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Scott North discusses gender imbalances in family work in Japan

by Kate Page-Lippsmeyer

Posted: March 6, 2008


Scott North is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Graduate School of Human Sciences at Osaka University. His research centers around work and family relations, including death from overwork, white-collar workers, and men's roles in the Japanese family.

Professor North lecture was titled "First Sons and Ideal Workers: Japanese Fathers' Social Roles and Persistent Inequality in the Division of Family Work." He has long been interested in the roles fathers play in family life. His lecture outlined a history of men's roles in family work in Japan, explained why it is important to discuss the division of labor, delineated his research into the present state of men's labor in the family, and finally suggested further contributions or steps that still remain toward achieving greater balance in family work between men and women.

Family life is undergoing a transformation in Japan. Gender roles are being renegotiated. Despite recognition of the importance of fatherhood, there is still a gender empowerment gap. North suggests that in most countries, patriarchal power declines with the transition to a market society, and during this transition gender becomes less salient and equity increases in gender relations as different types of work are recognized as actual labor. Japan is the spectacular outlier to these theories. Patriarchal domination has not only survived, but has mutated into a new form: because fathers do slightly more family work than the last generation, they do not feel further changes in family work need to be made, and these fathers are still wielding the same kind of power that they did before.

North also discussed the imbalance of knowledge about men in Japan. There have been an overwhelming number of studies that focus on men in the workplace, but relatively few that concentrate on how fathers adapt to changes in working conditions, and how husbands and wives relate, especially as fathers and mothers. It is critical to examine these areas as they are a very important indicator of development, especially with 53% of Japanese women currently employed either full or part time. These women not only go into the labor force, but they stay in it, while the number of men working has stayed relatively the same. North suggests that this migration into the workforce sharpens gender roles as men and women are in greater proximity to each day in and day out.

One of the other issues at stake with this change in family structure is the population crisis. The low birth rate is considered a social problem, and the Japanese government has established a number of child-related policies over the last 18 years, including the establishment of committees, the Childcare Leave Act, the Angel Plan and New Angel Plan, and the Child Abuse Prevention Law. None of these have proved effective, as the birth rate continues to decline.

According to a number of surveys from Japanese research institutes, Japanese women currently do 93% of home/family work while men do approximately 12.5%. This work includes taking care of the household chores such as shopping to cleaning, as well as all aspects of raising children. Compared to other industrialized nations, Japanese men contribute less to the household (second only to Korea at 12.2%). These statistics represent an increase from past numbers, but there is still a long way to go. This gap in family work also contributes to the Gender Gap. This gap represents an inequality in which women do more housework at the same time as they are contributing more in the workplace, while men do not consider themselves responsible for family duties or child rearing.

North's research centers around 33 dual income couples in Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture. In an interesting move, North found that the husband and wife couples provided more information about their daily lives when they were able to contradict each other in the same interview.

The results of North's interviews are quite surprising. Even when husbands were part of families whose wives worked outside of the home full time, the amount of work they did compared to families where the wives worked part time was almost the same. There was very little association between women's family work and paid work and the amount of hours that men contributed at home. His results show that the more women worked for wages, the more their overall amount of family work dropped, but there was no proportional rise in the family work husbands accomplished. Those families who lived near or with their extended family tended to reinforce gender roles even further.

North did find that family work was negotiated within families; however, when couples were asked how the distribution of work came about, they replied "naturally". This naturalization of family work is one of the issues that contributes to the unchanging nature of the imbalance. North also noted that the weight of tradition makes it difficult to change, and even though the dominant political discourse has suggested both wives and husbands need to accomplish family work in equal amounts, that perception has not permeated into individual family relations.

There were, however, several case studies that offered clues to how these relationships might change in the future. One father took on approximately half of the family work, and this was due to both his wife's encouragement and praise, and also his workplace support (including reduced hours). North suggests that we cannot expect a revolution in gender inequalities in Japan. Instead we should continue to examine the evolution of gender relations, as the behaviors and beliefs of one generation will influence the next. He also suggests the threat of divorce, outspoken women, foreign influence and examples of more gender equal work distribution, women supporting women (both in the workplace and in family relations), and cross-generational support are all factors that will bring about improvement in the family work gap. Finally, he suggests that governmental policies like the "No Overtime Day" are crucial. The key difference in these policies from the ones in the past is that they do not simply focus on the mother's role in family work, but also identify and support the father's role in family work and life.

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