Japanese Women, Parenting, and Family Life - Papers & Essays



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Japanese Women, Parenting, and Family Life


Japanese women have often been described as strongly committed to the role of housewife and mother. But many of these "good wives and wise mothers" are now postponing marriage and bearing fewer children than ever before. To better understand this phenomenon, this article explores Japanese women's perspectives and experiences of marriage, parenting, and family life. Findings from the author's recent longitudinal study suggest that women are more satisfied with their family life if they have realistic expectations for their own behavior, are supported by their husbands, and have the opportunity to engage in meaningful employment. These results suggest a need for changes in the structure of the workplace and the education system to provide women with the opportunity to find a fulfilling balance of work and family life.

Key words: Japan, marriage, family, childrearing, parenting, mother


Chihiro is an articulate, outgoing Japanese woman who enjoys taking on leadership roles. A mother of two young children, she frequently volunteers to organize PTA events at her children's elementary school, is enrolled in a variety of enrichment activities, and has a part-time job. Yet, in several wide-ranging interviews with my research team, she revealed her deep ambivalence about the role of mother. Describing herself as lacking the temperament and "qualifications" to be a good mother, she admitted that her life as a stay-at-home mother was not fulfilling her intellectual or emotional needs: "Well I think I'm longing for a stimulation that I'm not getting from life now. I want to see the outside world. I feel like there are so many things that I can learn, like going to school, studying, getting a job." But, she believed, the opportunity to engage deeply in a professional career has passed forever. Although her undergraduate teachers had encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree, she chose not to do so, a decision she had come to regret: "So I wonder if I would be leading another life if I had done that. It might be more fun, you know...I think I made a mistake."

Chihiro is just one of many highly educated young women in Japan who are asking questions about the role of wife and mother. Indeed, many are deciding to postpone marriage and childrearing for as long as possible, if not entirely. Over the past 60 years, the birth rate in Japan has dropped from 4.5 to 1.3 and Japan has become one of the least fertile and fastest aging countries in the world. By 2055, economists project that one in four Japanese citizens will be 75 years or older (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2003). This drop will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects on the economy of Japan, and the government is rightly concerned about the future of the country.

Why are so many Japanese women postponing or opting out of family life? While many industrialized countries are experiencing similarly reduced birth rates, the Japanese phenomenon is particularly surprising due to the strong identification that women have had with the role of mother over the past half century. And they have not yet been able to break into the workforce in anywhere near the numbers attained by their counterparts in Western countries. Without attractive alternatives to becoming a mother, it is all the more striking that many are eschewing this role.

Politicians and pundits have developed many theories to explain what is going on, but the surprising fact is that little is known about Japanese women's own perceptions on these issues. In spite of Japanese officials' deep concern about the declining birth rate, they have paid little attention to the viewpoint of the women who are to make these important decisions. And as psychologist Keiko Kashiwagi (1998) has noted, most academic researchers have viewed Japanese women as an "environment" for producing children rather than as individuals whose own beliefs and feelings should be considered apart from their skill in producing high-achieving children.

To address these information gaps, I began a program of research in 2000 to learn how Japanese women perceived the role of mother and to understand more about their daily life experiences. Data from opinion polls and surveys administered at that time suggested that compared to their counterparts in the West and in other Asian countries, Japanese women tend to view child rearing as a difficult job with relatively few emotional rewards. And many Japanese mothers characterized themselves as doing a poor job at parenting and described feeling plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. What is it like for those women who go through daily life perceiving that they are failing at the one role deemed by many to be of utmost importance for women? And - on a more optimistic note -- what are the factors that contribute to the happiness of women who have achieved a degree of satisfaction with their lives? These were the questions that captivated me when I began this research project.


Listening to Women's Voices

In the summer of 2000, three Japanese doctoral students and I interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women. We kept in contact with the women over the next three years, and administered two additional surveys, one when their children were in first grade, and one when they were in second grade.

When we started the project, the average age of the women was 36 years old. All of them had at least one child in the last year of preschool. Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. About 60 percent of the mothers had pursued education after high school, including specialized vocational training, junior college, or university.

From these 116 women, we selected 16 mothers in Osaka to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of them had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. Within each educational group, we chose some women who demonstrated high parenting efficacy on the survey (i.e., who felt confident in teaching, disciplining and interacting with their children), and some who demonstrated low-efficacy beliefs. We conducted four in-depth interviews with each of the 16 mothers between 2000 and 2003.

The most recent product drawing from this data set is a book (Women and Family in Contemporary Japan) published in 2010. In writing this book, I wanted first and foremost to pay attention to the women's own individual experiences. I also wanted to set Japanese women's lives in a more general historical context, focusing particularly on the role of government policies and corporate actions in shaping the opportunities and barriers that women have faced in the modern period. And I was interested in how cultural norms and values - some persistent and some changing -- have interacted with these institutional actors to set the parameters of women's experience.

In this essay, I report some findings from the book, focusing on three factors that characterized the women who felt successful in the role of mother and satisfied with their lives: reasonable standards regarding their own parenting accomplishments, adequate emotional support from their husbands, and opportunity for meaningful employment.


Becoming "My Kind of Mother"

In contemporary Japanese society, mothers are often given very specific advice about how to engage in certain parenting activities. For example, a parenting magazine may offer detailed guidelines about how to enter a playground with one's child in a way that will gain acceptance from other mothers and their children. Although a woman can derive comfort from the idea of conforming to a clear blueprint, the danger is that she will come to believe that any deviation from the blueprint will have disastrous consequences for herself or her children. Indeed, reliance on "how-to" manuals has been linked in Japan to "manual syndrome," in which these guides, with their blend of "performance perfectionism, a curriculum of conformity, and high demands," ultimately erode rather than build confidence as intended (White, 1995, p. 271).

The cultural practice of following an established blueprint is linked to a second practice, that of hansei, or reflecting deeply on one's performance in order to identify and correct weaknesses. As our research team delved into women's thoughts about being a mother, we began to see that some mothers seemed tormented by endless speculation on what they were doing wrong, while others seemed to be able to engage in hansei without becoming overly self-critical and paralyzed with self-doubt.

Miyuki, a mother of three children, provides a good example of someone who was thoughtful but avoided excessive worrying about whether or not she was doing everything well: "I didn't really have the mental energy to think about not being confident. I was just concentrating on being my kind of mother because that's good enough." Miyuki thought that if she avoided comparing herself to others, she would feel more confident: "I think there are many kinds of mothers. I think it's pointless to say that this kind of mother is good or that kind is good. I think that I am myself and I've never thought about imitating other mothers."

Yasuko, another mother of three, believed that it was desirable (and inevitable) for mothers to engage in constructive self-questioning: "There's no such thing as doing something perfectly, so you will question yourself as to whether or not you're raising your children in the right way." However, she believed that mothers could evaluate their actions in a way that did not lead to emotional anxiety and behavioral instability. In our study, women like Miyuki and Yasuko who could forgive themselves for their imperfections were able to make room for an idiosyncratic approach to child rearing that was attuned to their own personal needs and those of their children. These women seemed to have happier and more satisfying lives.


Supportive Husbands: A Rare and Valuable Commodity

While parents - and mothers in particular - receive a lot of criticism in many societies, Japanese women seem to be subjected to an extraordinary degree of excoriation by politicians, media pundits, educators, and physicians. Certainly, it is worth considering whether this critical treatment is one factor contributing to women's discouragement about family life and disinclination to engage in child rearing. Many Japanese people accept the idea that negative evaluation by others can lead one to heightened effort and improved performance; this cultural model may be associated with the notion of "mutual polishing" in the Zen Buddhist tradition (Hori, 1996). In contrast, within Western psychological theory, the assumption is that other people's positive rather than negative judgments give rise to positive self-evaluation, which in turn motivates an individual to persist and do well (Bandura, 1997).

Our research team examined the support and criticism that the participating mothers received from various quarters. We found that husbands were the most crucial actors in this respect. Contrary to the stereotype of Japanese men as unimportant or peripheral family members, the behavior of the husbands in our study - as perceived by their wives -- was strongly related to the women's emotional well-being and sense of child-rearing efficacy. Most of the women did not expect their husbands to participate extensively in housework, but they wanted them to be actively involved with their children. The women also wanted their husbands to provide emotional support, mostly by listening carefully and sympathetically to their worries. To a lesser extent, they expected to benefit from their husbands' suggestions and advice.

Our interview data revealed that many wives felt quite frustrated and angry with their husbands, but there were a few women who were happy with the partnership they had created in their married lives. In general, these couples seem to be pushing toward some new ideas about marriage, moving away from an exclusive focus on economic stability and child rearing and moving toward a goal of emotional interdependence characterized by frequent and intimate communication.

Asako is one of these happily married women. She described herself as an atypical Japanese woman because she was very athletic and committed to the game of soccer. However, she had been fortunate to meet a man who shared her passion for soccer, and their mutual love of sports became a foundation of their marriage. In addition to supporting her involvement in soccer at a semi-professional level, Asako's husband participated actively and willingly in the rearing of their young son, Kaito. Asako jokingly told us that sometimes felt lonely on the weekends "because he takes our son with him wherever he goes!" Attuned to his son's interests and capabilities, Asako's husband tried to find activities that he would enjoy. For example, at a point when Kaito was interested in trains, the pair took train rides around the city for fun, and Kaito learned to identify numbers and characters by reading the train schedules and deciphering the signs posted at each station.

Asako felt more confident than most women about her child-rearing skills, in part because she and her husband discussed how to deal with problems and used teamwork to provide effective discipline. For example, her husband would avoid taking sides when Asako was scolding Kaito so that afterwards he could seek comfort from his father.

In summary, the women we interviewed were not expecting their husbands to spend much time on housework or childrearing. Their low expectations are borne out by survey results comparing Japanese men to men in Western and Asian countries. For example, according to a recent report, men living in Tokyo were reportedly less involved in housework and childcare than were fathers in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei (Benesse, 2006a, 2006b). But they were hoping for their husbands to be involved, communicative, and emotionally supportive. We found little evidence that women were satisfied with a silent, undemonstrative partner.


Staying in the Workplace

The story of women's employment in Japan makes it difficult to feature a positive story without at least prefacing it with some remarks about the challenges. The story of Miyuki illustrates the difficulties that women face in combining work and family life.

When Miyuki was a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a preschool teacher. Over the next ten years, thanks to her hard work and her parents' economic sacrifice, she was able to attend a junior college and receive a teaching certificate. She obtained a job as a teacher and plunged into her work with enthusiasm and dedication. Yet, two short years later, she became engaged and found herself confronted with the prospect of combining career and family life. Her parents believed that she should quit her job, telling her, "You are clumsy. We do not think you can handle both housework and your job." Her fiancée agreed with this assessment, remarking, "New computers can do so many things simultaneously, right? But old ones can handle only one thing at a tie. You are an old computer." Regretfully but convinced that her family members were correct, Miyuki gave up the job. When the youngest of her three children entered elementary school, Miyuki went back on the job market, but learned that the preschools in her area were only employing younger women fresh out of college. She eventually gave up the search for a teaching position and took a part-time job as a cashier at a convenience store.

Miyuki's story is one that is familiar across Japan. In spite of being highly educated, fewer Japanese women remain employed after they have children than do women in other countries, and most who leave the workforce do not return to jobs with comparable status. Japanese corporate policies - including a demand for continuous service and exclusive allegiance from workers - have made it difficult for women to move in and out of full-time work. The failure of the government and corporations to develop family friendly workplace has contributed to a striking drop in women's interest in full-time employment over the last decade, even as their educational attainment continues to rise.

Most of the women in our sample wanted to work at least part-time in order to supplement the family income; in particular they saw their own employment as making it possible to enroll their children in supplementary classes and lessons. Some enjoyed the feeling of independence that came with earning a paycheck, particularly because they no longer had to ask their husbands about personal purchases for themselves or their children. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of working, according to these women, was that it gave them the opportunity to interact with other people and see a bit of the outside world.

Although most women in our study had, like Miyuki, quit their jobs around the time they became engaged, a few were able to overcome these social norms and stay on the job, mostly through sheer force of will. For example, Masayo told us that she had received no encouragement from her parents to pursue an education beyond high school. Her father was a "traditional man" who "said that women need no education" and her mother expected her to "be feminine, help with the housework, and find a husband." Masayo's parents discouraged her from studying hard in high school and would literally turn off the lights when she was trying to do her homework in the evenings.

However, Masayo described herself as an ambitious girl who was determined to pursue her education: "I was a rebel. I had a strong will to go to the university... I felt like, why do I have to lose to men?" She was able to go to college when her father died unexpectedly and she became eligible for tuition assistance from the government. She eventually received a bachelor's degree and teaching certification and took a job as an elementary school teacher.

Although her husband wanted her to quit when they married, she resorted to the indirect strategy of procrastination:

I did not want to resign. Well, I did think about quitting, but I decided to wait to do so until after getting pregnant. Then, after we had a kid, I waited again until the end of my paid maternity leave. So in the end, I just kept on putting off quitting my job. [Laughs.] He [her husband] gave up on that for me.


Lessons Learned

The results of our research suggest that women's effectiveness in the role of mother was only partially a function of their own decisions. Their sense of competence and ability to engage fully and joyfully in parenting were also affected by the support they received from immediate family members and the more distal policies and practices of government and corporate interests. Thus, engaging in a systemic analysis of the institutions and policies that set the conditions surrounding the role of mother is essential to understanding how to support contemporary families.

The insights gleaned from the thoughtful mothers in our study have a number of implications for practitioners in the fields of psychology, social welfare, and education. In recent years, municipal governments in Japan have initiated various types of programs to support mothers but these playgroups and classes tend to promote the notion that child rearing should be "standardized and systematized" (Sasagawa, 2006, p. 142). Taking a top-down approach to teaching a "standard"' way of raising children may create a temporary feeling of security among some mothers but the cost of this expert-driven approach is high. The findings from our research suggest that it would be better to support women's own efforts to articulate what it means to be - as Miyuki said -- "my kind of mother."

A second set of implications concerns the practice and promise of psychotherapy. We noted that many women expressed a considerable amount of anger in talking about (and to) their husbands. While they reported that it was sometimes possible to vent these frustrations in conversations with friends, they often added that it was not always advisable to be candid with friends and that they sometimes experienced feelings of competition or inadequacy. The private and structured opportunity for self-exploration in a therapeutic relationship may offer possibilities for support and growth beyond what is afforded by peer relationships. Individual psychotherapy may help Japanese women find a private solution to their problems and a way to satisfy their deep need to feel cared for as well as to care for others (Borovoy, 2005). Local and national government agencies can work toward funding mental health programs and lessening the stigma of seeking this type of assistance.

A third set of implications pertains to the ways labor policies can be altered to support rather than detract from family life. First, corporate policy should stop making experience within a single firm the main criterion for advancement and remuneration, and it should start acknowledging experience garnered in other workplaces (see Rosenbluth, 2007). These changes will make it easier for women to move in and out of the workplace as their children's needs change over time. Additionally, companies should reduce or eliminate such practices as mandatory overtime, after-hours socializing, frequent job transfers, and pressure not to take vacation days.

The government should step up its enforcement of the Employment Measure Act to discourage firms from discriminating against older workers (Hamaguchi, 2007; Sakuraba, 2007). The government should also continue taking action against companies that fail to offer equitable opportunities and remuneration to males and females. In 1997, progress was made in strengthening the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) to enable parents to petition employers to exempt them from night shifts and to work shorter hours, and by encouraging employers to rehire workers who were attempting to return to work after taking a family-related leave. Further legislation approved in 2001 increased the penalties for companies that retaliate against parents who try to take child-care leave, and contained provisions addressed at fathers as well as mothers, such as a requirement that parents of young children can insist on limiting their overtime to 150 hours a year. However, employer discrimination continues to be directed towards women who get pregnant or take time off to care for their children and, as Schoppa (2007) writes, "the percentage of women in full-time, regular jobs staying in those jobs through marriage and child rearing is actually lower than it was in 1992!" (p. 178, emphasis in original).

In summary, the declining birth rate in Japan can and should be seen as an indicator that social changes are needed to make the role of mother more rewarding to the increasingly well-educated and socially powerful female population in that country. The women in our study expressed a variety of views and articulated diverse goals, but they did convey one clear message - namely, that it is imperative to heed their voices and respect their contribution to the ever-changing discourse about what it means to be a wife and mother in Japan.



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More information about Susan D. Holloway's new book, Women and Family in Contemporary Japan, can be found at the following link: