“Men should work, women should stay home”

I sat outside the passport center building with my daughter in her stroller and showed both her passports. “Now you’re officially both American and Japanese,” I told her (of course, she had no idea what I was saying; she just wanted a drink of water).

An older woman, around senior citizen age, sat down on the bench beside us, smiled and waved hello at my daughter, saying “Good morning” to her. My daughter waved back.

“What’s her name?” she asked.

“…” I responded.

“Where’s her mother?” was the immediate rejoinder.


I briefly blanked. Then said, “She’s at work.”

The woman nodded, as if to say, “I see.”

I think.

She could have been thinking, “Why are you taking care of her and not your wife?”

Or she could have been thinking, “Don’t you have a job?” Or maybe, “Huh? Your wife has a job?”

Given that about half Japan thinks that a woman’s place is in the home, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by the question “Where’s the mother?” Besides the attitude of women needing to stay in the house remaining fairly prevalent even among younger wives in Japan, between 80 and 90% of married women think that they should not work at all if they have children until the children are age 3.

This would of course explain why Bunkyo Ward Mayor Narisawa received complaints from older women that he was “effeminate” in deciding to stay home to help raise his infant son. For two weeks! (I wrote about Mayor Narisawa’s child care leave in April.) Obviously, Japan is not ready to consider that children need fathers…or that children whose fathers are actively involved in their upbringing wind up having better self-esteem and are more stable personalities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many older men still refer to their wives as kanai (literally, “inside the house”), and the standard Japanese for “your wife” is Okusan (literally, “the inner chamber,” a reference to the main wife of medieval lords, whose room was deep inside the feudal castle).

Japan may have among the world’s best child care leave laws, but until societal attitudes toward the roles of fathers and mothers changes, men will continue to avoid taking leave. One definite reason is fear of losing salary and position in the workplace. Women in Japan are naturally expected to take child care leave…probably because they stand little chance of promotion anyway. Japan is ranked 101 in the world in terms of the “power” women have at work (only 9% of company execs, compared to 43% in the U.S., 38% in France, even 17% in China). So, while women are needed for the workforce, they’re not allowed to rise to a position of authority. In fact, only 38% of women continue to work after having children. Most women who do go back to work generally wait until their children are at least junior high school age. In the meantime, mothers are expected to stay home, do housework, raise the kids, and manage the family’s finances, while fathers work long hours, go out drinking after work, rarely see their kids except maybe on Sunday, and sometimes even get sent to the farthest reaches of the country or overseas for months or even years at a time (the practice known as tanshin funin, or fathers living separately from their family members).

Of course, fathers in Japan are not all opposed to helping out at home or even taking leave. The child care leave laws were recently changed yet again to allow both parents to stay home, at the same time, until the child is 14 months old. Renumeration is only 50% of base salary, however, and it goes without saying that not only will a worker who takes time off get stuck with tons of work from jealous colleagues when he or she returns to work, but also promotions and bonuses will be curtailed as a result of the leave. But at least fathers can get some money during the leave of absence.

The number of births has declined each year for 29 years now, while the number of elderly who no longer work and draw on the pension system only goes up each year. Japan needs children. It also needs responsible fathers and an acceptance that mothers cannot be expected to work and to take care of the family by themselves. Everyone in the country seems to know that, but nobody seems willing to change. Well, maybe not nobody, but not enough people. Yet.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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2 Responses to “Men should work, women should stay home”

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    Well good for you. My girlfriend is Japanese and I think she’s worried that if we get married and have kids in the future she would have to abandon all attempts at a career. I told her I wouldn’t mind looking after any kids, but she seemed a little skeptical. Very Japanese, I guess.


  2. The culture of expectation is really strong here, isn’t it? Women expect that their colleagues will expect them to quit once they get married or have a child…and yet it’s common knowledge that families need two breadwinners. Old habits die hard in a country where people live long, I guess.


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