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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Life Courses: education, Marriage, and aging

What changes have occurred in life course transitions in contemporary Japan? Among the major phases of life, the transition to school is still taken for granted, yet the average duration of schooling has grown longer, and the quality of one's post-secondary education has become even more important in making a successful transition to work. Unlike in the early postwar period, when the Number of university graduates was comparatively small, by the 2000s the majority of high school graduates proceeded to a post-secondary education. Such a step became possible in part following the establishment of more lower-level junior colleges and universities whose diplomas were of limited value on the job market (see chapters 1 and 11). In the current competitive job market, with a decreasing number of permanent, career-track jobs, a diploma from a mediocre university does not guarantee a regular job. Furthermore, with the eeOL educational credentials are now relevant to women as well; indeed going to a good high school and getting a degree from a prestigious university are much more important for female corporate workers, some of whom remain employed until they retire (see chapter 3).3

How have school curricula and pedagogical approaches shifted? Cave shows that in the past twenty-five years several attempts have been made to change the educational system in Japan (chapter 11). To “internationalize” students, a limited number of english lessons were introduced in the primary schools, and to encourage exploratory, individualized learning, the number of hours spent on academics was reduced. However, declining scores in international academic attainment tests led to a reconsideration of reduced hours; these were again increased (but not entirely). Small class sizes and differentiated learning via proficiency groups were also introduced in a limited manner. Despite these attempts at change, however, Cave maintains that a striking number of practices have endured since the late postwar period. Primary schools continue to provide opportunities for learning in academics as well as socialization, centering on group participation and cooperation. In junior high schools, working together continues to be important, and despite the introduction of small class sizes and differentiated learning, students most likely experience little differentiation through their nine years of compulsory education. Some high schools use competitive exams to select talented students who want to get into the nation's most prestigious universities, while others (usually private) employ interviews and other methods to admit students regardless of their academic record. At the same time, graduates are ranked according to the schools they attended, a factor that in turn largely shapes their occupational choices and life trajectories.

Just because some pedagogical approaches persist does not imply that the meaning and value of schooling have stayed more or less the same. The media have sensationalized students who refuse to attend school and problematized the hikikomori, or the young people who have socially withdrawn (see Borovoy 2008). In the postwar middle-class ideal, schooling was the path to Mainstream success. Given the recognition of disparity and the declining value of a college degree in the job market, it is not surprising to find that some students are not motivated to do well. Cave makes the point that rather than looking ahead, the Japanese educational system has been driven by a longing for the idealized past.

During the 2000s, the transition from school to work, as well as to marriage and childbirth, has not occurred in some people's lives. Previous studies conducted during the 1970s and the 1980s (see Plath 1980) examined age-related ideologies defining life course transitions and the narrow age ranges for each life transition that were culturally acceptable. These studies noted that women were pressured to marry before they reached the age of twenty-five (see Brinton 1992). This was a culturally constructed “cutoff ” date, after which, like Christmas cakes that are no longer desired after December 25, women became unwanted marital partners. However, the average age for first marriage has risen dramatically: from 24.2 to 28.8 years for women and 27.2 to 30.5 years for men between 1965 and 2010 (Cabinet Office 2011). Consequently, the proportion of unmarried people in the life stage formerly associated with childbearing and child rearing has increased dramatically. For example, in 2005, 32 percent of women aged between thirty and thirty-four and 18.4 percent of women between thirty-five and thirty-nine remained unmarried, as did 47.1 percent of men between thirty and thirty-four and 30 percent of men between thirty-five and thirty-nine (Cabinet Office 2011). Despite such changes, the age-related ideologies persist to some extent, and now thirty is considered a new “cutoff ” date for single women, as evidenced by Lynne nakano's account in chapter 6. The difference today, however, is that an increasing number of women never transition to wifeor motherhood.

While many single women are interested in marriage, compatibility with one's partner has become highly valued, and they are not willing to compromise (see chapters 3, 4, and 6). In their mothers' time, marriage was seen as a woman's permanent job and marrying a salaryman was the ideal. Today, however, marriage is not the only path, and an increasing number of women remain in the corporate world as long-term workers. Moreover, as divorce rates rise and men's jobs in the post-bubble economy are not as secure as they used to be, marriage no longer provides a permanent position for a woman (Ochiai 1997). In this context, young people have developed alternative values. Nakano states that the “personalities” (hitogara) of husbands matter a great deal to women, and they are not willing to marry unless a potential partner is “appropriate.” Some older people also value compatibility, companionship, and communication in marriage in today's Japan, as Gordon Mathews indicates (chapter 2). Personality and value differences, as well as inadequate financial support from husbands, are reasons for divorce. Marriages are no longer satisfactory when husbands and wives simply fulfill the social roles of breadwinner and homemaker, as defined in a social contract, and lead relatively separate lives (alexy 2011; Borovoy 2005; nakano 2011). Due to this shift in ideals, the couples described in Mathews' chapter seem disenchanted after years of marriage. In contrast, roberts (chapter 1) examines a couple with a close, loving relationship at a time when marriage was seen as a social contract. It is thus important to note that the quality of marital relations varies, and we need further in-depth research on the variations.

In the early 1990s, Japanese women tended to hold a series of nonoverlapping roles, moving sequentially from student to worker to homemaker (see Brinton 1992). In the twenty-first century, despite the growing number of women in the workforce, many women still prefer not to be students and mothers at the same time or full-time workers and mothers at the same time, particularly when their children are young. Student, worker, and mother are all full-time “occupations,” and a person is expected to fully devote oneself to each job. A married man, too, is primarily seen as a breadwinner by his employer and co-workers, and his participation in family life is consequently limited. Such postwar middle-class expectations are still alive in the 2000s. Long work hours are taken for granted, making it difficult for regular employees to balance family and work. The media often state that more women work today, but this does not imply that there are more married women with children in regular employment. A more accurate picture is the bifurcation of women into unmarried, full-time workers and mothers with part-time or irregular employment. A mother should primarily mother, at least when her children are young, and if she also works, ideally the work should not interfere with her primary role of nurturing her children.

The expectation that a mother should devote herself fully to child rearing continues to discourage women from staying in the labor force during the child-rearing years. Kawano (chapter 9) examines some of the consequences for a woman in the transition from a full-time worker to a stay-at-home mother; among these are social isolation and a need to build a network of child-rearing support. As their husbands often work long work hours and non-family babysitters are neither common nor popular (Holthus 2011), metropolitan mothers are usually left with only their own mothers, if available, To count on. (in a way, the situation of new mothers that Kawano examines is similar to that of new retirees: they lack a strong peer network and reciprocal support [see chapter 2.) To improve the child-rearing environment and reduce the social isolation, in 2002 the state initiated tsudoi no hiroba jigyō, or the drop-in play centers project, for parents and preschoolers. By creating these centers, the state aimed to address the major demographic problem of declining fertility rates. Hovering around 1.3 children per woman for the past several years, low fertility rates are seen to threaten the long-term stability of Japan's social security. However, the current structure of employment continues to assume that it is men who are first of all full-fledged workers. Kawano maintains that the development of new community-based child-rearing support systems among women, therefore, does not destabilize the persistent gender asymmetry that assigns them a domestic role, volunteer work, or irregular employment.

As life courses have become differentiated, household composition has become more diverse as well. For example, the number of single-person households almost doubled between 1975 and 2009, from approximately 6 million to 12 million, and the proportion of such households increased from

18.2 Percent to 24.9 percent (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2011a). Moreover, as marriage rates are lower now, households consisting of parents and their unmarried adult children have also become more common. The adults living with their parents, who often fail to make adequate contributions to household expenses, are seen negatively as “parasite singles,” a widely used disparaging term coined by the sociologist yamada Masahiro (1999) that the media used to capture the phenomenon. Yet the prolonged dependency on parents by adult children must be understood in the increasingly precarious labor market, where the number of regular jobs has decreased. Several chapters in this volume include examples of single adult children still living with their parents, some of them already middle-aged (chapters 1, 2, and 6).

Households that include older adults have also become more diverse. Older adults, who commonly co-resided with an adult child in threegenerational households in early postwar Japan, are now less likely to live in such households. In 2001, the international survey of Lifestyles and attitudes of the elderly indicated that 22 percent of those aged sixty and older lived in three-generational households (compared with 2 percent in the United states) (Ogawa, retherford, and Matsukura 2006), but the proportion of the elderly so doing had markedly declined from 37 percent in 1981. Three-generational households have not disappeared, but their proportion has markedly declined From 16.9 percent in 1975 to 8.4 percent in 2009 (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2011a). As discussed in chapter 13, many older adults now prefer not to live with their adult children's families. Nonetheless, when older people become too frail or ill to manage on their own, the expectation remains strong that they will be cared for by a family member living in the same household. In 2005 approximately three out of four primary caregivers for the elderly were still family members, and two-thirds of them were living with the elderly person in their charge (Maruyama 2006, 52–53). With demographic and cultural changes, family caregivers are more diverse in the 2000s, with wives, husbands, sons, and daughters (rather than only daughters-in-law) more often giving hands-on care (Long 2008). In recent years an elderly person has been more likely to receive care from his or her spouse as prolonged life expectancies have contributed to the co-survivorship of older couples (Ogawa, retherford, and Matsukura 2006). Unmarried women living with aging parents sometimes express concern about future care for their co-residing parents, reflecting the diversification of caregivers during the 2000s (e.g., see chapters 3 and 6).

Longer life expectancies allow a growing number of older persons to get to know their grandchildren and potentially even great-grandchildren as individuals. Susan Long (chapter 7) explores how the meaning of grandchildren and grandparents has changed in a society where life expectancies are exceptionally long and a growing number of the elderly live away from their adult children and grandchildren. She finds that the frequency and quality of interactions vary greatly; a few grandparents rarely see their grandchildren, while others are involved in their lives. Frequent interaction does not necessarily lead to strong bonds between them, however. At times frequent encounters led to a criticism of the grandchildren, but grandparents who were actively engaged with their grandchildren tended to have closer relationships with them. Grandparents had more positive ties with grandchildren if they had taken care of them when they were young, had grandchildren who visited informally rather than only formally on holidays, or traveled with them. However, the grandchildren also reminded the elderly that the world had changed around them. The grandchildren were more materialistic, had different tastes in food, preferred different tv shows, and had different ideas about free time. Nevertheless, the grandchildren were often sources of great pleasure and provided the grandparents with a significant sense of continuity in twenty-first-century Japan.

As life courses have become increasingly diverse, the posthumous trajectories have as well. In postwar Japan, the living family members' ritual Efforts and maintenance of a family grave were essential to ensure the peaceful rest of the deceased. However, Kawano (chapter 13) describes the rise of a new mortuary practice of ash scattering, which enables a deceased-to-be to ensure his or her peaceful rest embraced in nature, rather than having his or her remains interred in a conventional family grave—the ideal destination for the postwar middle class.

In summary, the chapters in this volume collectively reveal the questioning of postwar middle-class ideals and the exploration of new identities as well as some enduring practices and values maintained through people's daily lives during the 2000s. The voices in these pages are diverse in gender, social class, occupations, and generations. It is hoped that through this rich diversity one can glimpse the cultural resources people use as they craft new means to adjust and live in these challenging times.

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