Being a Man in a straitened Japan. The View from twenty years Later

GorDon matHeWS

In 1989–1990, i intensively interviewed fifty Japanese women and men (between the ages of twenty and eighty) from all walks of life in sapporo, Japan, about their lives and their notions of what made life worth living (Mathews 1996). From these interviews, i gathered a clear sense of how the men with whom i spoke derived their feelings of “being a man”; it was not, for most, in having different sexual partners, nor in engaging in daring pursuits beyond work, but simply in working hard to support their families (Mathews 2003). Work consumed the lives of most of the men between twenty-five and sixty. Nonetheless many expressed ambivalence about this—chained to their workplaces, most could neither live for their own personal pursuits, as some men sought to do, nor, more pivotally, for their families. A man living for his family was not a real man, many said or implied, but some longed to do so all the same if only they could.

In 2011, twenty-odd years later, i interviewed once again many of the people i had earlier interviewed; this chapter focuses on men and how they have changed in how they see their lives, as well as on their wives, ex-wives, and widows. Some of the men have retired, an event that has shifted the balance of power between themselves and their wives. Others have divorced, sometimes

60 Dumped by their wives after a history of disharmony. Others have gone from being young and single to middle-aged with children and spouses. In this process, the meaning of being a man has changed for these men, both because of their own aging and because of the aging and changing of Japan. The earlier mode of being a man in Japan, of men living for work in a way by which they both supported and neglected their families, has been eroded. In today's Japan, more tends to be demanded of husbands than their stable financial support— wives seek compatibility and communication. But these may be difficult, especially in marriages formed in an earlier Japanese era; men may contribute to housework and child care somewhat more than in the past, but full communication with one's spouse seems rare. Family, more than before, may indeed have become a major focus of “being a man” for these and other Japanese men, but it is an arena in which men may easily fail, judging from my interviews.

In conducting these reinterviews, i did not initially intend to discuss men and their lives. I focus on changing senses of being a man in this chapter because it seemed apparent from my interviews that the men i reinterviewed had markedly shifted in their attitudes because of changes in Japanese cultural norms. Men have been forced to change more than women, i found, and this is why i have focused on them in this chapter. The discerning reader may rightfully ask whether my small number of interviews is sufficient to make any larger generalizations. I think it is, in that the points i make concerning individuals are echoed in the Japanese-language and english-language social scientific and popular literature (as i discuss), showing that the men i interviewed are illustrations of larger trends. The men and women i discuss portray something beyond their own stories: they reveal the changing nature of what it is to be a man in Japan today.1

History and Life Course

Finding the people i interviewed in sapporo in 1989–1990 was a daunting task during the summer of 2011. I had kept in touch with a dozen of them but not the rest, and many were impossible to find. Of the fifty people i had interviewed, at least eight had died. Others i simply could not find. In Japan, people cannot easily be found through Facebook or Google, both because many Japanese are concerned about privacy, and because many older people in Japan do not use computers. All in all, i managed to reinterview twenty-one of the original fifty people, eleven men and ten women. This is a small number, but this follow-up study is worthwhile because it can serve as a window into changing Japanese concepts of masculinity, providing glimpses of the same people at different points of their lives, and at different points of recent Japanese history.2 the stories i report upon are individual and idiosyncratic, but coupled with statistical and scholarly analyses, they can tell us something about some of the different ways of being a man in Japan today.

In a study of lives over time, there are two intertwining variables, those of history and of life course. Over twenty years, a man's life changes—a twentyfive-year-old's sense of being a man might be based on finding a girlfriend; a forty-five-year-old's might be based on his career accomplishments, on supporting his family through his job, or perhaps on his own dreams still unfulfilled; a sixty-five-year-old's may be based on his being with his wife as never before, or in pride in his grandchildren, or in pursuit of a hobby. These are matters of one's own life course, but they are linked to history.

One pivotal historical change has been Japan's economic decline. Japan has entered a new, more straitened era, it is now universally recognized. In some cases this change has had a direct impact on the men i interviewed: an employee in a large company that went out of business thereafter refused to believe that any job could ever be secure; a designer whose business collapsed in the economic downturn was forced to become a taxi driver to support his family, and it eventually led to his divorce. In other cases, this impact was more indirect. But in all cases, Japan's economic doldrums cast a subtle shadow over these men's lives, not necessarily foreclosing possibilities, but limiting them. To the extent that the sense of being a man may have been based on being able to support one's family, this task has become considerably more difficult. On the other hand, these economic doldrums have led, claimed some of those i interviewed, to a greater array of values in Japan—an expansion of possibilities as to how men, and women as well, might work and live.

Aside from economic changes, there have been other, more particular changes as well, in terms of family and gender roles. One very important such change is that the earlier gender division whereby in middle-class households men worked to support their families and women stayed home to do housework and raise their children, has largely given way. This shift has had a very significant effect on the marriages of the people i interviewed.

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