From Breadwinner to Communicator

Twenty years ago, a salaryman i interviewed said, “as for my marriage . . . I guess for each of us the other is like air”—that is, necessary but easy to take for granted (Mathews 1996, 59). Several of the wives i interviewed only half jokingly referred to the saying Teishu wa jōbu de rusu ga ii (it's good when the husband is healthy and absent). In these marriages, the separate roles of husband and wife were paramount: if the husband was off at work and reliably bringing home his paycheck to support his family, that was quite sufficient.

There are still marriages like this, but typically now more is required of a husband—not just his financial contribution to the family and marriage but An emotional contribution. A housewife in her seventies who jokingly but approvingly uttered the above saying to me twenty years ago today had a more critical attitude toward her retired husband: “He recently asked me whether if there were reincarnation, i would want to be with him again; i told him no. The way he treated me in our marriage was just too inconsiderate [omoiyari ga nakatta]. When his parents moved in with us, he didn't even ask me if it was OK; we never discussed it. No, i wouldn't want to be reborn with him.”3 Her husband could only joke about his wife's discontent and didn't fully seem to understand it. All his working life as a teacher, his family life was secondary to his career, a priority that he took for granted as how a man was supposed to live in supporting his family (see Hidaka 2011). As he told me in 1989, “in my house, my wife was like a widow; i was busy, even on sundays, with my school clubs. So now, if i'm not home, everyone feels more relaxed” (Mathews 2003, 111). Since his career ended, he has apparently paid the price for this earlier emotional neglect toward his family in his wife's attitude toward him. Their relationship is better than in the past, she told me, but she cannot forgive him for his past mistreatment.

Twenty years ago, i interviewed a young woman of twenty-two who had dreams of traveling the world and becoming a novelist and poet (although even then she knew that those dreams would probably never be realized). She said then, in response to my question, “if i married a fairly good man and had two kids, working at the same government job i have now, would i be disappointed? Yes, i'd be disappointed!” Today this is exactly the situation in which she finds herself. “My life is good—i'm 90 percent satisfied—but i'm not completely happy.” She makes more money than her husband. Her husband, a computer programmer whom she married in 2003, does fully half of the housework and child care, they both agreed when i asked them. Her husband joined the interview halfway through, having listened in from another room, and said to his wife, “so you wonder how we got here, in an ordinary family with two children, and why you're not completely happy? Sometimes i wonder too how i've gotten here and why i'm not completely happy.” His wife looked at him in amazement and said, “you've never told me that before!” It took my presence to finally get them to talk, she told me later. His sense of being a man, he said, was very much linked to the success of his marriage and family, but communication with his wife seemed, given all the complications and harassments of everyday life, to be difficult. Unlike the older couple described above, this man and his wife never held to the idea of “husband at work, wife at home”; rather, both of them had aspired to a different kind of life than the conventional middle-class life they Were now leading. Their difficulties lay in their inability to communicate about these aspirations and other matters deep in their hearts. But this difficulty too was related to changing conceptions of marriage and of what a man should be: if marriage has become based on communication, then a failure in communication may be seen as a failure of marriage. My interviewee, in her claim to be only 90 percent satisfied, seems a far cry from some Japanese women of earlier generations, for whom long-term endurance over decades of marriage was often called for (see the Japanese women depicted by Plath 1980). This difference marks how much marriage may have changed in Japan.

A corporate executive in her fifties said, “i don't know anyone who is happily married.” She herself was newly married when i interviewed her twenty years ago, although she spoke little about her husband in our interviews. Now she has been divorced for twelve years from a husband she says didn't understand her (and who also made less money than she did). But why are the marriages i saw so often unhappy? This factor may be partly the result of my interview sample. The people who wanted to talk about their lives in such depth twenty years ago may have been more reflective and more prone to discontent than many of their fellow Japanese; that so many have been divorced or have less than satisfactory marriages twenty years later may reflect this fact. However, the unhappiness of many of my interviewees may also be due to greater demands on what marriage should be today as opposed to decades ago: playing a role is no longer enough. This apparent shift in the meanings of marriage has made the relationships of those who married with different expectations less fulfilling.

As one older salaryman i interviewed exclaimed, “[now] you can't only make money for your wife and kids. You have to communicate too!” This echoes yamada's key point (2001, 194): whereas in marriages of an earlier era, playing one's assigned role of breadwinner or homemaker was sufficient, in recent years more has become required—communication and emotional intimacy.4 as nakano puts it, there has been “a shift in understandings of marriage, from the idea that marriage involves social duty and the fulfillment of social roles, to the companionate model in which love, individual choice, and companionship form the basis of marriage” (2011, 135). As long as the basis for marital harmony was the husband's bringing home a secure income and no more than that, then Japanese familial stability was largely assured since this was a straightforward task to fulfill. Husband and wife had their separate spheres in life; heart-to-heart communication was largely beside the point. However, once these separate roles broke down—once “husband at Work, wife at home” lost its ideological centrality—then the basis for marriage could no longer be practical but instead became emotional. Once women had opportunities to make almost as much money as men could, there was no longer any reason for them to remain in a marriage that was not emotionally fulfilling. However, for men raised in an earlier, breadwinner-oriented era of masculinity, the new demands for housework, communication, and emotional support may seem impossible to fulfill.

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