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Family, Work and Gender in Contemporary Japan - The National Science Foundation

More Japanese women are entering the labor market in recent years, and more men are staying at home with the children

Japanese woman stereotype. Illustration:
Japanese woman stereotype. Illustration:

Between 1991 and 2001, Japan's economy entered a significant slowdown, which earned the title "Japan's Lost Decade". Until the bursting of the real estate bubble, even the members of the middle class could make do with one salary for the family - which was the man's salary, of course. Most of the men worked very long hours in the Japanese corporations, while the women worked as housewives full time - including taking care of the children. This old order, which was preserved in Japan many decades after it was changed in the West, was undermined with the economic crisis that has lasted for several decades, and these days Japan is trying to find new balances between work and family.

"In recent years, fewer Japanese are getting married, fewer Japanese are having children and more Japanese women are entering the labor market," says Prof. Ofra Goldstein-Gideoni, an anthropologist who specializes in Japan from the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The Japanese government, obviously concerned about the decline in the natural reproduction rate, has launched a number of initiatives, such as the reform of the labor market that reduced the crazy hours that were customary until now and an extensive campaign to encourage men to take a more significant part in raising children. The government thought that if it encouraged couples to cohabit, they would have more children. These measures did not work as expected, but they contributed to profound changes in the institution of the Japanese family."

Prof. Goldstein-Gideoni studies these changes mainly from the gender angle. "The Japanese government did not intend to bring about a gender revolution, but this is what actually happened. There is a very important concept in Japanese that emerged in 2006 called Ikumen, 'cool' men involved in raising children. This cultural phenomenon is new in Japan. As an anthropologist, I try to examine the indirect and slow change in gender relations in the country. It should be understood that women have always worked in Japan, but they worked before marriage, left the workplace for a few years to raise the children and then returned to work - usually in part-time jobs. At the same time, the men worked long hours in the powerful Japanese corporations. This is not a phenomenon unique to Japan. Even in 'enlightened' countries like Sweden, the common perception is that the man is the main breadwinner. However, it would be very difficult to find Swedish women who would declare themselves to be 'housewives'. Even in Israel, the term 'housewife' is no longer used. Only women in the upper 70's can afford to devote themselves exclusively to the household and raising children. In Japan 'housewife' is still a very strong institution. Society is only now beginning to recognize other models of family, such as the Ecoman, families with double income or 'homeless' and a woman who is the main breadwinner - which in the rest of the Western world started to happen already in the XNUMXs of the last century."

The corona epidemic, which left a significant portion of the labor market to work at home, accelerated and exacerbated these changes in family and work relations. "Traditional corporations see Corona as a kind of glitch: it will end and we will return to the offices," says Prof. Goldstein-Gideoni. "In contrast, younger and more innovative companies see it as an opportunity to change the work pattern and to find a more correct balance between career and family. In the current research - with the support of the National Science Foundation - I focus, among other things, on a business company that tries to promote this idea of ​​the 'new family'. The CEO of this company recently published an article that provoked many echoes in the country's most important economic newspaper, under the title: 'Japan, stop trying', that is, an article calling on employers to keep their employees at home, and at the same time to think about a more fundamental change in the concept of work. Through qualitative interviews with company members, managers of traditional corporations and of course spouses from different groups in the population, I am trying to understand the effects of the corona virus on gender relations in Japan, I am also trying to understand whether and what will be significant consequences for the way of working in Japan. At the same time, the epidemic also affects me as a researcher: I'm used to field work, but now I have to settle for in-depth zoom interviews."

Life itself:

"In the early 80s of the last century, I went with my partner on what was then called 'The Great Trip'. We traveled to many countries in Asia, and when we arrived in Japan I felt that this is the country I want to explore. One of the images that stuck in my head was of two women dressed in kimono buying Coca-Cola from a vending machine. I was fascinated by this picture and asked to understand it. That's why I asked for a scholarship from the Japanese government, and by the time I got it I had finished my master's degree in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. which years later I also stood at the head of. With the scholarship, I worked for two and a half years as a dresser for brides and wedding guests in Japan, experiences about which I wrote both my doctorate at the University of London and my first book."

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