Pandemic magnifying household gender roles in Japan
“I expect my son to be able to do all the housework, and for my daughter to know that she can do anything she wants to,” including having a family and working at the same time, says Miyako Nishikawa, 44, a Tokyo-based business owner and mother of two.
Nishikawa does not want her children to grow up with prescribed ideas of gender roles. Yet while her daughter and son may see both parents working as well as performing household chores, outside of the home they’re likely to receive more mixed messages about what it means to be a woman or a man in Japan, where gender parity remains a distant goal.
Notwithstanding progress made in some areas, such as an increase in the proportion of women who work, Japan consistently performs poorly in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report, ranking 120th out of 156 countries this year.
Women in Japan earn on average 44% less than men, compared to 35% in the United States. They also spend five times more time on housework and child care than men do, shouldering key responsibilities that require considerable time and energy, but which aren’t paid. Conversely, men in Japan are among those who spend the least amount of time on these vital daily duties worldwide, and “there’s a strong expectation of a traditional family model in which the male is the breadwinner,” says Wei-hsin Yu, sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This division is very rigid because it’s part of a whole system,” Yu says.
Employers, for instance, require employees to devote all their time to their jobs, which makes it difficult for both mothers and fathers to work full-time. Schools expect a great deal of parental involvement, often during the daytime. And child care is difficult to access unless both parents are working, especially in urban areas where demand is high.
“It’s hard to get into public day care, and private day care is expensive,” says Tokyo-based self-employed brand consultant Teni Wada, 36. “In the spring of 2020, I was looking for a new job and the biggest issue was that I knew I had to be making a certain amount if I was going to be sending my daughter to day care.”
As women’s economic participation has increased in Japan, the double burden of paid and unpaid work has remained a heavy load. Furthermore, in professional settings “everything, from corporate culture to offices, is structured around men,” says Mariko Magnan, 41, mother of two and founder and CEO of TPO, one of Japan’s first corporate concierge firms, which provides companies with a variety of services that support employees in their private lives.
In order for gender parity to really get off the ground, the inherent value of women’s work inside and outside of the labor market must be recognized, and the obstacles that prevent mothers and fathers from sharing professional and homemaking responsibilities more fairly must be addressed.
“It’s not just about changing women’s lives, but about changing people’s mindsets,” Magnan says.
The value of unpaid work
Miori Hiramoto, 33, gave birth to her first child in Tokyo in April 2020.
“After my son was born, I felt so alone because my husband was going to work every day,” Hiramoto says.
Having secured the only place in a private nursery set aside for her company’s employees, Hiramoto decided to go back to working full time as soon as possible.
“I realized that raising kids at home is harder,” she says.
Hiramoto’s is one of a growing number of families in Japan in which both parents work. In 1980, dual income households accounted for around 35% of all households. In 2019, this proportion had grown to 68%, with the rest for the most part consisting of a working husband and a homemaker.
Yet even in dual income households, men dedicate only around a fifth of the time women do to housework, child care and caregiving, according to government data from 2016, the latest figures available.
Among married couples with children younger than 6 years old, women spent an average of seven hours and 34 minutes per day on housework and child care, versus one hour and 23 minutes for men. In the United States, women dedicate an average of five hours and 40 minutes to such activities versus men’s three hours and 10 minutes.
The government estimates that in 1991, the average monetary value of a woman’s unpaid labor amounted to ¥1,607,000 a year, versus ¥292,000 for men. In 2016, the economic value of household activities was equal to around 20% of Japan’s gross domestic product, with women “earning” the equivalent of ¥1,935,000 against men’s ¥508,000.
Comparatively, the average annual earnings of those regularly employed in accommodation, eating and drinking establishments in 2020 were around ¥1,534,000.
“I don’t want my children seeing me do all the housework so, for example, my husband always cooks breakfast,” Nishikawa says. “He works full time and is busy, but that isn’t an excuse for him not to help out.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the uneven share of household responsibilities carried out by women into even sharper focus.
Research on the pandemic’s impact on Japanese families between January 2020 and May 2020 by Junko Nishimura, an associate professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, reveals that, while most respondents didn’t report changes in the frequency with which they performed household tasks, those who did were mostly women, and many of their male partners weren’t even aware of such changes.
“A woman’s role as a mother has been magnified,” Nishimura says. “In particular, during the state of emergency in April and May last year, when schools were closed, a number of women couldn’t go to work because they had to take care of their children.”
“Before my daughter started going to kindergarten, I was home-schooling her, as well as doing the laundry, cleaning, cooking and grocery shopping,” Wada says, noting that her husband started working from home in May 2020. “That’s great, but our daughter doesn’t understand the concept of remote work, and I’m trying to get him to understand that he should still be spending some time with her.”
In his analysis of the adoption of remote work in Japan, Kazuo Yamaguchi, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, also points to the pandemic’s impact on women, who have on average had more limited access to remote working schemes.
Half of women employed in Japan are contract workers, compared to around a fifth of men, which means that they don’t benefit from the job security and higher wages of permanent employees, or equal access to telecommuting opportunities.
“The pandemic has aggravated gender inequality as more women than men reported losing their jobs or a reduction in work hours, which is explained by women’s overrepresentation in non-regular work,” Yamaguchi says.
In turn, this is partially due to the fact that most of those who leave the labor market when they have children and re-enter it are women working in contract positions because much fewer permanent jobs are available for those who re-enter the labor market.
Paid and unpaid labor
“Working full time after having children isn’t viewed positively, while many Japanese women still dream of being a homemaker,” Hiramoto says.
However, the idealized notion of the leisurely life of a full-time homemaker — epitomized by expressions in Japanese such as eikyū shūshoku, which equates marriage with permanent employment, and sanshoku hirune tsuki, which purports that married women can enjoy three meals and a nap a day — sits uncomfortably with reality.
According to Yamaguchi, the traditional division of household labor is primarily the result of real-world constraints, rather than people’s individual preferences and values.
“This is clear, for example, in the case of many young men who wish to spend more time with their families but simply can’t due to long working hours,” he says.
Government surveys reveal that in 1979 around 70% of women and 75% of men agreed with the view that husbands should be breadwinners and wives should take care of the home. By 2019, this proportion had shrunk to 30% of women and 40% of men.
However, compared to other higher-income countries, as the rate of women’s employment has increased in Japan, the proportion of workers who are mothers with young children hasn’t grown at pace, Nishimura says. Only a little over half of women continued working after giving birth to their first child in 2015 — an improvement compared to the 2010 rate of 40%, but a far cry from the government’s target of 70% by 2025.
The most common reason cited by women for quitting their job after the birth of their first child is the difficulty in juggling their professional and familial roles.
Nishikawa grew up as an only child in Yokohama. Her father ran his own company and her mother was a full-time homemaker.
“My father realizes that the reason he could do his work was because she was taking care of domestic chores,” she says.
Japan’s employment system is premised on the traditional household division of labor, Yamaguchi says.
Permanent workers, most often men, are expected to work overtime and, in addition, “many business opportunities happen in social settings out of work hours,” Magnan says. On the other hand, full-time female employees are exempt from such a workload if they choose the clerical (ippan-shoku) track versus the managerial (sogo-shoku) track offered by many Japanese companies.
In these firms, the vast majority of women opt for the clerical track, while the opposite is true for men, which means that female employees work mainly dead-end jobs and are ineligible for promotion.
“Employers justify this as being the result of employees’ choices, but these are made due to a poor set of options such as the unavailability of part-time or flextime work for those in the managerial track,” Yamaguchi says.
Some companies offer “limited-type” regular employment, including shorter hours, regardless of whether workers are parents or not, but this option was available in only around 12% of offices in 2018.
In addition, given that income compensation for parental leave starts at 67% of a salary for the first six months and that men tend to earn more than women, it’s generally more costly for families to give up on a man’s income. And because those who leave and re-enter the labor market are largely excluded from regular employment, many mothers end up settling for lower-paid non-regular jobs, or not working at all.
These conditions also seriously disadvantage single parents: a little under half of single-parent households in Japan, vastly overrepresented by single mothers, are classified as relatively poor, compared to a third in countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
While 40-50% of women wish to work as full-time regular employees when their children pass junior high school age, according to government data, barely 20% of them actually do.
“The idea that women want to leave the workforce and take care of children might be true to the extent that, the way jobs are structured, they don’t see how they can work,” Yu says. What women really want aren’t part-time jobs, but full-time jobs that allow them to leave at 5 p.m., she adds.
Rina Sugino, 39, is a full-time homemaker based in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, who recently gave birth to her second child. She’d like to return to work once her youngest child finishes elementary school.
“The main condition would to be to find a job where I can finish early enough to prepare dinner for my kids, and ideally work from home,” Sugino says.
Equality starts at home
“There’s so much more that men can do as fathers than make money,” Wada says. “Children need them in their lives.”
The government has actively encouraged men’s participation in family life through campaigns such as “Get Dads Cooking” and the Ikumen project — a term that fuses the words ikuji, meaning child care, and ikemen, meaning a “handsome man” — that was launched in 2010 to popularize the notion that dads should be more involved in their children’s upbringing.
In addition, Japanese men have access to up to one year of parental leave, one of the longest paternal leave packages in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet only 7.5% of fathers working in the private sector took advantage of this system in 2019, in part because company culture discourages them from doing so.
“My company supports taking leave, but there’s a contradiction,” says Ryo Guzzonato, Hiramoto’s husband. “Every team has become so small that if one person is off for a long time, this disrupts business.”
While improving child care leave has been a cornerstone of government policies to encourage mothers to work, without tackling the excessive demands made on both women and men in the professional sphere, “progress at work will only worsen the time crunch that women experience,” as Gill Steel writes in “Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan.”
Striving toward equality means addressing gender imbalances in the workplace as well as at home. And this can have a positive effect on family life, with research showing that a marriage typically benefits from men and women having overlapping roles, Yu says.
“There are mothers who see themselves as moms first, and that’s awesome, but I’ve always wanted to be more than just a mom,” says Wada, who is launching her own natural skin care company.
“One day I asked my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up and she answered that she wants to be a mom,” Wada says. “I’m constantly struggling to juggle child care, household chores and my job. However, she doesn’t see any of that.”
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