Saturday, August 22, 2009

Japanese Women Reassess Gender Equity

The Japanese are one big family, it is often said. Small trends and changes in the family mood are amplified and exaggerated in the press--no matter if the trends are real or imagined. In fact, there is a whole industry, involving TV commentators, the print press, social scientists, and small businesses, that taps into these blips. One of the most salient trends I detected during my recent trip to Japan (visiting Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kushiro) was a subtle shift in the attitudes of young women toward gender equity.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about a new trend in Japan--again whether it is real or imagined is debatable. The article (titled "With Jobs Scarce in Japan, Women Become Professional Flirts") said that some women are choosing to become hostesses in order to survive during the recession and that the image of hostessing as a job has gained some respectability. The article's sensational photo featured a single mother who works as a hostess (oh no, Japan's mothers are becoming prostitutes!).

I asked a Japanese friend, who is an MBA candidate in Japan, about this article and she said that the deeper issue is that single women in their late 20s and 30s are kicking up their search for financial stability. This drive includes doing previously shunned jobs or searching for husbands by engaging in "kon katsu" or "marriage hunting," which includes the use of websites that help women find men. Given the U.S. media's fondness for exoticizing Japan, what are we to make of this new trend? During my recent trip, I was eager to find out.

After talking with many people during this trip, my view is that this trend is both much ado about nothing and much ado about something very subtle, but not necessarily what one would expect on the surface. Keep in mind my view is based on conversations only, not quantitative analysis.

In one regard, this story is about nothing much or at least something that has been going on for a long time in Japan and in the world. Men and women need ways of finding spouses in all countries. Given Japan's ostensible shy culture, its society has developed indirect methods of match making. In the past, it was arranged marriages ("omiai"). In the recent past, it was singles parties at restaurants ("gokon"). In today's digital world, the newest version of this method is match making websites and other services that facilitate marriage hunting. No big change.

But in another regard, something else is going on here. Women seem to be reassessing gender equity. To understand, we have to go back about ten years. During the middle of Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s and early 2000s, economic growth was weak and companies were trying to respond--as was the government. Policymakers and businesses appeared to have found a mutually beneficial solution: tap into Japan's under utilized resource--its women's human capital. From the policy community, this idea was captured by my former boss and former MITI official Nobuo Tanaka in his essay "Girls, Be Ambitious," published in the early 2000s. Here is his essay's sober conclusion:

Encouraging women to enter more fully into the labor force will increase competition for jobs at a time when Japan's unemployment rate is at a post-war high; salaries for male workers could suffer as a result. But two working family members instead of one, which is still more or less the norm in Japan, means more income for the household. Also, it could encourage the sharing of housekeeping chores and child-rearing, tasks which are really much more tiring than office work, as a famous female ex-MITI official once said.

One of our recent speakers, Goldman Sachs Japan Chief Strategist Kathy Matsui, remarked that she was surprised to discover it is not only Japanese labor conventions that keep women from participating more fully in the workforce, but a tangible lack of career aspirations among Japanese women themselves. In her investigations into the economic implications of Japanese women in the labor force, an area that she calls "Womanomics," she notes that fostering career ambition is something that must be addressed as well.

It is difficult to say whether this can, in fact, be addressed through policy: it may be an educational, or even simply a child-rearing, issue. But ambitiousness and career aspirations are very much a desirable characteristic in the upcoming generation of Japanese young women. There is no doubt that they can make a significant contribution to the economic restructuring of Japan, something that we, as well as all of you outside of Japan, are anxious to see emerge.

Meanwhile, from a businessman's perspective, this idea seemed appealing in that women could be hired part-time, thus the birth of another trend in Japan--the furita and arubaito (part time workers). It seemed to be a win-win-win situation--policymakers found a new resource for Japan's economy, businesses found new flexible labor, and women found a new role in the workplace and a new sense of equity. In fact, women could pursue a dream of becoming career women. But how did it turn out?

For some women, the dream was fulfilled--they found careers. For others, the dream was ephemeral--they found drudgery in part time work with no social safety net and no stability. The current recession is hitting these women especially hard as they are seen as expendable--thus the New York Times article about women trying previously undesirable types of professions. As my MBA friend put it, women are doing whatever it takes to find financial stability, whether it be in becoming hostesses or trying updated versions of the age-old match-making practice in Japan. Women are also re-thinking gender roles.

My sociologist friend puts it another way. There are two successful types of couple equity: (traditional) complementary relations where the man does certain tasks (say working full time) and the woman does other tasks (say shopping and raising children); and equal relations where both the man and the women pursue the same tasks (say careers, shopping, and raising children). For centuries, Japan has favored the complementary type of relationships and thus its society has been structured to facilitate it. The newer, equal relationship has had some negative consequences: some women chased their careers and now find themselves alone; or in some cases, raising children and pursuing a career has just proven untenable in Japanese society. As my friend put it, women's expectations and goals have changed and they are therefore reassessing what fairness means between the sexes.

Does this mean the drive for gender equality has failed in Japan? Was the push for women to chase careers misguided? It is too soon to tell. But all of this raises a subtle question. Equity, equality, fairness, and well-being are all virtuous goals for a society. Equality between the sexes and the dream of raising children in a happy home are reasonable goals. But as the Japanese case shows, they can be mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, these trade offs are not unique to Japan either. In a recent phone call back home, I learned about the struggles of Washington's career women in their 30s. Loneliness has driven them to use the dreaded match-making websites. Is this a unavoidable byproduct of modern living?

(Photo by Devin Stewart)


Tom said...

"...(traditional) complementary relations where the man does certain tasks (say working full time) and the woman does other tasks (say shopping and raising childre)...For centuries, Japan has favored the complementary type of relationships and thus its society has been structured to facilitate it."

To give an example of just how pervasive such structures have been, when I was living alone in Chiba city from 1989-1991, I found that I had to do all of my grocery shopping on the weekends, because the store hours were so short at my local Livre Keisei that it was nearly impossible for a person with a full-time job to get home in time to buy groceries. It dawned on me that the store must have been setting its hours based on the assumption that virtually all households included an adult who was home all day and thus free to go shopping in the middle of the afternoon. Single people and two-worker couples apparently were not part of the equation.
Of course, that was 20 years ago, and nowadays nighttime shopping is a bit easier now.

Anonymous said...

What's so dreaded about match-making websites?

Devin Stewart said...

Anonymous, I don't know as I have never used one but the women I heard about in Washington called them "terrible." Do you have other stories?

Anonymous said...

I see. From that it sounds like women would prefer not to use dating sites but are in a such an unfortunate situation that using them, perhaps as a last resort, would make them better off.

I was just confused because I thought dating websites should be a good thing as they introduce opportunities where none existed before. I thought some people just have a stigma against using technology to facilitate social interaction. But it's also possible that the sites themselves have poor interfaces, or the opportunities introduced are only marginally better than loneliness.