Japanese Women: A Step Behind?

1. Gender Stratification and the Lives of Women

Gender and class have historically contributed to stratification. In the 12th century women inherited and managed property. Under later feudal governments, women's status declined. Peasant women could make decisions and move freely, but upperclass women were subject to patrilineal and patriarchal government 'rules' to control society. With industrialization, women with no autonomy were exploited in unhealthy factory work. During the Meiji period, male authority declined, but women with no legal rights were subjugated to husbands' wills. In the prewar period, the government encouraged women's groups and high fertility: motherhood was a patriotic duty. After World War II, women's legal position was redefined by Occupation authorities who included an equal rights clause in the 1947 Constitution. Individual rights were given precedence over family obligations. Women and men were guaranteed the right to choose spouses and occupations, inherit and own property, initiate divorce, and retain custody of children. Women got the right to vote in 1946. Other postwar reforms opened education institutions to women and required equal pay for equal work. In 1986 the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect. Legally, few barriers to women's equality remain. However, gender inequality continues in family, workplace, and popular values. The proverbial phrase "Good wife, Wise mother" (ryosai kenbo) continues to influence gender roles. Most women cannot realize that ideal, but many believe it best for themselves, their children, and society to stay home, at least while children are young. Many women find satisfaction in family life and children's accomplishments, doing good jobs as household managers and mothers. In most households, women are responsible for family budgets and decide independently about education, careers, and lifestyles. Women also take the social blame for family member problems.

Women's educational opportunities have increased in the 20th century. Among new workers in 1989, 37% of women had received education beyond upper-secondary school, compared with 43% of men, but most women had received their postsecondary education in junior colleges and technical schools rather than in universities and graduate schools.

Peasant, merchant and artisan women always worked at home. Modern separation of home and workplace created problems in child and elderly care, and housekeeping responsibilities. In the 1950s, most women employees were young and single: 62% of the female labor force in 1960 had never been married. In 1987 about 66% were married; only 23% had never married. Some women worked after marriage, most in professional and government jobs. Others started their own businesses or took over family businesses. Usually women stopped work after marriage, then returned after their youngest child was in school. The middle-age recruits had low-paying, part-time service or factory jobs while taking total responsibility for home and children, often justifying work as an extension of family care needs. In spite of legal support for equality and status improvement, married women understood husbands' jobs required long hours and extreme commitment. As women earned an average of only 60% as much as men, most did not want full-time jobs after marriage if that left no one to manage the household and care for children. Yet their status in the labor force changed in the late '80s, most likely because of the aging population. Longer life expectancies, smaller families, bunched births, and lowered expectations of being cared for in old age by children have led women to participate more fully in the labor force. Service job opportunities in the postindustrial economy expanded, and fewer new male graduates could fill them. Some of the same demographic factors--low birth rates and high life expectancies--also changed workplace demands on husbands: more men recognize a need for a different relationship with their wives in anticipation of long postretirement.