The New Lifestyles of Japanese Women

Sumiko Iwao, Ph.D.

(This is the transcript of a speech delivered in Lima, Peru in September 1996.)

Today I would like to talk to you about the areas of Japanese life that are changing the most, namely those centering on Japanese women and the family. This includes the problems related to our rapidly aging population and the decline in the birthrate. I also want to touch on the shift in values that occurred following the bursting of the economic bubble in Japan.

Perhaps the two most significant changes in the life cycle of Japanese women since the end of World War II are the extension of their average life-span and the drastic decrease in the average number of children they bear.

In 1935 the average life-span for women in Japan was just short of 50 years; in 1985 it had skyrocketed to 80 years and reached a record high of 82 years in 1994 (in that year the life-span for men reached 76 years). It has become a serious concern for Japanese women how to fill their extended life with meaning, especially those 30 years they now have after their children leave home.

The decrease in the number of children born to Japanese women can be traced to the widespread practice of birth control and the legality of abortion for economic reasons.

Later marriages and more divorces

The significance of marriage has also changed for women. Economic factors such as rising income levels and the shift to an industrial economy which opened many new employment opportunities for female workers, have made it much easier for women to make a life for themselves outside the framework of marriage. Marriage used to be a necessity for women to survive but today it has clearly become an option, and the individual has the freedom to choose whether to marry or remain single.

The overwhelming majority of women in Japan do want to marry. Recent opinion surveys indicate that only a very small number, 6%, are determined to remain single all their lives. But since single women can get just about everything they desire, including sex, without marrying, they are delaying marriage.

In the last 40 years, the average age at which people married for the first time rose steadily, from 26 to 28 years for men and from 23 to 26 for women. This is a national average; in Tokyo, marriage comes even later on average, at 29.2 years for men and almost 27 years for women.

The trend among women to wed later is closely related to education. The more education a woman has received, the more likely she is to delay marriage. For women in the 25 to 29 year old age bracket, 40% are single. However, of the university graduates in this same age bracket, 54% are single. Of the women in this age bracket with no more than a high school education, only 25% have remained single.

Table 1 (Higher Education Entry Rates)

When women wed later in life, it follows that marriage is delayed for men as well. In the case of men, however, the phenomenon is more often referred to as the problem of finding a mate. For while the rapidly rising education levels and the improvement in employment opportunities are the main factors behind a women's tendency to marry later, the social situation for men has changed very little in the past 20 years. Whereas for women marrying late is essentially a matter of choice, for men it is more a reflection of a women's reluctance than a situation of their own making.

Japanese women, more highly educated and more financially independent than ever before, are also seeking new demands from the relationship with their husbands. They desire to maintain their freedom and autonomy even after wedlock. This, combined with the extended life expectancy, has seen the divorce rate begin to rise in Japan. This trend shows that women are less willing to put up with a marriage they find intolerable.

The divorce rate remains considerably lower than in other advanced industrial countries. In 1992 Japan had 1.4 divorces per 1,000 versus 4.8 in the United States. JapanOs numbers are rising, however, and the younger generation has an increasingly tolerant view of divorce.

Even the rate of divorce in couples that have been married for more than 15 years is on the rise. This is in part a product of the tradition in older couples for the husband and wife to form two, separate social worlds. For this generation, the man usually leaves management of the home and education of the children in the wife's hands. She also controls the family finances. The man toils long and hard at the office. His detachment from household affairs has the effect of making the wife psychologically independent. Divorces among couples aged 45 and older are a new phenomenon in Japan and I think they reflect the pragmatic thinking of Japanese women.

According to the White Paper on Leisure Activities which came out recently, 52.2% of male respondents of a survey claimed that they never participate in household chores. Men in their 30s showed the highest participation rate at 57.2% and the chore they do most is "take out the garbage," leaving the bulk of household chores and childcare as well as elderly care upon the shoulders of women. The burden of household chores also serves to discourage women from giving birth.

As a married woman gains working experience and watches her children become independent, it may dawn on her that she too possesses the resources to live independently. She may then begin to entertain doubts about the necessity of staying married to a largely absent husband who makes no effort to communicate with her. She imagines that once he retires and is around the house all day, he will do little more than sit back and give orders, and she will lose whatever freedom and autonomy she has. Incidentally, Japanese women have called the "useless" retired husband nure ochiba, meaning wet fallen leaf, an expression that evokes an image of a busy wife trying to brush her bothersome husband away, only to have him cling to her broom.

Instead of trying to brush away her useless husband, some women conclude that once the children have left the nest, its time for them to set out on their own as well.

Emotionally, these women are quite ready for independent life. Throughout 20 or 30 years of marriage to a man who rarely offered a word of counsel or endearment, these women have learned to make their own decisions and to act on their own initiative. However, divorce does come with sacrifice. They will be forced to work to support themselves, robbing them of some of their social and economic freedoms.

Causes and effects of the declining birthrate

Not only are women marrying later, but when they do marry they are having fewer children. In the early postwar years, the average Japanese woman gave birth to four children. By 1989 the number of births per woman had plummeted to 1.57. That set off a virtual panic among the male political leaders. Serious attention was focussed on the declining birthrate yet the average has continued to fall, reaching 1.43 in 1995.

Figure1 (Number of Children Born per Woman)

Women also do not see the decline in new babies as a positive development. In a survey of women aged 50 or under conducted in 1990, about 70% of the respondents voiced concern about the decrease in the number of children, including 10% who said they were extremely worried. They are very suspicious, however, of direct government involvement in this area. According to the same survey, only 17% supported the idea of active public policy measures to increase birth, and some 80% opposed having the government orchestrate a pro-baby campaign.

So how many children would Japanese women ideally like to have? A survey conducted by the Health and Welfare Ministry in 1992 found that women thought an average of 2.64 children would make the perfect family. The same survey found that although 2.64 children would be perfect, Japanese woman planned to have an average of only 2.18 children. This gap, between the "perfect" number and the "planned" number of children, has been growing wider and the main reason is economic. In particular, the cost of education.

We now have education fever in Japan. The amount of time, energy, and money being spent on educating children is staggering. It starts with four- and five-year-olds. They are sent to all sorts of special schools to teach them music, ballet, sports, and English. The idea is to get your kid into the top notch elementary school. Then it's more special schools and weekend tutoring to get your kid into the best junior high school. The cycle continues with the grand prize being admission into a top university. The price of this overdose of education is incredible. Couples realize that they can only afford to educate one or two children so they have fewer babies. With fewer children per family, parents' hopes for each individual child become that much greater.

It is interesting to note that parents aren't sacrificing everything for their child's education. A generation or two ago, to send a child to university may have meant great sacrifice for the parents. Nowadays, parents want a fine education for their children but they don't want it to come at the expense of their own comfortable lifestyle. This has the tendency to place even greater financial pressure on the family. If anything, this education fever is likely to grow worse in the years to come.

In addition to the high financial cost of having a child, the cost in terms of career opportunities is also discouraging women from giving birth. Women fear that if they take childcare leave from their company, they will be left behind in their careers.

The typical maternity leave in Japan is six weeks before and eight weeks after birth. An increasing number of employers are letting either mothers or fathers take "childcare leave." Sometimes this absence is paid leave, sometimes it is not. However, even at companies that have implemented this kind of childcare leave system, it is often difficult to find staff members to cover for the absence. The current business downturn has added to the difficulty of taking such leaves.

The decline in the birthrate and the greatly extended life-span have quickly transformed Japan into an "aging society." Those over 65 currently account for 14.5% of the population, and according to projections made in 1992 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, those over 65 will account for 25.8% of the population by the year 2025.

Up until now, the older generation lived with one of their three or four children. The savings of elderly people and their pensions were too small to do otherwise. Families today have only one or two children. They will be unable to adequately care for the growing number of parents who survive to an advanced age.

It is estimated that 57% of the elderly in the year 2025 will be women, and 61% of those 75 and older will be women. Thus the aging of the population is a phenomenon of special concern to wives who outlive their husbands. Many women want to take care of themselves when they become bedridden without depending upon their children. This has led to an increase in the number of women who go to work once they reach middle age.

Career women encounter the glass ceiling

Japan has long succeeded in maintaining a relatively high growth rate by relying on an abundant supply of highly skilled workers. Large companies established a system of employment in which responsibility and power were mainly invested in men in the prime of their working lives.

Now it is painfully obvious to all that young, male workers will be in short supply over the medium to long term. Japanese companies will, however grudgingly, have no choice but to rely more on women in all parts of their operations on the factory floor as well as in the office.

More and more manufacturers, for example, are taking steps to make it possible for women to do blue-collar jobs which were once reserved only for men. To open factory doors to women, some manufacturers have eased the physical requirements by partially automating their operations.

Table 2 (Female Employees by Profession)

Initially, companies segregated male and female employees, setting up separate assembly lines for each sex. It was thought that having women nearby would distract the men and risked increasing accidents and lowering productivity. It has been found, however, that in most cases allowing women to work alongside men on the factory floor has improved men's morale and contributed to higher productivity.

Since the 1960s, Japan's female labor force population has continued to increase each year. When broken down by age, the female participation rate represents an "M" shaped curve. A low percentage of women between the ages of 30 and 34 are working because they leave the labor market temporarily for marriage and childbirth. This represents the dip in the "M." These same women return to work when they have completed childraising.

Figure2 (Labor Force Participation Rates for Women)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Law, upholding the need to improve the welfare of women workers, as well as guaranteeing equal opportunity and treatment of men and women in employment, was enacted in 1986. Since the EEOL came out effect, the number of working women has increased by 5 million. Today, 39% of employed workers are women, and 50% of women in their 40s work.

At the same time that participation by women in the workforce grew, career opportunities for women widened. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of women lawyers and the number of women serving on government councils where national policies are debated.

It had been the tradition in Japanese companies to assign women to a special secretarial career track and to deny them access to managerial positions. Recently, however, women have been given access to both the secretarial career track and the management track, and as a result, the number of women pursuing managerial jobs has grown substantially. However, a significant number of women have been given management training by their company only to resign to attend to family concerns. This has caused some large companies to rethink their dual career track policy for women.

Figure3 (Share of Women in Managerial Positions)

There has been virtually no increase in the number of women in senior executive ranks at any of the major corporations. The Ministry of Labor sought to find out why so few women occupy the nation's executive suites. They conducted a survey and found that 48% of business leaders felt that women do not have the necessary knowledge, experience, or judgment to serve as a senior executive. The second most popular response, chosen by 35% of respondents, was that women don't stay with the company long enough to justify a senior executive position.

Table 3 (Reasons Why There Are Few or No Women Managers)

According to a Japan Federation of Economic Organizations survey, male personnel managers tend to blame women themselves and the social environment in Japan rather than company policy to explain the lack of female senior executives. Common reasons cited in the survey were "possibilities of giving birth," "lack of professionalism on the part of women" and "insufficient public child care facilities."

What women want fixed is the office environment

Other surveys have revealed a change in the mood and spirit of the Japanese worker. In a study conducted by the Ministry of Labor it was disclosed that 38% of young men and 36% of young women are not particularly interested in promotion as long as they can work in a job where they can apply their skills and abilities. Only 11% indicated they wanted to get ahead by exerting effort. These results come as a big surprise to me. Young Japanese workers are certainly quite a different breed from their workaholic fathers. My guess is that young people have probably found meaningful ways to spend time outside of workNsomething that the older generation was unable to do.

Since the bubble burst on Japan's economy, it has been more difficult for young job hunters to find jobs, and women have been worse off than men. Only 73% of women in the class of '94 found jobs while 82% of men did. It used to be that women would quit when they got married, but that custom is dying out. As women stay longer in the workforce fewer jobs are available for recent college graduates.

Many companies in Japan still hire only men or only women for certain jobs. There are lots of justifications for these practices. As to why companies will allow only men to perform certain jobs, the most popular reason cited was that the positions in question had late night shifts for which women were prohibited. As to why only women were allowed to apply for certain jobs, 47% of the respondents said "the job is supportive or seasonal" therefore only women would be appropriate; 39% said "women can respond more gently to our customers" or "the job better utilizes a women's abilities and/or feelings."

I expect that the labor regulations which prohibit women from working night shifts will be lifted in the next revision of EEOL, but I doubt that the practice of hiring by sex will change.

The current EEOL has been hamstrung by its lack of enforcement power. To give it teeth, a proposal is afloat to clearly state punishment for violations of EEOL regulations. Discussions are underway between the affected parties and a revised law is expected to be presented before the Diet by the end of the year.

In these first ten years of EEOL, the number of men and women who support the opinion that women should work while raising children has increased. This seems to reflect the understanding that salaries will not rise dramatically over time, and a desire to maintain the luxurious life that a double income affords.

Unfortunately, Japanese men do not yet understand the concerns, attitudes, and hopes of the women they work with. Although management believes it is adequately addressing the concerns of the women workforce, women are less than satisfied with the efforts so far. To illustrate this point, let me cite some facts from the survey conducted by the Japan Institute of Worker's Evolution.

The survey asked management to indicate how they are developing the talents of their female employees by choosing from a list of possible answers. The same list was then given to women employees of these companies. The women were asked to rank the items on the list in terms of things they thought needed to be improved in the workplace.

On the management side, 64% of the companies said they are really focusing on "carefully outlining job responsibilities and giving appropriate supervision when mistakes are found." This was the number one response for the management group. Ironically, the women's group chose the same response as the area that they thought needed the most improvement in their companies. That is women, 48% of them, felt that the companies were doing a lousy job of "outlining job responsibilities and giving appropriate supervision when mistakes are found."

The second item on the managers list was "give women responsible jobs," 54% of the company managers chose that response, 24% of women chose the same item. This points out the great diversification of interests and motivations of Japanese women. A growing number of women in the country have career aspirations of the highest order, but others are quite content with support roles. Although it is difficult to discuss Japanese women as one group, it is clear that the majority of working women are happy with jobs that have little or no responsibility.

The third most popular objective for management, chosen by 53% of the companies in the survey, was "listen to women's opinions regarding the workplace and take action to implement their ideas." This item ranked sixth on the women's list and was mentioned by 37% of the respondents.

A look at the women's list reveals that working women in Japan are not particularly concerned with opportunities for advancement and a role in decision making. They are much more concerned about being treated with respect and dignity. Number two on the women's list was the response: "stop requiring women to perform menial private tasks for male managers." This item was selected by 43% of the women.

In third place on the women's list was "improve the attitudes of management and male colleagues." 42% of women chose that item while only 28% of the companies listed it as being important.

The women respondents also indicated a need for better employee support systems to help balance child care and work responsibilities. 42% of women chose this item and 36% of the companies indicated it was one of their priorities.

Clearly the findings show that what women want fixed is the office environment not the impediments to the managerial ranks. As further evidence of this, the women employee group also cited office remarks regarding "appearance, age, marital status, and pregnancy" as things they wanted changed. They also demanded that they not be forced to pour beer for their male colleagues at after-work parties. 32% of the women demanded that they be treated without special leniency. Male managers aren't getting the message but women simply want to be respected as equal members of the work team.

How Japanese men look upon women

Why are these managers having such a hard time figuring out what their women employees want? One of the reasons I think derives from problems in communication. First of all, there is a general tendency for Japanese not to express their views clearly and verbally. Indirect expression and guessing is often the rule. This works well as long as social or generational changes are limited. A rapidly changing environment, on the other hand, requires concise, clear expression.

Making things worse is the tendency for men and women to create separate worlds. Unlike in other countries where couples form friendships, in Japan men hang out with men and women hang out with women with little cross-group communication. Top executives very likely only know women as their wives or those who wait upon them including women staff members. Women as equal work partners is a concept beyond their familiar world.

A Japan Labor Institute survey of men conducted in 1991 revealed that the most common view of women colleagues is as "considerate supporters." The same survey showed that only 26% of men regard women as "able partners." An amazing 15% said they have no particular impression of women whatsoever.

Most senior executives have never had a woman colleague confront them as a man might do to express differing professional views. If challenged by a woman, the senior executive would probably not give in easily and he might, unfortunately, mistake such behavior as a personal attack or a sign of disrespect. These same executives when trying to say something nice to a woman employee will likely comment about her appearance, praising her nice smile or her attractive dress.

Such comments are probably not meant as harassment, they are just awkward exchanges between the sexes. Because most Japanese women are well aware that men are ill-equipped to communicate effectively with women, they usually pass off the remarks. I think a candid exchange of a opinions is necessary to make male managers understand that the majority of women do not enjoy this kind of office environment. Men need to be sensitized to the feelings of their women colleagues. Management ought to provide the forum to allow women to express their views and, if the managers listen to what is being said and effect change, surely the women employees, the men managers, and the company as a whole would stand to benefit.

Women have yet to rectify all that is wrong with the workplace, but in the ten years since EEOL was enacted, they have made advancements that in many ways makes us now pity the male worker. With two career tracks available to them, a secretarial track and the regular management track, women have a very broad range of options. Those women who are quite satisfied with making copies and supporting male colleagues can find just such a career path. Those who are highly motivated and hell-bent on the corporate stratosphere, like some of my former students, can also find just such a career path. Whether they'll make it to senior executive or not remains to be seen. But for sure women have a diversity of careers available to them which perhaps makes some younger men envious.

The last ten years have brought about changes for men as well, but I feel these changes are confined to a much narrower band than women and generational differences seem to explain who have and who have not changed. Men in older age groups have full time housewives and have not had women as classmates in their college days. For them, women and children form a single group in need of a man's protection. These men have not bothered to inquire what today's modern women are thinking and wishing for.

In contrast, younger men are accustomed to women classmates and women classmates who do better than they do in school. They are quite open to accept a person by his or her ability. When married, these men hope their wives will continue working even after the children are born. These men share as much as possible in the domestic responsibilities (though the value of their contribution is still up for debate). They find nothing unusual or unsettling about having a female boss or female colleagues.

As a matter of fact, the younger generation is much more individualistic than their parents. Their fathers thought it natural to place work before family and personal wishes, but young Japanese are much more interested in placing their individual needs and concerns before their company. The behavior of these young people is often taken as self-centered and disruptive to group harmony. However, today's youth are children of affluence who feel they can afford not to pay attention to other's concerns. Also, they have no or few siblings and so have little experience with group-oriented behavior at home.

The new breed of Japanese

Japan is a resource-poor country. Its surprisingly rapid economic development, often described as an "economic miracle," was partly due to the Japanese custom of putting the well-being of the group as a whole before individual needs and desires. Such behavior enhanced group harmony, which in turn reinforced the importance of a group-centered society.

For many Japanese men, the workplace became a pseudo family. These businessmen worked until late at night and then, before returning home, went out drinking with work colleagues. On the weekends, they met again for golf. Their life was focused on their work and prevented them from spending time on personal hobbies or meeting new friends.

I expect these men sacrificed their private life to their company because they were working toward building up their country and also they thought they would be rewarded sufficiently and fairly by the company for their service. As a matter of fact, thanks to their efforts and self-sacrifice, Japan has successfully achieved the status of an economic superpower. However, the so-called restructuring now underway in the Japanese economy has left many of them disillusioned. Their years of hard work have been rewarded by "a seat by the window," a Japanese expression meaning that a worker is pushed aside in the office, although not formally laid off.

The children of these men have watched what happened to their fathers. They have learned quickly that instead of being dependent on the company, they should do what they themselves wish to do as individuals. This generation does not hesitate to take paid holidays if they are entitled to do so. Or if they have a previous engagement, they will refuse to stay late in the office to do overtime work.

This is the new breed of Japanese, with a much weaker group-orientation. This is the generation that helped to build the AUM religious cult now accused of the poison gas attack on Tokyo's subway system.

Yet this is also the generation that, disgusted with the money hungry mentality of our bubble economy, dropped their studies and their jobs to help the victims of the earthquake in Kobe. In fact, young Japanese are more interested in the protection of the environment and the happiness of mankind than any other generation in our country's history.

Some look at our youth and predict a dismal future. Others see a refreshingly skeptical generation with a kinder, gentler mentality. Whether optimist or pessimist, all would agree that Japan is at a crossroads in her history.

(The above article is offered for reference purposes and does not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government)

Sumiko Iwao

Born in 1935. Graduated from Keio University, where she majored in psychology. Received her Ph.D. in psychology from Yale University. Has been a lecturer at Harvard University. Is now a professor at Keio University and a member of the National Public Safety Commission. Author of The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality.

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