issue 231 - May 1992
Ryuko Kubota confronts the dilemma facing
working women in Japan - a family or a career.
Mrs Sekiya is a Japanese Sengyo-shuffi, a full-time 'housewife'. When I was giving her daughters tuition in English in the evenings I seldom saw her husband. He works for a leading company and usually comes home after midnight, leaves for work early in the morning, goes out to work on Saturdays and sleeps 'till afternoon on Sundays. He does little house-work and spends little time with his family.
Mrs Sekiya's arrangement is found in many Japanese homes. The long working hours expected of male workers leave married women few options for sharing housework and childrearing or being able to contemplate work outside the home. The male work ethic is neatly complemented by the domestic role demanded of women.
There are also Kengyo-shufu, housewives who are part-time workers; My aunt Keiko, who used to be a kindergarten teacher before she married a company employee, now has two children who go to university. She started doing manual work for a small firm a few years ago. She wants to earn money to help pay off housing loans and to help her children with their fees.
But if at first sight the role of Kengyo-shufu seems relatively liberating, in practice it is not. Like my aunt Keiko, such women have often finished taking care of their young children. But they are still expected to be in charge of household duties. From the point of view of employers they compensate for the shortage of manual labour by working for low wages with few benefits and little job security. The Kengyo-shufu neatly combines capitalist interests with patriarchal expectations about household duties.
More and more women are indeed getting higher degrees, full-time jobs in once male-dominated fields and leadership positions at work. Yet there are obstacles before a career-seeking woman in Japan, and they are the product of patriarchal values and the Japanese work environment. Such obstacles leave many women feeling they have little choice but to become housewives.
Women are now expected to work as hard as men. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law, in effect since 1986, abolishes the prohibition of women's late-night labour and the limitation on extra work, forcing female workers to accept a workload as heavy as that of their male colleagues.
Without a reduction in male working hours, a better day-care system and equal sharing of housework with husbands, women are forced to choose: stay single and work as hard as men, or get married and depend completely on your husband's income, with maybe a little insecure part-time labour on the side. More and more women choose to stay single. Some Japanese farmers and small businessmen are now arranging marriages with women from other Asian countries, because of the unwillingness of Japanese women to take on the workload marriages to such men imply.
My experience as a teacher at a public junior high school in a rural area was far from free of gender prejudice, though equality is theoretically guaranteed to public servants. One instance comes to mind vividly. The vice-principal asked all the female faculty at the beginning of a school year to 'take turns to make tea for teachers before school starts'. We were appalled and simply ignored his request.
For some Japanese women being good wives and wise mothers - a highly venerated role - is enough. It gives them rewards and certain privileges. These come, however, from the choices imposed on women by the legal and economic system. They can choose to work as intensely as men, but that choice almost automatically excludes the possibility of having a family.
So the task of increasing Japanese women's participation may be as much a question of reducing men's working hours and getting them to share household and child-rearing responsibilities as of achieving more equal opportunities at work.
Ryuko Kubota is a university teacher in Monterey, California.