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Dividing the Sexes: The Modern Evolution of Japanese Gender Roles in Marriage
[2018.12.06]

Japan has a deep-rooted belief that husbands should be breadwinners and wives should stay at home and look after the children. But when did this view arise, and is it a realistic model for the modern age? In this article, we consider these issues as we investigate the history of marriage in Japan.

Matrilineal to  Patrilineal Societies

Marriage in Japan has changed over the centuries, making it hard to know exactly what issues couples dealt with in the past. The figure below shows how the institution has evolved.

The Evolution of Marriage in Japan

Ancient times Matrilineal societies characterized by marriages where couples live in separate residences (tsumadoikon)
Eighth century Emergence of the household-based system and spread of monogamy
Feudal times Establishment of patriarchy, with head of family inheriting a stipend (roku); merchant families put fortune before honor, marrying daughters off to capable businessmen
1889 Promulgation of the Meiji Constitution: Headship system established; adultery  criminalized (wives only)
1947 Promulgation of the Japanese Constitution: Stipulates that marriage is based on the mutual consent and maintained through mutual cooperation, with equal rights for husband and wife
1972 Marriage rate peaks
2015 Japanese Supreme Court rules that requiring couples to use the same surname is constitutional
Shibuya and Setagaya  recognize same-sex partnerships
2016 Annual births fall below 1 million for the first time
2022 Legal marrying age for females to increase from 16 to 18

In ancient Japan, marriages in which the husband and wife would stay at their respective family homes during the day and the husband would visit the wife’s home at night were the norm. This duolocal arrangement allowed the wife and her children to be supported by the village or collective in which the wife was based. The husband and wife led separate lives that were based in their respective village communities, and wives were therefore not dependent on their husbands for the livelihood. In an age where children were primarily sources of labor, the identity of a child’s father was not an issue, and it was acceptable for both men and women to take multiple partners.

Around the eighth century the establishment of the ritsuryō legal system fostered the development of the patriarchal system, making it common for each family to be headed by a male member, usually the oldest son.

In feudal times, ambitious warriors won individual fame and fortune in politics and war, and successful members of the samurai class, along with their children, created an emphasis on patrilineal ancestry that subsequently spread to the lower classes. Merchants, on the other hand, depended on commercial success for their prosperity and valued business acumen over lineage. As a result they continued the practice of marrying daughters to capable merchants if their eldest son proved ungifted in business.

By the Meiji era (1868–1912), the patriarchal system had become completely entrenched in society, and the architects of Japan’s modern government carried over many aspects into the modern legal system. The Meiji civil code established koshuken, a legal authority vested in the head of the family and generally passed down to the eldest son, who was required to consent to the marriage of a family member or determine where children would live. Another law, which today would be seen as a human rights violation, stipulated that only the legitimate first son could inherit property: daughters and other sons did not receive a penny. Furthermore, only a wife (or her lover) could be found guilty of adultery. This gender inequality resulted from the need to clearly establish paternity of children and maintain the paternal line.

In his book Kekkon to Kazoku no Korekara (The Future of Family and Marriage), sociologist and Ritsumeikan University professor Tsutsui Jun’ya writes, “The patriarchal system was arbitrarily contrived so that men who controlled society and male members of families could maintain their privilege, even at the expense of economic productivity and growth.”

From Farmer’s Brides to Stay-at-Home Wives

The Japanese Constitution, promulgated in 1947, has changed Japanese attitudes to marriage in the postwar era. The Constitution stipulates that marriage is based on the mutual consent and is maintained through shared cooperation, with the equal rights for husband and wife.

Minashita Kiriu, a sociology professor at Kokugakuin University specializing in  contemporary issues like poverty and declining fertility rates, has studied the trajectory of this change. She explains that shortly after the end of WWII approximately half of the Japanese working population was employed in primary industries such as farming, forestry, and fishing. “Married women in agricultural villages generally spent their lives as ‘farmers’ wives’ and were important sources of labor,” she says. “Busy tending fields, women had little time for domestic duties. Instead, children were cared for by the community, generally retired farmers. It was also common for older children to babysit infants.”

She points out that the circumstances in which children were brought up were quite similar to Japan’s ancient duolocal marriage arrangement. However, Japan’s period of rapid economic growth changed the situation. “During this time, the secondary sector came to dominate the economy. More working men assumed salaried positions and commuting from homes in the suburbs to inner-city offices became the norm.” She notes that the male-dominated nature of corporations meant that while men had ample opportunities for employment, there were few jobs that enable women to earn a living wage. Economic survival for women meant getting married, and it was around this time that marriage came to be described as “eternal employment”—the sense being that a woman can never retire from carrying for her home and family. “The result was that married couples were increasingly comprised of an office-worker husband who spent his weekdays at work and a stay-at-home wife who rarely strayed far from the family home.”

Shōwa Wives

Japan’s period of rapid economic growth brought with it a new working style. Minashita says that employees came to be viewed as members of an organization.  “Rather than having detailed job descriptions,” she explains, “company workers move up the corporate ladder via divisional transfers and postings to regional offices. Companies don’t employ a person for a specific role, but instead farm out tasks, ensuring that workers have an endless stream of assignments to complete.” She adds that Japanese workplaces do not lend themselves to job sharing, resulting in long working hours. “Japanese-style employment practices are characterized by seniority-based remuneration, lifetime employment, and company-based labor unions. As such, firms value length of employment over skills or performance when deciding on promotions and pay rises.”

This working style is now a deeply entrenched aspect of Japan’s corporate culture, and one that Minashita says presents a significant disadvantage to women, who must take time off when having children, as well as people who change jobs. The emergence of company employees who would put up with long hours, departmental transfers, and postings to other cities, created a need for equally diligent stay-at-home wives to perform domestic and childcare duties. These social factors shaped the lifestyles and aspirations of a multitude of women—a segment Minashita terms “Shōwa wives” after the Shōwa era (1926–1989) when the phenomena emerged—and the number of full-time housewives continued to grow until reaching a peak in the 1970s.

An Unfair Dichotomy: Work or Stay at Home

Japan’s economy roared along for decades. But in the 1990s the situation took a turn for the worse when the bursting of the asset bubble produced a cycle of recession and deflation, and the country to enter a phase of slow economic growth.

Couples had to adjust to new economic pressures, and by 1997 the number of households in which both partners worked outstripped the number of households in which the wife stayed at home. Minashita notes this has continued to be the trend—there are now 5.4 million more dual-career households than those where the wife stays home full time—something she attributes in part to the overall decline in male wages since Japan’s economic growth stalled. “The earning power of young men has been especially hard hit, and the overall situation has been exacerbated by the service sector eclipsing manufacturing. The fact that tertiary industries tend to prize female employees, in addition to the fact that women were increasingly called on to help support the household budget resulted in a rapid influx of women into the workforce. However, women tend to be hired on non-permanent basis and at lower salaries. Because of this, men remain the main breadwinners, and despite the growing percentage of female employees in the workforce, most women are expected to perform the same domestic duties that their stay-at-home forebearers did.”

Another development is that fewer couples are choosing to share their home with their parents or in-laws, meaning there is no longer someone there who can help look after the children or do housework.

Minashita says that these days, married women in Japan are required not only to perform domestic and childcare duties, but also to care for aging relatives. “The difficulty in balancing all of these tasks means that instead of pursuing careers, greater numbers of young women prefer to be stay-at-home wives.” She cites a recent statistic showing that the percentage of women in their twenties who want to be full-time housewives is higher than that for women in their thirties, forties, and fifties, and at a similar level to that for women in their sixties, something she calls “a renaissance of the Shōwa wife model.”

The Future of Marriage

This raises the question of how these pressures will affect the future of marriage in Japan.

Minashita points to the recent scandal at Tokyo Medical University where administrators altered entrance exam scores to limit the number of female candidates who would pass demonstrates that Japan still faces rampant discrimination based on outdated statistical data. “In explaining their actions, Tokyo Medical University said that female doctors tend to leave the profession to have children, and that therefore male medical students were preferable to female ones. Turning this around, we can say that the scandal is evidence of rigid gender roles and an environment where a harsh, male-dominated workplace remains unchecked.”

Instead of punishing women, she says that Japan must face up to the grave social impact of its deep-rooted belief that the husband is the breadwinner and the wife looks after the home. “Maintaining such strict gender divisions of labor not only ignores a person’s character and aptitudes, but severely impairs the direction they can take in life.” She argues that such a view prevents society from adapting to long-standing and emerging challenges, and that to overcome these issues Japan must create a society in which everyone, irrespective of gender or marital status, is able to make the most of their ability and potential. “I believe we must overcome our ingrained attitudes toward family and work so that people can enjoy each aspect of their lives, including marriage, to the fullest.”

Japan in recent years has seen attempts to redefine marriage, including the 2015 recognition of same-sex partnerships at the municipality level. Although not legally binding, these efforts illustrate growing support for protecting the rights and social standing of LGBT couples. More recently, the head of Tokyo-based software developer and others challenged a law requiring married couples to use different surnames. The group’s demands were echoed in a legal action by film director Sōda Kazuhiro and his wife, who sought confirmation of their marital status despite the pair using different surnames.

Japan must come to terms with the consequences of clinging to traditional attitudes about gender and work—take for example the nation’s meager birth rate and declining population—and strive to build a society that is more equal and inclusive.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 19, 2018. Reporting and text by Okajima Kaori and graphics by Uesugi Hisayo; editing by Power News. Banner photo: Cybozu CEO Aono Yoshihisa at a press conference in Tokyo on January 9, 2018, after instigating legal action demanding that married couples be allowed to use different surnames. © Jiji.)

  • [2018.12.06]
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