Social change is often slow. This is especially true concerning the shift of traditional gender roles in any society. Historically, however, once these roles do begin to change, women in specific seem to bear the brunt of the stress that these changes necessarily cause. Indeed, a vacuum seems to form where old societal rules once stood, and it is often women that find themselves unsure, unsupported, and floundering in the new, uncertain reality. In specific, the rapid changes that have occurred in Japanese society are an excellent example of this phenomenon, for changes in the roles of Japanese women -- where independent dreams, work, and identities are becoming more and more acceptable in theory, nonetheless still leave them charged with the full and untempered gender burdens of centuries past -- burdens of the "good wife," mother, and woman. In short, they are left with an impossible burden that, if unchanged, threatens to unbalance Japanese society, itself, as well as threaten its very existence.
Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world. Indeed, Japan's elderly population is expected to be the highest percentage of any country in the world by the year 2025 (Jones). Although many in Japan and elsewhere blame this phenomenon on the aspirations and "modernization" of Japanese couples who are increasingly highly educated and financially driven, as well as on the increasingly delayed age of marriage (some say, adversely affecting fertility), many assert that the drop in births is due the tremendous pressures and suffering that Japanese women are experiencing as a whole due to societal changes and expectations.
Francoise Kadri writes in his article, "Childless Japan," the declining birth rate is an issue that seems to be "irreversible," according to experts. Simply put, the reason for this is that Japan "is a country where women lose more than they gain by having a child." But, what exactly does this mean?
In Japan, women increasingly complete university level education, as well as aggressively pursue careers. However, once they marry, they are presented with significant challenges when it comes to child rearing. Although many have argued that the problem is a problem of "official" systems -- lack of institutions, facilities, social, and work programs to allow for male participation in parenting responsibilities (paternity leave, work flexibility, male-friendly child care options), Kadri notes, the problem is cultural, psychological, and social. For example, Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist at the Institute for Family Functioning in Tokyo notes, "You can ask a Japanese man to work three times as hard to save his company, but not to take time off to look after his children"(Kadri). Further, "Family roles remain 'split along traditional lines with the mothers at home doing the housework on one side and the men as breadwinners on the other...most women give up work after marriage or after their first child is born." So why, then, is this a problem? After all, the "mother at home" model has existed quite productively for centuries. Why are Japanese women suddenly "losing more than they are gaining" by taking on the role of motherhood?
Many experts believe that the answer to this question lies in the same answer found in so called "developing countries" around the world -- specifically in those countries where women have gained greater access to education as well as legal and financial freedom. That is, absent the once, strong cultural validation surrounding the institution and societal value of "motherhood," a desire for a stronger independent presence in the world becomes of paramount importance in its absence. That is, it simply is no longer popularly perceived (as is the case in the United States) as "enough" to be a wife and mother -- and when, as in the case in Japan, women increasingly see motherhood as a burden untempered by any discernable benefit, its very existence is threatened.
Again, according to Kadri, the "classic family set-up appeals to fewer and fewer young Japanese women who now have higher educational qualifications and live a pampered life at home with their parents until well into their 20s, or even 30s." Moreover, Rieko Suzuki, research director at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, notes, "They [women] lose their freedom, their free time and their money," and, "It is all but suicidal for a woman to aspire to both a career and child-rearing" (Kadri). Why, then, is it so difficult to work and mother?
According to Muriel Jolviet in her book, Japan, the Childless Society, the reason that motherhood is so difficult for many Japanese women is that:
Being a mother is often a real burden since the husband -- when not sent to work hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from home -- only puts in an average of 27 minutes a week towards household tasks, mainly due to his long working hours, official studies show. Cooped up with their children with little or no respite, the mothers offload all their frustrations and ambitions on them (Kadri).
Further, according to Jolviet, the dissatisfaction is more than just financially based, or even resource based (lack of respite care, etc.). Indeed, there seems to be a problem of the perception of inherent satisfaction imbibed in the role of motherhood itself that seems to result in a sense of imbalance between the contribution and perceived benefits of childbearing that is strongly linked to the lack of significant male participation. She notes:
The Japanese come bottom of the global rankings in terms of the pleasure experienced in raising their children...There is little outside help, especially for single mothers...only three percent of children are born outside marriage, one in five women has an abortion, often at the 21st week, which implies that if they had the support in bringing up a child, they would keep it (Kadri).
In addition, whereas in the past, Japanese society placed children in a position of great familial and social importance, in today's increasingly materialistic Japan, children are seen as "burdens," what Reiko Suzuki called a phenomena of "DINKS," double income, no kids. According to Suzuki, couples with no children:
feel happier than couples with children...Before, children were seen as a bond between a couple. Now they are a trouble...The first crisis between the couple is usually related to the children's education, which school they should go to...Plus sometimes the men feel lonely because the wife's interest is focused on child and not on them... (Kadri).
But, why, in particular, do women feel happier (on the whole) without children? For many, the answer lies in the changing attitude of women toward the role of education, work, financial freedom, as well as personal fulfillment and comfort -- life attributes traditionally allotted to Japanese men. Although the old model of sex roles in Japanese society placed a societal value on traditional women's roles (resulting in a psychological sense of accomplishment in fulfilling those roles), the shift away from a society based on family, clan, and village relationships to a more urban, dynamic, and financially driven society spawned by the rebuilding effort following the Second World War began to leave a cultural vacuum, or a shift away from the perceived merit of traditional roles. The yen began to hold more significance, power, and prestige -- and opportunities for leisure, consumption, and education rose to new heights.
However, although women in Japanese society were as psychologically perceptive and affected by these cultural and societal changes in values, and they were relatively quick to begin accepting new roles in that changing society, as is often the case; those same women were unable to "shake off" any of their old ones. Hence, Japanese women were, and continue to be "freed" on one hand to pursue society's new values, while chained, on the other, to old responsibilities, without increased participation of men. In short, they were free to add new responsibilities, as long as they were chained to the old, in a sense leaving them hobbled and unable to perform either old or new responsibilities under the weight of their chains. In other words, it is as author Suvendrini Kakuchi writes in his article, "Still a long way from gender equality," "Japan may keep on making breakthroughs in the technological world, but when it comes to equality between the sexes, this East Asian country remains a laggard." Further, according to Tame Onishi, head of the Office of Gender Equality for the Prime Minister notes, "There is still a fixed perception of women as being more responsible for the family...(this) continues to undermine efforts to foster a society that sees men and women as equal individuals" (Kakuchi).
Interestingly, the fact that women in Japan no longer feel that being wives and mothers places them on an equal level (or at least a level in which they feel valued or comfortable), is a factor that must be acknowledged and considered, particularly by Japanese men. Indeed, not only is this illustrated in the surprising gulf between opinions concerning family roles and responsibilities (the percentage of Japanese fathers…