TOP > Papers & Essays > Parenting > Exploring the Gender Gap: Women Speak Out about Working and Raising Children in Contemporary Japan

Papers & Essays

Exploring the Gender Gap: Women Speak Out about Working and Raising Children in Contemporary Japan

Japanese women tend to be well educated, compared to their counterparts in many other societies. Approximately 50 percent of eligible women pursued a college education in 2000, while 18 percent of women did so in 1970. However, only a third of Japanese women attended a four-year college after graduating from high school in 2000, as compared to half of men. Japanese women are still far more likely than men to attend two-year programs. Furthermore, women and men differ significantly as far as the subjects that they study in college. For example, one third of young women majored in literature and arts at college while less than 10 percent of young men did so. Only 5 percent of females compared to 27 percent of males studied engineering (Inoue & Ehara, 1999).
While the gender gap in four year college attainment has been getting narrower in the past decade, surveys of mothers currently raising young children nevertheless suggest that mothers are not as likely to expect and prepare their daughters for college as they are their sons. A survey conducted in 1997 found that while 74 percent of women expected boys to attend college, only 41 percent of them expected girls to do so (Inoue & Ehara, 1999).
Our research team at UC Berkeley has been studying a group of Japanese mothers and their children for the past few years. We have been conducting surveys and interviews with these women - all of whom had a child in preschool at the beginning of the study - in order to learn more about their beliefs about the role of mother, their sense of self confidence in approaching this role, the ways in which they feel supported or undermined by friends and family, and the actions they are taking to support their children's achievement in school. In this paper, we describe some of our findings about mothers' views on gender, and examine how mothers' expectations and goals for their children's future lives depend on whether their child is a boy or a girl. In particular, we address the following questions:
  1. Do mothers of sons demonstrate different expectations than mothers of daughters toward their young child's educational attainment?
  2. What goals do mothers have for their children's future life? Do these goals differ depending on the gender of the child?
  3. What values and beliefs do mothers hold about men and women's professional and family lives?
  4. Are mothers more likely to enroll sons in juku [cram school] than daughters?

Research Methods

We started this project in 2000, when we interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women, all of whom had at least one child in the last year of preschool (youchien). Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. We gave a second survey to the same women in 2001 when their children were in the first grade and a third survey in 2003 when the children were in second grade. (Technical information about the survey data can be found in the references cited at the end of this article.)
The education background of the women in our sample was similar to that of the women in the national population. Slightly more than half of the participants in our project had attained a high school degree or a vocational degree, one third had attended a two year college, and the rest had completed four or more years of college. One quarter had a family income of 5,000,000 yen or less per year, 39% had an income of 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 yen, and another 36% had an income of 7,000,000 yen or more.
We also selected 16 mothers to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of these women had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. A total of four interviews were conducted with the 16 mothers over a three year period between 2000 and 2003. In order to foster a trusting relationship and candid conversation, the interviews were conducted in a relaxed manner at the participant's home. The interviews were conducted by Yoko Yamamoto and Sawako Suzuki; both women are native speakers of Japanese. Questions were open-ended and the conversations ranged from 90 minutes to 3 hours. All interviews were tape-recorded, and were transcribed in Japanese. English translations were prepared for use by non-Japanese speakers.
In this essay, we take a look at the following information collected in the 2003 survey when the children were in the second grade: mothers' beliefs about the appropriate roles (work and parenting) for men and women and their satisfaction with the role of mother; mothers' expectations for their children's achievement in school; mothers' values about what they want for their children when they grow up; and whether or not mothers sign their children up for juku. We use anecdotes from the open-ended interviews to illustrate the findings from the survey.

Mothers' Views About Appropriate Roles for Men and Women

We asked mothers a series of questions about the appropriate role of men and women as breadwinners and parents. We found that most mothers believed that men should be involved in child rearing and family life, as well as working outside the home. For example, only 18% of mothers disagreed with the statement "Men should balance work and childrearing," while 21% expressed no strong opinion one way or the other, and 61% agreed with the statement. But our participants emphasized the importance of the mother as the primary caregiver, especially when the child is young. Fully 78% agreed that "Women should prioritize childrearing over work." They also emphasized the importance of mothers' influence on the young child: 85% agreed that "the mother determines the child's future." These findings clearly demonstrate the very strong emphasis that these mothers placed upon the role of mother.
Most of our participants expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the role of mother. Half of them (51%) said that they felt somewhat or very satisfied as mothers, while 15% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 17% were somewhat or very dissatisfied. They expressed somewhat less satisfaction with the role of wife: 46% were somewhat or very satisfied, while 31% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 23% were somewhat or very dissatisfied. Given how strongly they feel about the importance of the maternal role in child rearing, and the satisfaction that they feel as mothers, it does not seem likely that these mothers would be motivated to break with tradition in the way they raise their sons and daughters. In the next section, we examine what their hopes and dreams are for their children's future.

Mothers' Aspirations Concerning Their Children's Education

The mothers in our sample held varied expectations concerning the level of education that they would consider acceptable for their child to attain. Forty seven percent stated that the least acceptable level of education would be high school or vocational school. The rest would not be satisfied unless their children went to college. As Figure 1 illustrates, mothers of girls were likely to have lower aspirations than mothers of boys. More highly educated mothers were more likely to have higher aspirations than those with less education.

Figure 1

Note: 1= high school or less, 2=vocational school or junior college, 3=four-year college

Our interview data provide some interesting insights into why mothers of daughters were less likely to expect them to go to college. First of all, it is interesting to note that the mothers were conscious of setting different standards for boys than for girls. For example, here are the ideas of Yasuko, a high school graduate with one son and two daughters:
    I am not pushy about studying with my daughters. Only if they like, they should go for it. I don't expect high education for my daughters. People say men and women are equal, but I think that there are roles for men and women. I expect boys to see and think more than girls. I have some educational expectations for my son. But I don't want to force my daughters to study. I may have old-fashioned ideas, but I believe this way.
The mothers who aspired for their daughters to attend college did not necessarily foresee college education as a tool for their daughters' future career. For example, Chihiro, a college graduate, stated that college experiences would give her daughter "opportunities to meet various types of people and to make life-long friends." Chihiro also said:
    I don't want my daughter to live by herself and go to college. My son, well, boys need to move out. They need experiences. As a parent, it's scary, but...even if they have to eat only miso and tofu, that's fine. Boys need that kind of hardship. Girls don't have to go through that. They will probably have a family, and they can do their best (ganbaru) for their husbands and kids.
Some mothers expressed the view that their daughters' chances of being happily married could be damaged if they received advanced education. Mothers mentioned that being kind (yasashii) and cute (kawaii) are important characteristics for girls to develop; these characteristics were viewed as unrelated to (or negatively related to) being intelligent or highly educated. For example, Miyuki, a high-school graduate, stated that, "the less smart girls are, the cuter they are," and the greater their chance of being married. For boys, as we saw in the quote from Chihiro, gaining some independence and going through a period of becoming more strong and resilient, was considered important.

Mothers' Expectations for Children's Future Lives

We were interested in exploring mothers' aspirations for their children in a broader sense, moving beyond their views about education. We asked mothers to think about the future of their second grade child and indicate the importance of each of the following objectives: contributing to society, having a happy family life, attaining financial stability, developing expertise, having a rewarding occupation, finding a distinctive life style, and being active internationally.
Overall, mothers placed the most importance on having a happy family life, followed by attaining financial stability and finding a rewarding occupation (Figure 2). As Figure 2 indicates, mothers of boys and mothers of girls ranked the various objectives in a similar order. We found a significant difference in the ratings on only one of the items: mothers of girls were less likely to place importance on having a rewarding occupation than were mothers of boys. There were no gender differences regarding the other values.

Figure 2

Note: 1=contribute to society, 2=happy family life, 3=financial stability, 
4=develop expertise, 5=rewarding occupation, 6=unique way of life 
7=active internationally

When we compared mothers with a college education and those with a high school diploma or vocational certificate, the less educated mothers were less likely to place importance on developing expertise. The more educated mothers seem to expect that their children will eventually take on professional jobs that require specialized training. The only item that differed depending on income was the one pertaining to developing an active international presence; it makes sense that mothers with more resources can more easily imagine their children traveling or developing international contacts.
Given that mothers had different educational and professional aspirations for sons than for daughters, we were interested to find out whether mothers were more likely to enroll their sons in some sort of academic preparation outside of their elementary school classes. As we have seen, the mothers of sons had higher educational aspirations and placed more importance on their professional development; we thought they may be more likely to spend resources on extra academic classes even when their children were only in the third grade.
We asked mothers whether or not their children attended academic lessons or classes (juku); in this analysis we are not focusing on children's enrollment in enrichment activities such as music lessons. We found that 17% of the children were currently attending juku. We did not find gender differences in attendance rates; boys and girls were equally likely to attend juku. Highly educated mothers were more likely than less educated mothers to send their children to juku. Family income was also associated with the likelihood of attending juku.
We suspect that in the middle school years, when preparation for high school entrance examinations becomes more intense, the gender difference in juku attendance may widen. But in early elementary, the main factors determining attendance appear to be mothers' education and income.

Reiko: A Woman Challenging the Status Quo

While the majority of women in our sample expressed views that appear to endorse traditional gender roles, a small group was challenging those norms. They were seeking new ways to combine motherhood and employment, and they were questioning conventional ideas about how boys and girls should be raised. We briefly present a case study of one such woman, Reiko. We want to give a sense of what her views are about being a mother, and to describe the events that led to her decisions about employment and family life and the obstacles she faces in living her life in a way that deviates somewhat from the accepted norms for contemporary Japanese women. Reiko graduated from a two year college. She is the mother of a son and a daughter. In one interview, she described herself as an "ordinary" person who did not think much about her career when she was a high school student:
    I wasn't really interested in studying, but everyone was going to two-year colleges and I also wanted to play around rather than getting a job...I thought I would just become and "OL" [office lady] if I couldn't get a job I wanted to do. And, well, my parents were thinking I would find someone to marry. And I felt I would have to do that.
After a brief period of employment, Reiko married at age 25 and had two children. Following the birth of her daughter, she began feeling as though she should return to the workplace. Her family needed the money, and she also felt isolated and somewhat bored with life as a full time housewife. She reports that she felt guilty because "I had been told that once you become a parent, it is the mother's job to raise a child until he becomes an adult." But she also recognized that she was taking out her feelings of stress on her children and husband. In spite of strong objections from her mother and her husband, she decided to find a job. She made sure to take a part-time position with flexible work hours that enabled her to be home when her children got out of school, and that gave her time to keep up the housework, conditions her husband had imposed prior to giving her permission to work.
In the ensuing years, Reiko began to feel successful in the job. These experiences made a difference in how confident she felt as a person:
    Since this job is a job where you interact and converse with others, you must be able to communicate with others, and in that kind of environment, well, you can't just think of what other people would think of you, but rather you must think of...others first. To be a person who can have a good influence on others, it is necessary to have a strong sense of the self.
She also expressed her conviction that the confidence gained through her work experience has made her a stronger, more consistent disciplinarian with her children: "Well, the way I used to scold my children was kind of the kids only understood vaguely that I was upset about something. But now, I don't withdraw; I make sure and tell them what I need to say." In her view, in addition to the financial benefits that her work brings the family, she is now able to expose her children to ideas and experiences that she has attained through her work.
Unlike some of the other mothers in our sample, Reiko does not see a big difference between her daughter and her son in terms of the family and job responsibilities they will face in the future. She reported that she is teaching her son to pick up after himself, and claims he already does more than her husband around the house. She expressed her strong opinion that her children's future should not depend on their gender and emphasized that career and lifestyle choices should be available to her daughter as well as to her son:
    I do not think that [my daughter's] educational background depends on her gender. I think it depends on her. Yet, children do not know about the possible choices yet. I can show them that there are a lot of choices.


We found that Japanese mothers tend to hold lower educational and professional aspirations for girls than for boys. The lower educational aspirations are particularly common among less educated mothers. While educational attainment is a valued ideal for some mothers, it is not universally held, nor is it applied equally to boys and girls. Mothers' comments in our interviews suggested that their beliefs about their children's future are strongly intertwined with the cultural and social expectations toward women in Japan. Our interviews provided a textured view of their reasoning, and helped convince us that the lower aspirations were not merely an attempt to display the cultural convention of modesty.
One reason that mothers are not as likely to expect their daughters to pursue a four year degree is that they expect their daughters will focus in the future on child rearing rather than having a professional career. At the present time, even though increasing numbers of Japanese women are entering the workplace, they are less likely than women in other developed nations to continue to work full time after having children (Ogasawara, 2001), whether or not they are college educated (Moriyama, 2000). Our findings are consistent with other surveys finding that few Japanese believe that placing priority on work is a desirable life-style for women, while many believe it is so for men (The Ministry of Health, 1998).
And, finally, our data reveal that a substantial subgroup of women in Japan believe that women's opportunities should be expanded to include the possibility of pursuing both motherhood and employment. They are not only demanding that choice for themselves, but trying to ensure that their children are raised in a way that de-emphasizes gender roles and emphasizes the potential of the individual.


Note: Portions of this essay were presented in a paper titled "Perpetuating the Role or Creating Individuality? The Upbringing of Japanese Daughters," by Y. Yamamoto, S. Holloway, and S. Suzuki at the 98th meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, GA, August, 2003.
  • Inoue, T., & Ehara, Y. (1999). Jyosei no bukku. Tokyo: Yuhikaku.
  • Moriyama, K. (Ed.) (2000). Nihon no shisutemu: kazoku. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press.
  • Ogasawara, Y. (2001). Women's solidarity: Company policies and Japanese office ladies. In M, Brinton. (Ed.), Women's working lives in east Asia (pp. 151-179). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Ministry of Health (1998). [Online]. Shoshika shakaiwo kangaeru [Thinking about a society with decreasing birth rate]. Heisei 10 nen kosei hakusho [The 1998 report of the Ministry of Health]. Retrieved February 22, 2002 from: (In Japanese)
Selected References to the Research Project
  • Holloway, S. D., Suzuki, S., Yamamoto, Y., & Behrens, K. (in press). Parenting self-efficacy among Japanese mothers. Journal of Comparative Family Studies.
  • Suzuki, S., Holloway, S. D., Yamamoto, Y., & Mindnich, J. D. (under review). Parenting self-efficacy and social support: A cross-cultural comparison of Japan and the United States.
  • Yamamoto, Y., Holloway, S. D., & Suzuki, S. (August, 2003). "Perpetuating the Role or Creating Individuality? The Upbringing of Japanese Daughters." Paper presented at the 98th meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, GA.
Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


About CRN

About Child Science


CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia

Japan Today

Honorary Director's Blog