
F* 31 28 HS HS Rent 
H1* 44 44 HS MA 15 Loan 
H2* 46 45 BA BA 20 10 Loan 
H3* 44 44 BA BA 17 Loan 
H4* 37 35 BA BA Loan 
I1* 40 38 HS JC 15 Loan 
I2* 24 26 HS JC Loan 
K1* 45 42 BA BA 14 Own 
K2* 30 27 HS JC Rent 
K3* 29 29 HS JC Own 
K4* 34 34 HS HS 13 Own 
N1 42 41 BA BA 14 Loan 
N2* 36 34 MA BA Own 
N3* 37 37 JC HS 11 Rent 
N4* 48 43 BA JC 20 Own 
O1* 38 37 BA BA 12 Loan 
O2* 38 36 BA MA 10 Loan 
S1* 41 37 HS HS 10 Loan 
S2* 42 39 PhD MA 14 Loan 
S3* 41 40 BA BA 15 Loan 
S4 38 37 BA JC Loan 
T1* 42 39 HS HS Loan 
T2* 32 27 BA JC Rent 
T3* 36 33 BA JC Own 
T4 34 34 HS HS 10 Loan 
T5* 39 38 HS HS 19 10 Own 
T6* 41 39 BA BA 12 Own 
43 42 BA BA 14 Loan 
W1* 45 41 HS HS 17 Own 
W2* 38 31 BA JC Own 
Y1* 39 39 BA BA 11 Own 
Y2* 35 29 BA JC Own 
Average or total 38 36   11 years 30 love, 3 arranged marriages  
Family(* = First Son) Age
 
Education
 
Length of Marriage
 
Type of Marriage Children Age of Youngest Home: Own, Loan, Rent 
A* 35 30 HS HS Own 
F* 31 28 HS HS Rent 
H1* 44 44 HS MA 15 Loan 
H2* 46 45 BA BA 20 10 Loan 
H3* 44 44 BA BA 17 Loan 
H4* 37 35 BA BA Loan 
I1* 40 38 HS JC 15 Loan 
I2* 24 26 HS JC Loan 
K1* 45 42 BA BA 14 Own 
K2* 30 27 HS JC Rent 
K3* 29 29 HS JC Own 
K4* 34 34 HS HS 13 Own 
N1 42 41 BA BA 14 Loan 
N2* 36 34 MA BA Own 
N3* 37 37 JC HS 11 Rent 
N4* 48 43 BA JC 20 Own 
O1* 38 37 BA BA 12 Loan 
O2* 38 36 BA MA 10 Loan 
S1* 41 37 HS HS 10 Loan 
S2* 42 39 PhD MA 14 Loan 
S3* 41 40 BA BA 15 Loan 
S4 38 37 BA JC Loan 
T1* 42 39 HS HS Loan 
T2* 32 27 BA JC Rent 
T3* 36 33 BA JC Own 
T4 34 34 HS HS 10 Loan 
T5* 39 38 HS HS 19 10 Own 
T6* 41 39 BA BA 12 Own 
43 42 BA BA 14 Loan 
W1* 45 41 HS HS 17 Own 
W2* 38 31 BA JC Own 
Y1* 39 39 BA BA 11 Own 
Y2* 35 29 BA JC Own 
Average or total 38 36   11 years 30 love, 3 arranged marriages  

Note: H = husband; W = wife; HS = high school; JC = junior college; BA = bachelor's degree; MA = master's degree; A = arranged marriage; L = love marriage; Loan = making home loan payments; Own = no mortgage. Respondents' names have been abbreviated for anonymity.

Table 2.

Respondents' Work and Family Work Characteristics.

Family(* = Twin Career) Husband's Occupation Weekly Hours Wife's Occupation Weekly Hours
 
Household Income (million yen) Wife's Percentage Husband's Family Work Hours Percent of Total 
Farmer (FT) 60 Office worker FT 40 5.00 60 17 
Cable lineman 72 Office worker PT 30 5.30 15 
H1 Farmer (organic FT) 50 Social worker/farmer FT 50 13.00 54 
H2 Engineer 50 CAD input PT 30 9.00 11 
H3 Teacher Senmongakko 55 Piano teacher PT 16 6.60 18 23 
H4* Teacher HS 55 Teacher HS FT 48 10.00 50 14 
I1 Pharmaceutical manufacturing product development 50 Computer input FT 60 7.00 29 25 71 
I2 Plumbing/construction 42 Nurse FT 50 7.00 50 25 50 
K1* Teacher HS (farmer PT) 70 Teacher JHS FT 50 9.70 46 13 
K2 MFG engineer 40 Cosmetic sales PT 35 5.50 18 12 23 
K3* City official (farmer PT) 60 City/welfare department FT 46 7.0 50 11 
K4 Barber 50 Barber assistant PT 25 3.50 43 10 27 
N1 Insurance company representative 52 Call center PT 32 6.50 17 12 32 
N2* Teacher HS 65 Teacher HS FT 65 11.00 50 17 53 
N3 Sales 55 Clerk PT 12 5.30 15 
N4 Purchasing agent 50 Various PT PT 12 6.70 
O1 Equipment lease 50 Bank clerk PT 35 6.95 10 25 
O2* Teacher HS 70 Teacher HS FT 70 10.00 50 13 
S1 Cook/checker (two jobs) 70 Amway PT 20 5.70 12 
S2* Professor (full) 50 Professor (Assistant) FT 30 13.50 26 21 
S3* Prefectural bureaucrat 53 Teacher HS FT 58 16.00 47 15 38 
S4 MGR Software Co. 55 Computer input PT 39 6.00 17 24 
T1 Cook 65 Bakery worker PT 15 5.40 17 13 
T2 Engineer (chemical) 55 Office worker PT 20 7.00 14 10 14 
T3 Industrial group researcher 48 Nurse FT 56 7.80 51 
T4 Buyer 40 Dental Assistant PT 40 5.76 17 20 33 
T5 Restaurant manager 60 Music shop worker FT 40 5.50 27 
T6* Teacher HS 62 Teacher—elementary school FT 55 9.70 46 13 
Produce sales 50 Teacher JC FT 40 8.90 56 10 33 
W1 Wholesale medicine sales 56 Bookkeeper family biz PT 30 6.68 15 
W2 Teacher HS 75 School secretary PT 25 8.50 12 
Y1* Teacher special 55 Teacher special FT 55 12.00 50 17 
Y2 Office products sales 70 Clerk PT 30 4.50 24 
Total or Average  56   38 7.82 32 18 
Family(* = Twin Career) Husband's Occupation Weekly Hours Wife's Occupation Weekly Hours
 
Household Income (million yen) Wife's Percentage Husband's Family Work Hours Percent of Total 
Farmer (FT) 60 Office worker FT 40 5.00 60 17 
Cable lineman 72 Office worker PT 30 5.30 15 
H1 Farmer (organic FT) 50 Social worker/farmer FT 50 13.00 54 
H2 Engineer 50 CAD input PT 30 9.00 11 
H3 Teacher Senmongakko 55 Piano teacher PT 16 6.60 18 23 
H4* Teacher HS 55 Teacher HS FT 48 10.00 50 14 
I1 Pharmaceutical manufacturing product development 50 Computer input FT 60 7.00 29 25 71 
I2 Plumbing/construction 42 Nurse FT 50 7.00 50 25 50 
K1* Teacher HS (farmer PT) 70 Teacher JHS FT 50 9.70 46 13 
K2 MFG engineer 40 Cosmetic sales PT 35 5.50 18 12 23 
K3* City official (farmer PT) 60 City/welfare department FT 46 7.0 50 11 
K4 Barber 50 Barber assistant PT 25 3.50 43 10 27 
N1 Insurance company representative 52 Call center PT 32 6.50 17 12 32 
N2* Teacher HS 65 Teacher HS FT 65 11.00 50 17 53 
N3 Sales 55 Clerk PT 12 5.30 15 
N4 Purchasing agent 50 Various PT PT 12 6.70 
O1 Equipment lease 50 Bank clerk PT 35 6.95 10 25 
O2* Teacher HS 70 Teacher HS FT 70 10.00 50 13 
S1 Cook/checker (two jobs) 70 Amway PT 20 5.70 12 
S2* Professor (full) 50 Professor (Assistant) FT 30 13.50 26 21 
S3* Prefectural bureaucrat 53 Teacher HS FT 58 16.00 47 15 38 
S4 MGR Software Co. 55 Computer input PT 39 6.00 17 24 
T1 Cook 65 Bakery worker PT 15 5.40 17 13 
T2 Engineer (chemical) 55 Office worker PT 20 7.00 14 10 14 
T3 Industrial group researcher 48 Nurse FT 56 7.80 51 
T4 Buyer 40 Dental Assistant PT 40 5.76 17 20 33 
T5 Restaurant manager 60 Music shop worker FT 40 5.50 27 
T6* Teacher HS 62 Teacher—elementary school FT 55 9.70 46 13 
Produce sales 50 Teacher JC FT 40 8.90 56 10 33 
W1 Wholesale medicine sales 56 Bookkeeper family biz PT 30 6.68 15 
W2 Teacher HS 75 School secretary PT 25 8.50 12 
Y1* Teacher special 55 Teacher special FT 55 12.00 50 17 
Y2 Office products sales 70 Clerk PT 30 4.50 24 
Total or Average  56   38 7.82 32 18 

Methods

Foreign scholars have noted the difficulties of getting inside Japanese family life, as well as the rewards of achieving entry (Bernstein 1983; Hamabata 1990; White 2002). I conducted my study in and around Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture, a medium-sized regional hub where prior residence of nearly 5 years allowed me to seek access to private family lives. To bolster my credibility, I obtained a visiting researcher appointment at Toyama University. Reasoning that gender and the division of family work become serious issues ‘when partners become parents’ (Cowen and Cowen 1999; Itō 2003: 249–251), I sought introductions to dual-income households with small children. Using a process of ‘snowballing from […] multiple starts’ (Vaughn 1990: 198), I accepted no more than three introductions from any one referent to avoid oversampling particular social networks.

Referring to earlier studies of family men (e.g. Gerson 1993; Coltrane 1997), I created a 151-item interview instrument suited to the Japanese context. Between 1998 and 2001, I interviewed and observed in their homes a purposive sample of 33 dual-income couples with at least one child under age 10 years (Tables 1 and 2). These pair interviews were generally about three hours in length. The transcribed interviews were supplemented by observations from shared meals, drinking parties, sleepovers and playdates involving respondents’ children and my child.

In practice, interviews were unstructured discussions about daily life. I asked respondents to tell me about typical weekdays and weekends at their homes. In this way, I obtained answers to most of the questionnaire items. When necessary I probed for details, but preferred respondents to volunteer what they thought was important. Their self-estimates for weekly hours of paid work and family work, annual income and who did what percentage of specific tasks were generally in round numbers.

Sample and Setting

All the husbands were employed full time. Twenty-nine (88%) were first sons, the position in Japanese family structure that traditionally inherits household leadership and its associated role expectations for the son and his spouse. Although 88% seems high, it merely reflects a trend accompanying fertility decline in which 70% or more of all men born after 1964 are first sons (NIPSSR 2006: 2; Ochiai 1997: 152).

Seventeen wives were employed full time, sixteen worked part time. Nine full-time wives had ‘twin-career’ marriages: both spouses’ jobs were identical or very nearly so, with equivalent salaries, duties and social status. Those couples all worked in the public sector. Such jobs are relatively immune to market pressures and may be the most gender equal in Japan (Fuse 1981).

The small size and regional limitations of the sample mean that it may not be nationally representative. Still, it is worth recalling that intimate studies of particular locations have been among the most illuminating accounts we have of Japanese gender and family life. Japan's New Middle Class by Vogel and Vogel (1963) relied on only six families in a Tokyo suburb. Haruko's World (Bernstein 1983) unveiled gender in village life through the lens of a single Shikoku family. Lebra's Japanese Women (1984) portrayed the particular femininity of a hot spring resort. The credibility of those studies was enhanced by regional specificity and a focus on a few respondents. The subjects have an immediacy and believability that inspired my approach to the field research in this study.

Toyama is located in the ‘snow country’ region of Hokuriku. Together with Tōhoku, Hokuriku has Japan's highest rate of female employment and the least workforce attrition for marriage or childbirth (Rōdōshō Joseikyoku 1998: 48). I have heard full-time Toyama housewives criticized for ‘playing around at home’. Wives’ share of household income in 1997 was 15.2%, second in the nation. Toyama was first in average income for workers’ households (¥706,375/month) and had the highest rate of home ownership (Toyama Ken Tōkei Kyoku 1998: 44, 49–50), distinctions it retains today (Sōmuchō 2008). In all, 64% of couples in Toyama prefecture were dual income when the study began (ibid.: 20), while the national average was only 48.1% (Danjo Kyōdou Sankaku Kaigi 2007: 17); 56% of Toyama couples with a child under age six were dual income (Toyama Ken Tōkei Kyoku 1998: 68).

No respondents were divorced. Toyama's divorce rate is the third lowest in Japan (Sōmuchō 2008). Nor did I find evidence of domestic violence. A prefecture-wide survey, however, estimated 30% of wives suffered some abuse by their husbands (Toyama Prefecture 2000: 5).

This statistical sketch of Toyama suggests a place where traditional family structures and work ethic were stronger than average and remain so. In addition, the interviews were carried out at the dawn of ‘the age of gender equality’, which began with the establishment of the Basic Law for Gender Equality in 1999 (Kashima 2003). Consequently, it should be noted that the negotiations of family work portrayed in this paper took place in a context where strong local gender traditions were just beginning to feel the influence of government promotion of gender equality.

Interview Dynamics

Interviewing couples together allowed me to observe how interaction reflected and shaped spouses’ thinking about the division of family work. These pair interviews also resembled couples’ counseling. Wives sometimes used my presence in their homes to raise issues with their husbands. They perceived me as a possible ally and the interview as a forum in which complaints were acceptable. In clinical settings, couple interviews may produce a higher truth quotient because spouses are constrained by each other's presence. Alternatively, however, this situation may also compromise the truth. Rubin (1976: 10) noted that anxiety about confrontation in family therapy caused couples to ally against the therapist in the early stages of treatment.

I am not a family therapist. Couples did not come to me for help, nor did I encourage confrontation. I only asked them to tell me of their daily lives, about which they were the world's foremost experts. Instead of asking if they told the truth, I followed Vogel and Vogel (1963: 287) and asked, ‘What truth did they tell?’ The majority of husbands and wives used the interview to proclaim, and at times negotiate, feelings about family, the division of family work, their marriages and self-identity.

Asked how the divisions of family work they described came about, the couples’ universal response was ‘naturally’. This agrees with the American finding that relative resources and time constraints are not gender neutral, but ‘operate in the context of a symbolic system that defines men and women as essentially different and “naturally” responsible for specific tasks’ (Ishii-Kuntz and Coltrane 1992: 643). But what did ‘natural’ mean for Japanese couples? How did their interaction recreate those meanings despite dual-income or twin-career pressures?

Bargaining with the ‘Natural’ Gender Order

The following examples of spousal interaction illustrate how negotiations implicitly oriented to the pole of men's symbolic social roles of ideal worker and first son construed inequality in family work as ‘natural’. Most of the examples are from the twin-job couples, where income and working hour gaps are smallest. Bargaining theory predicts high-income wives have maximum leverage to negotiate mutuality in family work. The relatively high levels of education among these couples meant also that they tended to be my most articulate respondents. These couples were frequently explicit about what was implicit in the sample as a whole. Where possible, reference is made to other surveys to provide context. The discussion is organized around the three categories that earlier research concludes are most salient to negotiations of family work: gender ideology, displays of time use and bargaining based on relative resources.

Conflict between Older and Newer Ideologies

Gender ideology in Japan has been measured by responses to the statement, ‘Men should work outside and women should protect the household’. Table 3 shows younger Japanese cohorts increasingly disagree with this traditional stance. Nevertheless, opposition to men putting family above work or women giving priority to career remains strong.

Table 3.

Changes in Gender Ideology by Age Cohorts.

Age Cohort Percent Who Agreea
 
Men Women 
20–29 40.7 34.8 
30–39 41.5 40.5 
40–49 49.6 37.3 
50–59 43.9 30.7 
60–69 54.1 45.7 
70+ 66.1 60.7 
Age Cohort Percent Who Agreea
 
Men Women 
20–29 40.7 34.8 
30–39 41.5 40.5 
40–49 49.6 37.3 
50–59 43.9 30.7 
60–69 54.1 45.7 
70+ 66.1 60.7 

Source: Danjo Kyōdō Sangaku Kaigi (2005: Appendix p. 7).

a

Total percentage of those who ‘agree’ or ‘agree rather more than disagree’ with the statement ‘Men should work outside and women should protect the household’.

The small spike of increased support for tradition among women in prime childbearing years (30–39) is an indication of financial dependence that encourages some wives to urge their husbands to forego taking leave at a crucial time for both their careers and their families. Relying on the traditional division of labor can be seen as a family ‘risk management strategy’ (Taga 2006: 144). Having missed the opportunity to get close to their children at this time, men may remain distant as children grow older and become as absorbed by school as fathers are by work (Itō 2003: Chapter 4). But the appropriateness of distant fatherhood faced challenges from a competing ideology of father involvement, which created new dilemmas for fathers.

One twin-career husband contributed only four hours (14%) of weekly family work. He explained how amae, a cultural strategy in which subordinates seek benevolent indulgence from superiors (Doi 1973), helped him negotiate the cognitive dissonance between his evolving ideology and stubbornly traditional behavior.

‘From school textbooks in required home economics classes, I learned that men have to do housework, too. I don't oppose men scrubbing the bath, making dinner, and vacuuming’. He said he sympathized with the ‘theory’ of the ‘new family’ perspective, but he ‘relied’ on his wife to do the family work because, ‘It's work that I don't want to do. Actually doing it is a pain’. The gap between theory and practice made his position difficult. ‘I have to find ways to excuse my selfishness. All I can do is ask her to forgive me’, he said.

Taking the position of supplicant, he induced his wife to indulge him. This could be read as recreating the positionality of his relationship with his mother, in which the coddled first son is naturally entitled to indulgence. The wife was obliged to show forgiveness, even though she clearly felt dissatisfaction. He, thus, maintained the customary masculine prerogative to use time as he saw fit. After work he practiced golf, came home and ate, drank beer and fell asleep on the floor. He had become somewhat overweight. She bore total responsibility for the children and chores, despite working almost the same hours as her husband and contributing equally to their finances.

She showed metaphorically at least that she knew she was dealing with inertia rather than evolution. ‘He just soaks up nutrients and keeps getting bigger and bigger. I can't lift even one leg’. ‘She wants to move me, but she can't’, he agreed. Conflict between his wife and his mother drove them to an apartment soon after marriage (‘It was like a war’, he said). There he washed dishes, but the sink being low he had to stoop. Seeing him bent like that, she felt it should be her job. She took over so that he could symbolize the straight, strong central pillar of the family that she wanted to see. But despite her contributions to income and their new house, her gifts were not returned.

On the other hand, the wife with the most involved husband (71% of the family work, one of three men who did 50% or more) feared her two daughters would not find marriage partners equal to the standard of male participation displayed by their father. The eldest son of a farm family, this man worked in quality control for a pharmaceutical manufacturer. His considerable occupational self-direction insulated him from the workplace masculinity culture that proscribed family work. Because he arrived home before his wife, and because he had had a Chinese chef as his college roommate, he did most of the family cooking. His wife did not resist this, nor was her identity threatened by lax housekeeping standards. Their priorities were also influenced by participation in a foreign language learning movement called the Hippo Family Club. Aggregated, these factors created the context for the husband to easily incorporate family work into his gender ideology.

Coresidence, Tasks and Time Use as Rationales for Gender Displays

The ‘time availability’ hypothesis predicts a division of labor determined by time commitments, such as children's care and hours of work.

Table 4 shows the relationship between number of children, family work and working hours. Clearly, family work was mother's work. The more children families had the less fathers did. However, in this small sample, it was the effects of grandparents and coresidence that really seemed significant in this regard. As seen in Table 5, 13 families (39%) had grandparents living close enough to help with childcare and 10 of the families (30%) were coresident with grandparents, including all four couples with three or more children.

Table 4.

Number of Children and Husbands' and Wives' Hours of Work.

Number of Children Wives' Average Family Work Hours (Average Paid Work) Husbands' Average Family Work Hours (Average Paid Work) 
1 (10 couples) 35 (39 hours) 9 (59.2 hours) 
2 (19 couples) 31 (38 hours) 8 (54.6 hours) 
3 or more 39 (37 hours) 3 (57.8 hours) 
Number of Children Wives' Average Family Work Hours (Average Paid Work) Husbands' Average Family Work Hours (Average Paid Work) 
1 (10 couples) 35 (39 hours) 9 (59.2 hours) 
2 (19 couples) 31 (38 hours) 8 (54.6 hours) 
3 or more 39 (37 hours) 3 (57.8 hours) 
Table 5.

Effect of Coresidence on Family Work.

Distance from Parents Number of households Husband's Percentage of Total Spousal Family Work 
Coresident 10 9.3 (4 hours out of 43) 
Near (less than 30 minutes) 13 21.9 (9 hours out of 41) 
Far 10 26.6 (8 hours out of 30) 
Distance from Parents Number of households Husband's Percentage of Total Spousal Family Work 
Coresident 10 9.3 (4 hours out of 43) 
Near (less than 30 minutes) 13 21.9 (9 hours out of 41) 
Far 10 26.6 (8 hours out of 30) 

Such extended family, ie style households are in decline. They fell from 27% of all households in Toyama-ken in 1997 to 22.2% in 2002, although this remains the second highest figure in Japan and exactly double the national average (Toyama Keizai Geppō 2003). In all, 51% of Toyama households were nuclear families, making Toyama 43rd (Toyama Ken Tōkei Kyoku 1998: 15).

Coresidence was associated with a roughly 50% drop in husbands’ average family work hours (four hours) irrespective of working hours. Coresident wives did seven to nine hours more family work than those who did not live with children's grandparents. One explanation might be that proximity to grandparents meant proximity to older gender role norms. The frequently mentioned Confucian dictum ‘respect men, despise women’ was reflected in the prestige accorded first sons and provider husbands. Deference toward older people and traditional behavioral premises may have increased wives’ family work obligations and inhibited their ability to negotiate or complain. Conversely, being far away reduced wives’ family work by more than 25%.

The power of gendered expectations associated with coresidence was clear in the case of a twin-job couple and their child who split time between their home and that of the wife's parents because their daughter went there after school. At their home, this husband cleaned house and did all the after-meal cleanup (53% of total family work), although no cooking. But at his in-laws’ home, where they ate dinner each weeknight, he was forbidden even to clear his plate from the table. His wife said her grandmother did not permit men to enter the kitchen, the symbolic realm of women, in accordance with tradition. The norms of the grandmother's generation assigned duties and set firm boundaries based on gender.

Yet, in other cases, it was also possible to imagine that the increased family work of wives in coresident households resulted from modern grandmothers’ desires for twilight years free from the burdens of childcare and housework. By employing the still-accepted gender tradition of mother-in-law as household manager and yome as apprentice, such grandmothers could justify placing the burdens of caring for children and the household on the daughter-in-law, thus preserving time for their own pursuits.

Coresidence norms weighed most heavily on wives. But even if they lived apart from in-laws, women married to first sons frequently complained that assumptions of privilege based on male family position encumbered them with special burdens. Although respondents spoke of ‘democratization’, ‘historical progression’ and the gradual eclipse of the world in which ‘a wife was not to step on her husband's shadow’, attitudes toward the time use of the first son's wife were not much liberalized. Responding to her husband's explanation of how his life as a professor would not have been possible under the stricter patriarchy of the, ie system, his wife, also a lecturer, complained that her work was deemed a distraction from her primary duty to raise children for the ie.

Yes, it may be true that your father was a bit looser than your grandfather (both farmers), but with respect to the wife of the eldest son, they agree. No matter who she is and no matter how good, they do not like her. Second and third sons’ wives can do as they please and their children are cute little grandchildren regardless of what they do, but the first son's wife is treated severely.

In Kyushu and Western Japan, which have lower rates of coresidence, men's family work time was marginally higher (Kukimoto 2006). Within Toyama Prefecture, small regional differences were sometimes emphasized. Even though many wives echoed a version of the sentiment, ‘Don't marry a first son’, certain areas were deemed especially ‘feudal’ and those men to be particularly avoided. But women married to such men sometimes expressed pride in upholding their part of the tradition that defined their obligations by their husbands’ position as first son.

Men as breadwinners (daikokubashira, center-post of the household) provided another justification for the natural division of family work. Japanese men's long, inflexible working hours are well known (Morioka 2008). Husbands worked on average 18 hours more per week outside the house than wives, but all the couples in my study seemed overworked. Whether wives worked full time or part time, in total they averaged seven hours more work per week than men (Table 6).

Table 6.

Couples’ Work Hours.

 Husbands (hours/week) Wives (hours/week) Family Total 
Paid work 56 38 94 
Family work 33 40 
Total work 64 71 135 
 Husbands (hours/week) Wives (hours/week) Family Total 
Paid work 56 38 94 
Family work 33 40 
Total work 64 71 135 

Moreover, my findings replicate studies that find little association between women's paid working hours and men's family work, as well as the negative relationship between women's hours of paid work and family work (Coltrane and Adams 2001: 92), in which reductions in total family work make the division of family work proportionally more even, although men's contributions do not increase (Table 7).

Table 7.

Wives’ Employment, Work, Family Work and Husbands’ Family Work.

 Paid Work (hours/week) Family Work (hours/week) Husbands’ Family Work (hours/week) 
Part time 27 33 
Full time 51 26 
Twin career 55 27 
 Paid Work (hours/week) Family Work (hours/week) Husbands’ Family Work (hours/week) 
Part time 27 33 
Full time 51 26 
Twin career 55 27 

However, when Toyama wives did shift work (e.g. nurses, a dental assistant whose job ran late) and husbands had earlier, stable quitting times (reliable schedules), the men contributed more. But if childcare help from relatives was available, different schedules did not increase husband's family work.

Feelings of partnership and reciprocity moderated time use inequality. In the following twin-career example, the wife's skill at providing emotional compensation for her husband's nontraditional behavior set up a positive feedback loop. This man did 38% of the 40 total hours of household family work (15 hours), including what his wife called ‘the full course’—shopping, cooking dinner and cleaning up—each Wednesday, an overtime-free, ‘refresh day’ at his workplace, when everyone was required to go home at 5 pm. ‘Dinner is really good when someone makes it for you’, she said.

Their arrangement originated in a complaint. ‘Since he swims one night a week, I felt I also deserved a night when I could let go of the children and do something on my own’. She joined a civic group. Her husband agreed, ‘Everyone needs stress relief’, and said he could appreciate his wife's position. ‘Thinking up the menu is hard’. He began suggesting things for her to cook and pitched in without being asked. Most couples in the study felt shopping and cooking were gender-defining tasks, and wives craved the intimacy and validation of women's traditional role implicit in menu suggestions or requests from their husbands.

This couple did not rationally discuss balancing family work on the basis of working time differences (he worked five hours less per week), income contributions (he contributed six percent more to the total) or gendered skill sets. When I followed up their detailed description of their daily lives by asking, ‘How did this division of labor come about’? They laughed a bit, as if to hint at past arguments, and then she said, ‘Somehow it just emerged naturally’. ‘That's it’, he agreed. She explained,

I don't go around hectoring him to do things. He doesn't tell me to do things because ‘That's your area’. That thing on Wednesdays that we were talking about – I was just feeling beat with work and the kids all the time and he was going swimming once a week, right? So I complained a little, you know. With that, he volunteered to cook on Wednesdays. But the rest is just natural.

‘Natural’, he repeated. When asked what ‘natural’ meant, he replied,

I mean I don't think what we do is typical Japanese women's work-for-women, men's-work-for-men. It's not so much that. If she is busy, I have to help. And we both work, so it's necessary to cooperate as much as possible.

His wife elaborated on the factors behind his ‘natural’ transformation.

Yes, but, you know, when we first married, he was the kind who did nothing at all. (He laughs.) He was an only child. His mother did everything, even boiling water for him when he wanted tea. Then right after we married, he started taking English classes and his teacher (a Nikkei American woman) introduced him to her husband (a Japanese) who turned out to be my husband's elementary school classmate. They were glad to be reunited and it was the start of our association as couples.

The wife said that cultural differences were a major topic of conversation between these families, but more than Japan versus America, it was gender culture that was central. ‘The teacher's husband was very cooperative and helped his wife a lot. After I saw that, our marriage changed greatly, I think’.

The example of an alternative strategy for using time and thinking about family work was significant in redefining this couple's conceptions of ‘fair’ and ‘natural’. Imitating the West's putative gender equality held some cachet for other couples, too. Some degree of ‘internationalization’ or other nontraditional influence on gender consciousness helped mutuality develop in the division of family work. Likewise, female coworkers’ solidarity was important for wives’ efforts to increase husbands’ contributions.

Ultimately, schedules also mattered: if, as ideal workers, husbands faced mandatory overtime, they could not shop, cook dinner or care for children. In addition, time use needed to symbolize gender-appropriate behavior. By praising their husband's efforts and skills, wives gradually drew them across the gender line and into the kitchen, increasing husbands’ appreciation for them and fostering intimacy. A healthy household ‘economy of gratitude’ (Hochschild 1989) promoted satisfaction and mutuality regarding time use and family work. But an economy of resentment or indifference drove wives and husbands to withdraw into the defense of naturally separate spheres, perpetuating inequality in family work.

Motherhood was one such sphere, centered on children's needs and the time commitment required for meeting them. The hold of gendered parental traditions had as great an impact on family work as work schedules and was tied up with them. Ishii-Kuntz (1993) found men ‘psychologically present’, used as authority figures, but not physically present at home. Their absenteeism was a proper way of enacting manliness that also opened a large space for women to enact motherhood.

Myths rooted in the early 20th century invented tradition of the ‘good wife and wise mother’ assigned women-innate nurturing abilities denied to men. This widely accepted and celebrated premise of the superiority of female childrearing instincts has been analyzed as ‘the trap of the myth of mother-love’ (Ohinata 2002). Even the most educated and outspoken women in the study were subtly constrained by the premises of motherhood in ways that forestalled negotiation of family work.

A high school teacher and mother of a five-year-old son, married to another high school teacher who did 13% of the family work, was asked the possibility of the father taking childcare leave if they had a second child. ‘Impossible’! she said. ‘That leave is for taking care of the child. He can't cook, so the child can't be left alone with him all day’. Even though it undermined her efforts to get him to do more, she insisted on the superiority of a mother's style of engaged childcare.

This guy's ‘looking after’ is just being beside the child. Our son says, ‘Dad won't play with me’, even though dad is sitting right beside him. He probably thinks he is taking care of him though. The whole concept of ‘looking after’ is different for this guy. Simply being there is playing, perhaps. But kamao means facing the child, really paying attention, talking, or drawing something together. Simply being there isn't taking care of the child.

She said men of her husband's generation (he was 38) lacked both necessary skills and the desire to do such things. She felt the sense of male privilege he acquired as a coddled first son had ‘damaged’ her husband by making him incapable of doing family work.

For his part, her husband felt that these unreasonably strict standards were part of the problem that was beyond his control.

Half of it is that the roles are determined. What can I do? My feeling is that I should help as much as I can, but if I try to help, my efforts don't meet her standards for quality or quantity. I am doing some, but she does too much. That's a factor, too.

Some wives wanted to be seen doing all the housework. They were concerned with seken no me, the normative assessment implicit in the gaze of their neighbors and relatives. Mothers-in-law were especially important. Their influence worked two ways. Their hierarchical gaze sometimes enforced patriarchal tradition. However, mothers-in-law who worked realized that no one woman could do both shifts without help. They gave their daughters-in-law permission to violate traditional norms, telling them to make their sons do family work. And there were mothers pointedly raising boys to do housework, increasing their sons’ potential value in the tight rural marriage market.

The extensively elaborated traditions of intensive motherhood and professional housewifery developed over the last century were the corollary to ideal worker discourses. For both genders, domesticity's historically institutionalized task separation gave the division of schedules a natural appearance. This continued to operate even when incomes were equal because action was oriented toward tacit assumptions about marriage. ‘You should have noticed that I was tired and offered to help’, said one wife, reflecting working women's understanding of the notion that a good marriage is ‘like air’, requiring little discussion. From the husbands’ perspective, the same notion meant that men did not need to be concerned with the female sphere, thwarting important negotiations.

Relative Resources and Bargaining

The relative resources hypothesis predicts that income, occupational status and education confer power to negotiate exemptions from family work. Japanese women's inability to negotiate equality at home has been seen as a product of limited labor market opportunities (Kikkawa 1998).

Table 8 shows that full-time and twin-career wives did significantly less family work than wives employed part time, but husband's family work varied only an hour per week regardless of the level of wives’ contributions to household income. So although wives’ higher incomes did correlate with them doing less at home, it did not correlate with men doing significantly more.

Table 8.

Wives’ Occupational Status, Income, Contribution to Family Income, Paid Work Hours, Family Work Hours and Husband's Family Work.

Wife's Occupation (Number of Cases) Average Income in Yen Percentage of Family Income (Range) Avg. Paid Work Hours (Range) Avg. Family Work Hours (Range) Husbands’ Avg. Family Work Hours (Range) Husbands’ Percentage of Family Work 
All (33) 2,640,000 31.0 (7–60) 38 (12–70) 33 (10–80) 7 (0–25) 17.5 
Full time (16) 4,440,000 46.4 (27–60) 51 (40–70) 26 (10–42) 8 (0–25) 23.5 
Part time (17) 950,000 17.0 (7–43) 26 (12–40) 40 (21–80) 7 (0–20) 14.5 
Twin career (9) 5,390,000 49.2 (46–54) 55 (46–70) 27 (15–42) 6 (0–17) 19.0 
Wife's Occupation (Number of Cases) Average Income in Yen Percentage of Family Income (Range) Avg. Paid Work Hours (Range) Avg. Family Work Hours (Range) Husbands’ Avg. Family Work Hours (Range) Husbands’ Percentage of Family Work 
All (33) 2,640,000 31.0 (7–60) 38 (12–70) 33 (10–80) 7 (0–25) 17.5 
Full time (16) 4,440,000 46.4 (27–60) 51 (40–70) 26 (10–42) 8 (0–25) 23.5 
Part time (17) 950,000 17.0 (7–43) 26 (12–40) 40 (21–80) 7 (0–20) 14.5 
Twin career (9) 5,390,000 49.2 (46–54) 55 (46–70) 27 (15–42) 6 (0–17) 19.0 

It may be that there is a cultural lag at work (Gershuny et al. 1994). High incomes for Japanese women are a relatively rare and recent phenomenon. Indeed, as noted above, the number of full-time, regular employed women is falling (op. cit. ’07 Josei Rōdō Hakusho). A ‘gender free’ evaluation, in which women and men's economic contributions receive equal consideration, has not yet percolated into popular consciousness and cultural practices.

Indeed, one of culture's defining aspects is durability (Swidler 1986). Japan's male dominated gender culture is particularly heavy, dense and widespread, limiting the ‘cultural room’ for bargaining (Hochschild and Tanaka 2003). The new reality of equal pay for some Japanese couples demands accommodation, but the hold of old traditions is common enough to restrain widespread negotiation of gender equality even among elite graduates (Strober and Chan 1999). Equal incomes for women are necessary but not sufficient to bring about change in the domestic division of labor. Also necessary are ‘a sufficiently large proportion of men who, if faced with an economically autonomous woman, would rather participate in domestic tasks than endure marital breakdown’ (Breen and Cooke 2005: 43).

How might such cooperative men appear when the need to display respect for traditional position and received premises about proper dignity limited what wives could ask in negotiating household bargains? To be accepted, new roles needed to fit into identity narratives that retained connections to the past even as they pointed to the future. For husbands, evolution, conceived of as necessarily slow change in gender relations across generations, was the most common trope. From most wives’ point of view, however, the story unfolding in their marriages was not a tale of progress but rather one of continuity with the past. Although it pained their sense of fairness, working wives propped up husbands’ family position and downplayed their own economic contributions so as to maintain their own familiar identities and family positions.

One man explained how the differences in physical power and social status that were the basis for male superiority in the village society of his father's generation were replaced by earning power in his. Now, however, even that basis for difference was giving way.

Now, if both spouses work and if the woman earns roughly as much as the man, then if they fight, saying things like, ‘Well, if you don't like it you can leave’, or ‘I work as hard as you do and make as much money, but on top of it I have to do housework’, then the man, you know, has no decisive grounds for claiming superiority. So even if a man tries to exercise the authority that men had in the household in the past, it is utterly impossible. Rather, what we have now is both spouses working the same hours and needing to share the housework. Men never used to do things like raising the children or shopping, but now they have to do those things equally, just as their wives do.

This couple was teachers, trying to reduce strain in their marriage by somehow adapting their received gender premises to the reality of their lives. The problem was not all on the husband's side. The wife, too, was torn between natal traditions that informed her sense of self and the demands of her career. Knowing the expectations for a bride who marries into a farmland owning family, and concerned for her career, this woman negotiated a pre-nuptial exemption from work in her fiancée's family rice fields as part of her arranged marriage. Liberation from that work, however, did not mean escape from traditional gender consciousness.

In my house, men were above women; that is what I saw growing up. Because both of us do the same work, my mother thinks we should be equal, but in the back of my mind I still have some idea that men are superior. I can't do everything properly myself so I have to support (tateru) my husband.

The husband told me later that despite her submissive demeanor, his wife had twice threatened divorce. After the first clash, he began to do laundry. The second time she brought an application for divorce with her seal already affixed. Subsequently, he began washing breakfast dishes. Doing housework challenged his gender self-image and confrontation challenged hers. Tensions between the man and his coresident mother may also have grown because his wife's exemption from farm work increased both his and his mother's burden and his wife's career meant that his mother did much of the childrearing.

This man's mother did not think men and women should behave as if they were equal even if they did the same work. As with other cases where I could observe mother–son relations, this mother's conceptions of proper first son masculinity counted for a lot. After all, she had raised him with an eye toward the local standards of her generation for taking over the household leadership. Still, his wife had, after four daughters, finally given birth to a son and heir, thereby fulfilling the most important duty of a first son's wife.

Doing housework certainly challenged this man's self-image, but divorce would have threatened his ability to do his duty to preserve the household. He rationalized his concessions this way:

Dividing the housework and childcare is better for improving cooperation and it builds stronger ties between spouses. Just as working in the fields once did, now housework and childcare are ways in which spouses achieve cooperation.

By recycling the premise of cooperation for the good of the household as the goal of marriage, the husband legitimized his housework within the ie framework. As the one responsible for solving problems that threatened the household, it was incumbent upon him to take action. Her schedule was so hectic that some nights she simply fell asleep in her clothes. She said she ‘handed off’ to him on those nights and he washed dinner dishes. However, she never mentioned the conflict that led to their revised marital bargain, preferring instead to preserve the façade of harmony, and with it the part of her identity that mandates a subservient, supportive wife.

Summary

From pair interviews and observations, this paper identifies displays of gender consciousness that sustain Japan's exceptional division of family work at the start of the 21st century. The argument that industrialization and higher rates of female employment close the gender gap holds in most OECD nations. But despite advanced economic development, the Japanese gap yawns. Falling birth rates are tied in part to women's apprehensions about married life, creating a social crisis of under-reproduction that government measures have so far failed to alleviate. Negotiation between spouses is clearly necessary for a new division of labor to emerge, but discussion of husbands’ family work participation was handicapped by traditions of ‘natural’ male rights and female obligations in marriage. Japanese wives’ relative docility enabled husbands’ retention of prerogatives inherited from more overtly patriarchal times. Couples’ shared cultural strategy of tacitly respecting ‘magnified images’ (Bourdieu 2001) of masculine power and position in the household—ideal workers and first sons—preserved their gender identities and perpetuated gross inequalities in Japanese family work.

The sense of ‘natural’ entitlement carried by first sons was a major barrier to developing mutuality in Japanese family work. ‘No one has ever told him “No”’, said the wife of one. Characterized as coddled and spoiled, first sons were defined by what they did not do at home, regardless of their wives’ earning power or occupational prestige. Socialized for natural dominance, these men were the visible rural tip of a hulking patriarchal iceberg.

The portraits of spousal social action above revealed couples orienting their behavior to traditions of gender power rooted in family structures and ideal breadwinner discourses propagated through corporations and other institutions of Japanese civil society. Respondents’ justifications for the resulting division of labor echoed the ideal type articulated by Weber, in which the norms of patriarchal domination in the family

derive from tradition: the belief in the inviolability of that which has existed from time out of mind. […] In the case of domestic authority the belief in authority is based on personal relations that are perceived as natural. This belief is rooted in filial piety, in the close and permanent living together of all dependents of the household which results in an external and spiritual ‘community of fate’ (Weber 1978: 1006).

In the current age of dual-income households, the inevitability of these gendered fates is a source of frustration and quiescence, but also a basis for stability and satisfaction. Adhering to traditional role prescriptions promotes correspondence with internal emotional landscapes formed early in life. Philosophers and psychoanalysts (Appiah 2005; Chodorow 1999) note how being a man or woman implies an inescapable tie to the ethical demands of masculinity or femininity. Gender identities are both socially evolving and personally constructed blueprints for living, but one tinkers with inherited designs at one's peril. Creating change may produce less stable conditions of existence. Orienting one's behavior by traditional symbols of stability and order is therefore a form of risk avoidance. This may be why, despite the social problems and personal burdens of masculine dominance, couples in this study, and Japanese in general, are loath to abandon their ‘historic ways of being’ (Rubin 1984: 213). To seek equality is to lose the poles by which a safe course may be charted.

Implications: Where Does Japan Fit?

In other industrialized countries, the transition from the extended family to the nuclear, ‘male breadwinner model’-family has been followed by the emergence of an ‘adult worker model’. Where this has not yet happened, the persistence of unequal division has been a hot topic, often focused on the need for welfare policy reform (e.g. Minguez 2004).

Changes in Japanese gender relations have been predicted since the 1970s (Fuse 1981; Fujimura-Faneslow 1995). And, indeed, increased father involvement in contemporary Japan is evident: images of fashionably involved fathers in ads and the new fathering magazines are reflected in public behaviors such as younger men shopping and pushing strollers. In Osaka today, I routinely see men caring for children in public in ways that would have been hard to imagine only 25 years ago. As the narratives in this paper show, Toyama fathers 10 years ago were likewise aware of impending changes. Recent economic instability and official promotion of gender equality have certainly strengthened the awareness among Japanese that the time has come for revised conceptions of gender to take root, although they have been slower to appear in elite bastions of masculine domination, such as corporate boardrooms and the Diet.

Ishii-Kuntz (1996) points out that the increase in men's family work stems from a combination of changes in some men's perception toward employment and family, demands from wives due to their employment, and men ‘reprioritizing’ work and family as workers’ share of national growth is declining. Debt burdens and work intensity are rising, as are fears of downsizing and damage to health caused by overwork as ‘lifetime employment’ is being phased out in favor of results-based, flexible employment schemes.

Looking back and comparing them with their fathers’ generation, the current generation of fathers is increasingly likely to conclude that the bargain of stable employment for loyal service is broken. Moreover, many regret that their fathers were seldom home and they vow not to repeat that experience with their children. This historical context explains much about the emergence of a more familistic orientation among men. If patriarchy and an unequal division of family work persist in Japan today, it is unquestionably diminished in comparison with that which existed 40 years ago.

Yet, the pace of change has been slow. In comparison with other industrialized powers, Japan remains an exceptional outlier. For every Japanese husband who does the shopping, cleans the bath, cooks or takes his children to nursery school, there are nine who leave the household and care of children to their wives (or mothers). And as this family-centered male minority has appeared, so has a backlash calling for restoration of the hegemonic masculinity that supported fathers’ unquestioned authority (Hayashi 1996). This side of Japan's gender politics is a serious obstacle to progress (Itō 2003).

At the same time, the reactionary backlash, although repugnant, is itself a sign of change. As husbands (and men who would like to be husbands) are increasingly involved in ideological conflicts and practical negotiations around gender and family work, they naturally must forfeit the aloofness from domestic affairs that has been a signal characteristic of recent hegemonic Japanese masculinity. Although ‘gender convergence’ is not yet the issue in Japan that it has become in Europe (Coltrane 2008), the negotiations of the rural Japanese couples portrayed in this paper suggest the sorts of emerging interpersonal conflicts and accommodations around family work that will shape Japan's trajectory toward a less naturally gendered future.

Funding

Japan Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant 0726; Predoctoral Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Berkeley Center for Working Families.

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