The Future of the Japanese Family: Diversification or Virtualization?

Society Culture

Yamada Masahiro 【Profile】

The family as an institution has both a social and a personal function. It can facilitate an economically prosperous lifestyle while at the same time making it possible to live with loved ones and to satisfy one’s needs for affection. Until quite recently, these two functions in most industrial countries were fulfilled through a gender-based division of labor, characterized by a breadwinning husband and a homemaking wife. Developments in the global economy over the past three decades, though, have been making this model increasingly obsolete.

Changes Engendered by a Post-Industrial Economy

Until around 1975, families with a gender-based division of labor were the norm in most industrial countries, including Japan. Such arrangements were considered ideal, and many young couples built their families on this model.

This was encouraged by robust economic growth engendered by industrialization. Men in industrial countries were able to support their families as the sole breadwinner thanks to stable employment and income, enabling their wives to devote themselves full-time to being homemakers and mothers. Arranged marriages in Japan became less common, as more young people wed the partner of their own choosing, enjoying family life marked by material affluence and mutual affection.

The growth rates of the leading industrial economies began to slacken following the 1973 oil crisis. Industrialization had reached its limits in propelling economic growth, giving way to a post-industrial service economy. As globalization advanced, factories were increasingly moved offshore, and companies began relying more heavily on automation and information technologies. High-income opportunities expanded for workers with specialized skills, but the overall number of well-paying jobs declined, causing many either to be laid off or to take low-paying, part-time positions. This heralded the arrival of the “new economy,” characterized by widening income inequalities, as described by such economists as Robert Reich and Thomas Piketty. The share of men earning enough to sufficiently provide for their families consequently declined; as a result, the gender-based division of labor of earlier generations was no longer tenable.

Lifestyle Revolution in the West

At the same time, a lifestyle revolution occurred in the 1970s in the United States, Northwestern Europe, and Oceania, with the inroads made by the feminist movement and the liberalization of sexual mores leading to the diversification of lifestyles. Many more women entered the labor force and attained economic independence. It became quite common for young people to live with their romantic partners before entering into wedlock, leading to a higher number of births outside marriage. Divorce became more acceptable, and couples gained the freedom to leave partners whom they found incompatible.

A broader range of family types appeared, as the gender-based division of labor was no longer the predominant format. Priority was placed on finding a partner with whom there was mutual affection, any economic shortfalls being covered through double-income arrangements and social welfare safety nets.

More recently, particularly since the turn of the century, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and other countries have begun recognizing same-sex marriages. Premarital cohabitation and childbirths are increasing even in Southern European countries like Italy and Spain that had previously been marked by very orthodox views on family gender roles.

Table 1. Percentage of Births outside Marriage in Major Western Countries and Japan

1970 1990 2012
Sweden 18.6 47.0 54.5
France 6.8 30.1 56.7
Britain 8.0 27.9 47.6
US 10.0 28.0 40.7
Germany 7.2 15.3 34.5
Spain 1.4 9.6 39.0
Italy 2.2 6.5 25.7
Japan 0.9 1.1 2.2

Sources: Eurostat; Statistics and Information Department, Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, “Vital Statistics of Japan”; US Department of Commerce, “Statistical Abstracts of the United States.”

Perpetuating the Gender-Based Model

In Japan, families with a breadwinning father and homemaking mother became the norm following World War II through the high-growth years of postwar industrialization. This prevailed even after the oil crises of the 1970s, as male employment remained very stable until the bubble economy burst in 1992.

The job market, though, particularly for males, grew tight in the second half of the 1990s, as waves of globalization began reaching Japan’s shores. Many more young workers, both male and female, were forced to accept nonregular positions, and the wages of regular employees stopped growing as quickly as in the past. Just as in Europe and North America, the share of Japanese males capable of providing an affluent lifestyle for their dependents with their salaries alone is on a downward trend.

In Japan, the impact of the lifestyle revolution seen in other parts of the world has been limited, and there has not been a similar diversification of family types.

For example, while there has been a rise in the number of women in the workforce, a high proportion remain full-time homemakers during the child-rearing years compared with other industrial countries. Two of three employed married women are working as part-timers, moreover, so they are still largely dependent on their husbands’ income. In that sense, the gender-based division of labor is still largely intact.

next: Japan's Declining Interest in Romance

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Yamada Masahiro YAMADA Masahiro View article list

Professor at Chūō University since April 2008. Born in Tokyo in 1957. Completed his doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1986. Specializes in family sociology, the sociology of emotions, and gender issues. His works include Parasaito shinguru no jidai (The Age of Parasite Singles), Shōshi shakai Nihon—Mō hitotsu no kakusa no yukue (One More Gap in a Japan with Few Children), and Kazoku nanmin (Stranded Singles).

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