Japan continues to face demographic issues of declining fertility rates and an aging population, as a result the government has implemented strategies to ease the decline with the overall goal of increasing the fertility rate and women’s participation in the workforce. One big factor influencing demographic problems is the state of contemporary Japanese families and the strict societal expectations for each gender in the household and workplace. To address the issue directly, the government has been targeting Japanese men and women and the societal roles they hold both at home and in the office. I argue that the changes addressing work-life balance can be improved but are ultimately good for Japanese middle-class families because they address normalized, yet confining gender roles that have forced both men and women to choose between work and family.
Before diving into the government’s policies towards the role of men and women, we need to first look at the traditional gender roles that are still prevalent in modern day Japan, and please note that I focus mainly on middle-class families. Generally, in a middle class Japanese family, the man is expected to take on the role of the daikokubashira, which literally means the “central supporting pillar of a house”, and is refers to “the male breadwinner ‘supporting’ the household” (as cited in Dasgupta, 2005, p. 168). On the other hand, women are often times expected to be sengyō shufu, or full-time housewives, who are in charge of all household duties including family finances, maintaining the house, and childrearing (Dasgupta, 2005, p. 172). Because these societal expectations create such a strict division between men and women, painting the man as the sole supporter and the woman as the dependent, men in particular are under extremely high pressure to devote basically all their time to work in order to completely support their family. As a result, the idealized career path for men is the route of the salaryman, which provides men with a steady salary, and also “permanent lifetime employment, seniority-based promotions, and company unionism” (as cited in Charlebois, 2014, p. 2). However, this trend has decreased noticeably due to Japan’s economic recession and changing attitudes. Nevertheless, many employers and older employees still expect “absolute loyalty, diligence, steadfast dedication, and self-sacrifice” to and for the company (Charlebois, 2014, p. 2). This expectation of extreme devotion to work makes it very hard for men to even consider juggling fatherhood and employment. Not to mention, these same strict expectations of workers creates a gendered divide in work and actually bar women from joining the workforce in the same capacity as men. So even if women wish to leave their role as housewife and dependent, the structural aspects of work life in Japan make it very difficult and generally push women to opt out of the workforce.
In an article discussing mens’ roles, Gordon Mathews looks into the Japanese term ikigai which means ‘that which most makes life worth living’ (as cited in Mathews, 2003, p. 109). He notes that in the past, many men saw their ikigai as work mostly because of their role as the daikokubashira, and their intense devotion to work was meant to convey their dedication and care for their families. In a news article, 41-year old father Akiyama, reflected on his own relationship with his family and stated “I was surprised when my wife handed me divorce papers…At the time, I thought my dedication to work was proof of dedication to my family” (Osumi, 2018). Akiyama’s perspective conveys the discrepancy between what dedication to family looks like to men and what it means to women. Japanese women are increasingly experiencing a dissatisfaction with their marriages relating to an increased desire for a husband who is more involved with family matters and duties. Fortunately, more men do actually want to place their family as their ikigai and be included in childrearing, but despite their desire to live for their families, “the weight of work in their lives make an ikigai beyond work difficult to pursue” (Mathews, 2003, p. 109).
This sentiment of weighty work taking away time for personal or family life, is likewise applicable to women. While men are expected to be ideal workers who show full commitment to work at the expense of family, women who choose to enter the work pool are expected to be equally ideal workers on top of maintaining their role as caretaker (Nemoto, 2013, p. 513). In her article on the corporate divide in Japan, Nemoto argues that the unreasonably long working hours expected of employees bolsters workplace masculinity, reinforces the belief in a gendered devision and legitimizes gender barriers in Japanese corporations. Those who do not or cannot show complete devotion to work through accepting long working hours or those who are primarily seen as caretakers (primarily women), are negatively affected through workplace stereotyping that views these people as incompetent and uncommitted (Nemoto, 2013, p. 514). In addition, family-oriented views in the office are often interpreted as a “withdrawal form the competition for power” and can lead to workers being removed from decision-making positions and promotion penalties, and this applies to both men and women (Nemoto, 2013, p. 514). Yet women who choose to pursue the masculine career path are often seen as having lost their femininity and are scrutinized for that as well. As a result, expectations from employers and colleagues ultimately force women to choose between adapting to workplace masculinity or opting out of the workforce entirely and pursuing family life instead (Nemoto, 2013, p. 513).
In 1985, the government actually proposed an Equal Employment Opportunity Law but until its revision in 1997, it did not actually prohibit discrimination based on gender in the workplace, it simply required companies to make a “good-faith effort” (as cited in Nemoto, 2013, p.516). The 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society stressed the government and citizens’ responsibilities to pursue a gender-equal society where everyone has “equal opportunities to participate in social activities without being constrained by the stereotyped notion of men at work and women at home” (as cited in Yamamoto & Ran, 2014, p.921). The goal was to encourage women to join the work pool and as a result, hopefully even out the responsibility of “breadwinner”. If men and women could both contribute to the household income, there would be less stress on fathers to work endlessly and less need for mothers to take care of children alone. Ideally, more women in the workplace would lead to more fluidity in work and family roles for both parents. Fathers could have more of an option to help out in childrearing and mothers could have the opportunity to pursue a career instead of being cornered into choosing between work and family. This could ultimately encourage couples to consider having a family and raising children. However, it is important to note that despite what may appear to be a step forward, since the 1970s, the government been providing tax and pension benefits to families where the man is the main breadwinner and the woman remains as a caretaker working, at most, only part time (as cited in Nemoto; Fuwa; Ishiguro, 2013). This therefore undercuts the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and perpetuates and encourages men and women to pursue traditional gender roles at home. Even so, I still believe the Equal Employment Opportunity Law is at least a step in the right direction and should not be entirely discredited, especially since “55.1% of the public expressed disagreement on a conventional gender-based division of labor that men work outside and women care for the home and family” which has increased from 37.8% in 1997 (Yamamoto & Ran, 2014, p. 921). Hopefully, it is simply a matter of time before the tax and pension policy gets amended.
Another relevant law regarding work-life balance is the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law. The law provides both parents the right to take one year off, and can be paid 40% of previous earnings. It also limits overtime work and late night work for parents who are looking after pre-school-age children (Nemoto, 2013, p. 516). The law also requires employers to allow “flexitime” work, which says employees must work between 10:00am and 3:00pm but can choose to work the additional three hours either before 10:00am or after 3:00pm (Ishii-Kuntz, 2003, p. 208). However, even with the help of these laws which aim to allow parents to take more time off for child care, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported that still only 3% of men take advantage of their paternity leave (Shoji, 2018). On top of this, in a survey of working men, only 69% actually knew of the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law (Shoji, 2018). So why exactly is it that still so few men take advantage of paternity leave? The Cabinet Office’s 2006 White Paper on the National Lifestyle showed “36.0 percent of surveyed men — with and without children — said they would take parental leave if possible but that doing so was ‘unrealistic’” (Kamiya, 2007).
Fathers who engage in childrearing, referred to as ikumen, are very often heavily stigmatized against and criticized in the workplace. Child care is considered specifically womens job and the workplace is seen as only for men; so the mixing of the two in the form of ikumen is very unacceptable to many. A survey released by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation showed “more than 1 in 10 working men have experienced ‘paternity harassment,’ in which they have been barred from taking child care leave or subjected to harassment for even applying” (Otake, 2014). Some companies even go so far as to reduce salaries when workers take parental leave (Nemoto, 2013, p. 522). Furthermore, 5.5% of men who had requested leave had their request rejected, 3.8% were explicitly told by their boss or manager that taking child care leave would negatively affect their career and 65.5% stated that they simply gave up on taking leave without consulting anyone (Otake, 2014). This shows that, even though the government is encouraging more family-friendly work environments, in reality the workplace is very different and still hinders fathers from being involved at home and with children. An important note is that, a part of the revised Child Care and Family Care Leave Law actually plans to create a system to quickly settle any workplace disputes regarding parental leave and also a system to “publish the names of violators of the law” as a means of holding employers accountable (Japan, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare). So, while there are still workplace and societal barriers for fathers, the government and advocacy groups are slowly working to improve the situation for fathers and promote more male involvement at home.
The government’s implementation of laws to give men and women more flexibility with work and more time at home is helping to address the country’s long standing restrictive gender roles and is slowly trying to open opportunities for couples to consider both pursuing a career and raising a family at the same time. Japan’s strict gender roles determine how both men and women function in the workplace and at home, and if these traditional roles continue, Japan will not be able to pull itself out of its continued demographic crisis. The government has recognized this and is slowly working to ease work obligations for its people and is attempting to dismantle the gender stereotypes that shape workplace culture. This encourages men’s participation in housework and childrearing and at the same time encourages women to join the workforce and raise children. Easing work expectations and childcare pressures will ultimately make raising a family less stressful for both men and women in the long run.