Shadow of the Japanese housewife

Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012

Special to The Japan Times
BERKELEY, California — In 1978, my mother, Suzanne Hall Vogel, presented a paper on Japan’s “professional housewives” (sengyou shufu) at the Tokyo Symposium on Women.

To her surprise, she quickly found herself under assault from Japanese women themselves. She had meant for the paper to present the lives of these housewives in their own terms without judgment, negative or positive. But some feminists in the audience felt that she was too sympathetic with Japan’s traditional gender roles.

“Would YOU want to be a Japanese housewife?!?,” they charged. Well, of course not, my mother thought, yet she still found something admirable about these devoted wives and mothers.

Japan’s professional housewife ideal had enormous costs. It locked many Japanese women into a prescribed role regardless of their preferences or abilities. It constrained women from pursuing other dreams and from contributing to society in other ways. It made women feel unworthy if they were not living up to the ideal. And it deprived Japanese society of the greater participation of talented women in positions of leadership in politics and business.

Yet my mother felt that the professional housewife role had some benefits as well. Japanese housewives had considerable autonomy from their husbands and authority over their designated realm precisely because of fixed gender roles, with women centered on the home and children while men focused on work. Japan’s housewives garnered confidence from having a clear role and mission and a secure status in society. They were exceptional mothers to generations.

My mother first encountered Japan’s professional housewives as a researcher in a Tokyo suburb in 1958-60. She developed lifelong friendships with several of these housewives and their families, and she continued to work with Japanese women throughout her career as a psychotherapist.

She passed away in June, just as her book on Japan’s professional housewives was published in Japan as “Kawariyuku nihon no kazoku” (Japan’s Changing Family).

We should certainly not be too nostalgic for an era characterized by blatant gender discrimination and widespread oppression of women by husbands and mothers-in-law. Yet we must recognize how the professional housewife ideal casts a shadow over Japanese society in order to understand the challenges for Japanese women today.

Many women still feel that they must choose between mothering and a career because they could not possibly fulfill the expectations of a Japanese wife and mother unless they did so full-time.

Current-day wives and mothers have more options than their mothers and grandmothers did, but many find themselves unprepared to cope with this new era of choice. They have less pride and confidence in their housewife/mother roles. They are less authoritative within the family, and arguably less effective.

Furthermore, the decline of the professional housewife ideal had psychological effects. It contributed to a shift in the nature of social and psychological disorders in Japan, and possibly to the increase in these disorders overall. The societal context shapes the manifestations of personal stress, so symptoms vary across countries and over time. To put this simply, Americans and Japanese are equally stressed, but they show it in different ways.

Japanese are more likely to “act in,” withdrawing in their homes, whereas Americans are more likely to “act out,” engaging in mischief or violence in the streets. An American teenager might hide his dependence (amae) on his mother and strut his independence, whereas a Japanese teenager would lay bare his dependence and demand total family care. Both would be rebelling in infantile ways: one denying the amae urge and the other drowning in it.

Likewise, the changing social context has altered the symptoms of psychic stress within Japan over time. Women today are less likely to be tormented by authoritarian husbands or mothers-in-law, but more likely to be traumatized or even abused by their children. Women today are less constrained by rigid social codes, and more anxious about how to manage choices. They have to find their own life partners since they can no longer rely on an arranged marriage, and they must negotiate more collaborative and intimate partnerships with their husbands since gender roles are more fluid.

Social change and economic uncertainly have fueled a surge in new types of psychological disorders, including school refusal, withdrawal from society (hikikomori), and sexless couples.

My mother believed that Japanese women should embrace this new era of greater freedom and not shun it — but they would need help. The government has made incremental progress in strengthening family-friendly policies, but it could do much more.

The government could support working mothers by subsidizing childcare facilities, raising maternity leave standards, and vigorously enforcing equal opportunity laws. It could facilitate job mobility by expanding vocational training programs, improving job search institutions, and improving conditions for Japan’s growing corps of “nonregular” workers, such as part-timers and agency temps, most of whom are women. And the government could strengthen the social safety net, especially unemployment insurance. These policy reforms might nudge people to adjust their values by removing the stigma of one-time failure or time off for childcare or psychological healing.

Meanwhile, mental health professionals have an important role to play in helping women navigate this new environment of choice. Professional assistance and/or group support can guide people to make constructive decisions and to handle relationship problems.

In earlier times, the family took the largest responsibility for nurturance and protection, for assigning roles within society, and for managing intrafamily conflict. If individuals must carry out those responsibilities for themselves, they need social resources to enable them to do so competently. My mother tried to cultivate this expertise in her small way by spending about one month a year as a social work supervisor at Hasegawa Hospital in Tokyo for almost two decades.

My mother would certainly not call for a return to the professional housewife era, but she felt that Japan’s traditional housewives had some qualities that should be preserved: the skillful deployment of parental authority, a pride and confidence in the mothering role, and an unwavering devotion to the craft of motherhood.

Steven Vogel is a professor of political science and chair of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


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