The Erosion of “Husband at Work, Wife at Home”

The idea that the husband should be the breadwinner and the wife the homemaker is not “traditional” in Japan but is of recent vintage, becoming Standardized around 1960 (yamada 2004, 129), following the postwar emergence of “lifetime employment” for white-collar male workers in large companies. The number of full-time housewives (sengyō shufu) peaked in 1975 in Japan (yamada 2001, 160), with increasing numbers of wives in the oil-shock era of the 1970s and thereafter going to work in part-time jobs, both because one income was increasingly difficult to maintain a family on and because of Japan's shift to a service economy, making such jobs increasingly available and desirable for women who sought them (iwakami 2010, 102–103).

However, although increasing numbers of wives went to work in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea that “husbands should work, and wives should take care of the home” remained dominant. According to one set of surveys, in 1979, 72.6 percent of Japanese male and female respondents supported this view, and in 1992, 60.1 percent did; only by 2002 did a plurality forsake this ideal, with 46.9 percent of respondents agreeing and 47 percent disagreeing (yamada 2004, 128). Not surprisingly, men more than women have supported this view: in the 2002 survey, for example, 51.3 percent of men supported it, whereas 43.3 percent of women did. Nonetheless, many women throughout those years did indeed desire to be full-time housewives, who enjoyed significant social respect and who also often felt that their lives were better than those of their husbands, who were chained to their companies (Mathews 1996, 98–103). They benefited from a wider set of social relationships and activities that supported them through various stages of their lives. As one social critic of the early 1990s wrote, “Men's lives in Japan today are confined and regimented by their jobs to an extreme. . . . Today, it is, in a sense, the husbands who are being controlled and the ones to be pitied” (iwao 1993, 15, 7).

That era is largely over. Lifetime employment has frayed in most Japanese companies. One consequence of employment becoming less secure for men is that they are no longer quite so tied to their companies as they once were, and Japanese working hours have gone down as compared to several decades ago (rebick 2006, 89). At the same time, there is the still lagging but nonetheless increasing emergence of women in Japanese corporate life, as well as the somewhat diminishing gender gap between men's and women's average hourly earnings (rebick 2006, 85–86). Just as women have come to play a slowly increasing role in the workplace, so too men are beginning to take a more positive attitude toward engaging in housework and child rearing, even if this is not much apparent in actual practice (nagai 2009; nakatani 2006, 97–99; north 2009).

The extent of this change should not be exaggerated; Japan remains a more Gender-segregated society (“husband at work, wife at home”) than most other developed societies today. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the gender role division of twenty, thirty, and forty years ago is not as accepted today as it once was. The earlier gender ideology of husbands at work, wives at home seems to be giving way to an era of greater personal variation and a greater possibility of husbands and wives being equally involved in work and at home. Among the people i interviewed, this has led to a significant shift in attitudes toward married life and in ideas of what a husband and a wife should be. Even those i interviewed who resisted these new ideas were nonetheless influenced by them, simply because these ideas were around them in the attitudes expressed by family members, co-workers, and the mass media, as well as in government pronouncements and policy toward families (roberts 2002; takeda 2011).

It might be assumed that this shift is an unambiguously good thing: because women and men, wives and husbands, are increasingly freed from having to live in the separate realms of family and work, they can become more equal and can more fully share their lives together. This may be largely true, but among the people i interviewed, those who married under the earlier paradigm of “husband at work, wife at home” and have now been asked to shift the basis of their marriages, the personal and interpersonal strains created by the disconnect between the old expectations and the new ideology have generally not made their marriages happier. This is not simply because the men i interviewed felt resentment toward their more empowered wives. More, it is because these men have found themselves in a new familial world in which playing their stereotypical gender role of breadwinner is no longer enough. The earlier model of being a man has passed them by, and the new model they, and their wives as well, cannot fully grasp.

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