A Surprising Shift in Young People’s Attitudes: Why Do More Favor Full-Time Homemaking?


A recent government survey revealed an increase in support for the traditional family model of a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife, particularly among those in their twenties. Honda Yuki considers the possible explanations for this development.

Is a woman’s place in the home? A growing percentage of young people in Japan apparently think so. Over the past two decades the Cabinet Office has been conducting surveys of public opinion concerning gender equality at intervals of two to three years. The percentage of respondents expressing agreement with the statement “The husband should work outside and the wife should take care of the home” declined steadily from the first survey, conducted in 1992, through the sixth, in 2009. But in the survey conducted in October 2012, the share jumped by 10 percentage points to reach slightly more than 50%.

This finding, which has drawn much comment, may be attributed in part to the aging of Japan’s population, inasmuch as older people are more likely to support the idea of women staying at home. But what is particularly noteworthy is that in the latest survey the share of respondents in their twenties agreeing with the statement jumped by almost 20 points to 50.0%.

Explaining the Appeal of Homemaker Status

The results of the latest gender equality survey have already drawn a number of interpretations. The business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei), reporting on the findings on December 15, quoted a Cabinet Office bureaucrat involved with the survey as offering this analysis: “This seems to be a manifestation of a tendency to place more emphasis on family ties following the Great East Japan Earthquake.” Also on December 15, the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, carried a comment from Harada Yōhei, an analyst at Hakuhōdō’s Youth Life Lab: “The job picture for young people deteriorated after the Lehman shock. When times are tough, people ordinarily tend to think that women need to get out of the house and work too. The very fact that the ‘husband goes out to work and the wife stays at home’ lifestyle is hard to achieve may be making this option look more attractive.”

Another major daily, the Mainichi Shimbun, carried this comment from Yamada Masahiro, a professor of family psychology at Chūō University, on December 28: “The dismal labor environment for young people is unmistakably part of the background [to this shift of sentiment]. One male student, exhausted from his job hunt, grumbled, ‘If becoming a stay-at-home husband was an option, I’d go for it.’ . . . The standard style of work at Japanese corporations is premised on there being a full-time housewife waiting at home. Given a state of affairs where people find it hard to avoid putting in overtime and often work on holidays, it can’t be helped that increasing numbers of men think that they can’t keep going without a wife at home and that increasing numbers of women think that they can’t keep working after they get married and have children. Low-paying nonregular jobs offer no sense of purpose, so more women are thinking that they’d rather not work at all if they don’t have to. The big problem with this preference for full-time homemaking is that the employment of young males has also become unstable.”

Doubts About an Increased Emphasis on Family Ties

The Cabinet Office has published just the raw results of the survey, so we can only judge the accuracy of the above interpretations on the basis of collateral evidence. But let us see how far we can get in assessing them.

First of all, the idea that the survey results reflect an increased emphasis on family ties due to the March 2011 earthquake is dubious. We can find data showing a shift of preferences, particularly among younger people, toward the working husband, stay-at-home wife model even before the earthquake disaster. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has been conducting a nationwide survey of family trends among married women every five years since 1993, called the National Survey on Family. The second and third surveys (in 1998 and 2003) showed declines in the share of respondents agreeing with the statement, “The husband should work outside, and the wife should devote herself to housework,” but in the fourth survey, conducted in 2008, the percentage rebounded, showing an especially large rise among those in their twenties.

How about the idea that the deterioration of the employment situation has led to the shift in sentiment, as Harada and Yamada suggested? Harada referred to the Lehman shock—the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, followed by a global financial crisis and severe economic downturn. But it is not clear that this played a major part in changing young people’s sentiments. The job picture for young people in Japan was at its worst from around 2000 to 2004, but at that stage support for the idea of the husband as breadwinner and the wife as homemaker was still declining. Yamada’s comment mixes the issues of livelihood strategies of married people and views of marriage among unmarried people, including the views of men and women in both categories; the factors need to be considered separately by marital status and gender.

Young People’s Quest for Stability, Parents’ Concerns

Though the published results of the October 2012 Cabinet Office survey give breakdowns by gender, age, and marital status, they do not distinguish between married and unmarried people within each age group. But according to the 2010 national census, about 70% of males and 60% of females aged 25–29 were unmarried, so we can assume that the majority of the survey respondents in their twenties were still single. Also, a high proportion of the unmarried respondents can be assumed to be relatively young. And among those in the unmarried category as well, a substantial share agreed with the “husband works outside, wife stays home” idea (see the table). How can we account for this?

Some of the unmarried people in their twenties are still in school, but most of them have graduated and have jobs. If we look at the detailed data from the government’s 2011 Labor Force Survey, we find that among working people in the 25–34 age group, 15.2% of males and 41.0% of females were in nonregular employment; the rest had regular jobs.

Also, according to a survey of working styles among Tokyo residents in their twenties conducted by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training in 2011, the share of both males and females with regular jobs was higher than in the previous survey in 2006; many of them landed regular jobs upon graduation or after short spells of other employment during the years from 2004 through 2008 or so, when the economy was improving. Also, by comparison with the first of these surveys, conducted in 2001, there was a decline in the share of respondents sympathizing with the “freeter” style of working (jumping freely into and out of short-term jobs) and an increased preference for steadiness in the form of regular and long-term employment.

How about married people? If we look at the opinions expressed by respondents to the 2008 National Survey on Family, looking at the results broken down by employment status (which are not further broken down by age group), we find that support for the breadwinner husband and homemaker wife model was virtually unchanged among full-time housewives and those working for themselves or in family occupations, but among those with full-time jobs or and those working part-time outside the home the figures were up by 12% and 8%, respectively, by comparison with the third survey. Also, the shares of those agreeing with the statement “Husbands and wives should put their children’s interests first, even if they must make some sacrifices themselves” were up in the fourth survey among those in their twenties and among wives with full-time or part-time jobs.

Meanwhile, according to the results of a survey on parenting that the Benesse Educational Research & Development Center has conducted since 1997(most recently in 2011), recent years have brought increases in the shares of parents agreeing with statements like “I am trying to keep my child from falling behind in terms of education and school/college admission,” and “When I think about my child’s future, I feel worried unless I have him/her take lessons and attend cram school.”

Share of Respondents Agreeing with the Idea That the Husband Should Work Outside and the Wife Should Take Care of the Home

(Cabinet Office, “Public Opinion Survey on the Gender Equality Society,” October 2012)

 October 2012 survey, %Change from previous (Oct. 2009) survey, percentage points
 AgreeAgree somewhatIncrease of “Agree” shareIncrease of “Agree somewhat” shareTotal increase
Total 12.9 38.7 2.3 8.0 10.3
Females 12.4 36.0 2.9 8.2 11.1
Males 13.3 41.8 1.4 7.8 9.2
By age (males above, females below)
20–29 5.6 38.1 2.2 13.7 15.9
9.3 46.4 6.5 14.9 21.4
30–39 6.6 35.0 1.0 4.5 5.5
10.7 41.5 5.8 1.3 7.1
40–49 7.1 33.8 4.5 3.1 7.6
10.3 40.6 4.5 4.3 8.8
50–59 6.2 34.2 1.5 9.0 10.5
8.7 38.5 -1.7 4.9 3.2
60–69 11.9 40.3 -2.6 13.8 11.2
12.7 43.1 -2.6 15.0 12.4
70– 27.0 35.2 4.3 6.1 10.4
22.9 42.1 -0.7 6.0 5.3
By employment status (males above, females below)
Employee 4.9 30.0 1.4 7.0 8.4
9.2 43.0 2.6 7.6 10.2
Self-employed 11.6 37.9 7.0 14.9 21.9
16.5 36.9 1.0 3.4 4.4
Family worker 12.7 38.0 0.3 9.1 9.4
14.3 28.6 10.0 -19.2 -9.2
Housewife/househusband 16.7 43.6 3.4 10.5 13.9
17.2 37.9 -2.8 8.8 6.0
None 24.4 34.2 4.7 3.9 8.6
20.0 42.9 -1.7 12.3 10.6
By marital status (males above, females below)
Married or living with partner 11.9 36.2 2.9 7.7 10.6
13.5 42.1 1.2 7.2 8.4
Divorced or widowed 21.6 34.5 3.9 5.5 9.4
22.9 42.2 -6.4 16.1 9.7
Never married 4.7 36.3 0.8 14.6 15.4
10.0 40.6 5.7 7.6 13.3

Two Possible Explanations

Based on the above, I would like to offer two possible explanations for the findings of the October 2012 Cabinet Office survey with respect to those in their twenties:

(1) Atavism caused by a temporary economic upturn: Perhaps the increase in regular job openings due to the temporary economic upturn led to a partial return among (mainly unmarried) working people in their twenties to the Japanese model of the breadwinner husband and homemaker wife that prevailed before the bursting of the bubble economy at the beginning of the 1990s.

(2) Concern about parenting: Perhaps working wives have felt the difficulty of juggling job and home responsibilities, particularly child rearing, which could be making them think that it is preferable to put their children first by staying at home.

”Atavism” can be expected to keep emerging and receding repeatedly in line with ups and downs in the economy. Concern about parenting, meanwhile, may continue as a deep-seated trend in view of the uncertainty about the future shape of society and the great responsibility that households bear with respect to raising children in Japan.

Japan’s Unyielding Division of Labor Between the Sexes

Japan stands out among the advanced countries for the severity of its division of labor between the sexes. In terms of gender equality it was in 101st place out of 135 countries in the ranking published by the World Economic Forum last October, coming in last among the Group of Eight countries.

The country has a low birthrate and an aging population, and the government has been looking for ways to encourage women to work outside the home to help offset the decline in the working-age population. But given the persistence of the traditional division of labor between the sexes, along with parents’ concern about their children’s future, it will probably be impossible for Japan to tap the abilities of individuals regardless of gender and achieve good work-life balance unless it can implement sweeping policies to transform workstyles and shift child-rearing responsibility from the home to society as a whole.

I hope that Japan will move as quickly as possible to adopt social values and systems that will change it from a country where women work reluctantly and with a sense that they are sacrificing their children’s interests to one where men and women can choose their own life courses flexibly, freely, and with easy spirits.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 17, 2013.)

youth economy employment family Society Gender roles mother