THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF JAPANESE WOMEN’S CHANGING LIFESTYLES, ATTITUDES AND EXPECTATIONS
Professor, Iwao Sumiko
3-3-1 Ushikubo-Nishi, Tsuzuki-ku, Yokohama, Japan
Musashi Institute of Technology email@example.com
Changing women’s lifestyles, attitudes and expectations have resulted in a major social problem facing the nation as a whole, i.e., low fertility rate. In today’s Japan many women work side by side with men, but tensions occur whenever women attempt to combine family life with participation in work places, local communities, and other activities outside of home. As clearly reflected in the M-shaped distribution of Japanese women’s labour force participation rate by age, a large number of women between ages 30 and 34 discontinue work for the purpose of raising children, making a dip in the M-shape. This fact demonstrates that even with parental leave laws, it is still difficult for women to manage both a home life and a career. The average Japanese woman, therefore, currently gives birth to only 1.29 children. Coupled with the world’s fastest growing elderly population, Japan’s declining birth rate presents some very serious economic and social worries today, as an ever decreasing work force must support and care for a growing elderly population dependent on pension and public health and care systems. The average life expectancy of women was 84.62 years in 2000 and that of men was 77.64 and is still expected to be longer. Some forecast that it would be 90 by 2050. The proportion of those over 65 is 18.5% of the total population. When a huge elderly population is to be supported by dwindling younger population, it poses many serious problems; Japanese public pension scheme depends upon inter-generational support, each generation supports older generation. Maintaining sustainable pension scheme has become a major political issue not yet solved. Labor shortage is also expected but this can be solved by women’s labor force participation as well as bringing in foreign workers. Business communities are also concerned about dwindling domestic market as consumers are dwindling. We have already witnessed that some private colleges had to close down because they could not attract large enough number of students.
Even more serious problem is the impact upon healthy psychological growth of children. Many parents tend to be over-protective, over-interfering with children and find raising children very stressful. Experiences parents acquire by raising the first and only child do not have opportunities to be applied. It might mean that we are creating a whole generation raised by immature parents. Unlike western nations, the number of children born out of wedlock in Japan has never budged from 8 or 9%. In other words, marriage is prerequisite for birth and the recent trend of postponing marriage has had serious consequences upon fertility. In 1975, the average age of the first marriage for women was 23. By 2000 the average age had jumped to 27 for women. Current census data shows the percentage of women from age 25 to 29 who are single is 54%, versus 20.9% in 1975. An estimated 20% of women between the ages of 30 and 34 are still single, versus less than 8% twenty years ago. By delaying marriage, Japanese women are both delaying childbirth and reducing the number of children they bear. Recent public opinion polls conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office reveal some reasons why women are not marrying. First is an economic independence. Many more women have joined the labor force and do not need a husband for financial support. Marriage is no longer a necessity but an option and therefore, women want to find some meaning and strong companionship in marriage. However, men are slowly changing but not totally free from traditional sex-roles in married relationship, expecting women to shoulder much of household chores and childcare. This creates a wide gap in men’s and women’s attitudes and expectations toward marriage. Secondly, when the advantages of staying single are weighed up against those of getting married, marriage has clearly lost much of its appeal. In the past, getting married and having a family meant that for the first time in her life a woman could have the sort of living space she desired. Today, however, unmarried women have the rooms, furniture, telephones, and televisions they desire while they are still single and living with their parents. Furthermore, parents prepare their daughters’ meals and do their cleaning and laundry, and indulge their adult working daughters rather than put pressure on them to become independent. If these young women get married, not only will they have to prepare their own meals and do their own cleaning and laundry, but they will also have to do the housework for another person. If they think their husband might return home before them, they will find it more difficult than they did when they were single to work late and do their jobs to their satisfaction. Moreover, they will no longer have the freedom to spend their money as they please. There is also no advantage to getting married in terms of being sexually active, since sex before marriage is more socially acceptable now than it was in the past. These factors all combine to make marriage less appealing. The freedom of single life is too good to give up for marriage. Young women are even less willing to limit their freedom to accommodate the wishes of a spouse. When studying population statistics, which demonstrate an excess of single men (half a million more men than women in their 20s and 30s), it is easy to see why Japanese women are not eager to jump into marriage and why they feel they have the upper hand when it comes to choosing a spouse.
With the many options now open to them, women have to take personal responsibility for making one of the most important decisions in their lives (marriage), which also means that they have to take responsibility for any mistakes they might make. Today’s youth—men and women alike—also seem to fear committing themselves to a strong intimate relationship. They are afraid of setting themselves up for the pain that might ensue should the relationship fail, and so they avoid committing to the deepest of all relationship—marriage. All these factors promote the trend toward later marriage, which in turn has led to a serious downward trend in the birth rate.
If we turn our eyes to the workplace, the customs and climate in Japan still demand that employees, especially men, place work over family. Companies need to reduce the amount of overtime and offer more flexible work options. But the present situation flies in the face of the demands of young women who expect to maintain an equal partnership with their spouse and demand more equal sharing of household chores and childcare. Many of these women are taking on the same work in the office as men while also assuming responsibilities at home, and so naturally they expect their husbands to take part in housework and childcare. However, even if men intend to take on their share of the housework and childcare, in reality they are often forced to work overtime, and as a result they do not arrive home until late at night. In this case, the burden falls on women, who then have to take on the double task of working and taking care of the home. This obviously puts them under enormous pressure. Today’s young women have been raised in a climate of prosperity, and they have not learned to endure sacrifice. They have no intention of giving up their leisure activities simply because they have children. When they look at the carefree lives of their friends who do not have children, they feel even more restricted and less able to cope with being forced into self-sacrifice, even for their loved ones. Naturally, women think that their husbands should help them with the housework and child raising, but it is often the case that husbands are not able to leave work early. Women end up bearing responsibility for these matters, and they feel an enormous burden, and this situation has made young women reluctant to become mothers and has contributed toward the declining birth rate.
There are also many women today who become mothers without ever having had contact with small children because they themselves have had few or no siblings, and these women are understandably worried about raising children. These days, nuclear families have become the norm, and there is often no other family member around to consult with or to relieve a woman’s worries about raising children. If women are not working, they feel an even stronger sense of isolation from society. In addition to such worries and isolation, the media inundates women with stories about the sorts of problems that might be encountered by parents and children, and this can exacerbate concerns. Moreover, children are no longer seen as «a gift from heaven», but rather as «something that you make», so that parents bear all the responsibility for their «products». This means that having and raising children no longer appears to be a carefree task. If a woman resigns from her job in order to have children, it is difficult for her to find another job later with similar working conditions. Less than 30% of women who were employed at a company before giving birth remain employed by the same company after giving birth. In these circumstances, it is natural that an increasing number of women would rather continue to work than resign, and as a result the support system is now set up in such a way that either parent can take parental leave, a provision legally mandated. Although 68% of men and women think it is a good idea for fathers to take parental leave, only a very small number of men (0.44% of fathers) have done so.
In urban areas, lengthy waiting lists for places at public childcare centers, which are said to be excellent, are a serious concern. Even if places are available, there are many problems in terms of operating hours, care for sick children, and other services. Because of this, more and more women hesitate to have children even if they want them. The Japanese government are now spending large budget for childcare policies.
Most of the factors causing Japanese women to delay marriage are beyond the control of public policy. Once they are married, however, we can and should do more to make it financially and emotionally appealing for women to bring children into the world. And social policies should take women’s changing lifestyles and values if they intend to be effective. I believe that creating a gender-equal society where men and women can balance their activities both inside and outside the home promises an environment where all people, regardless of gender, can lead richer lives while enjoying parenting. Many men and some women still believe that women’s social participation is the cause of low birth rate. But if you look at the relationship between labour force participation rate and birth rate among OECD nations, it is clear that the high labour force participation and higher birth rate are correlated. Therefore, achieving gender equality seems to me the only effective answer to declining birth rate.