Changing Attitudes towards Gender Roles in Japan: 2002 Snapshot
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
The late marriage and birth trends that emerged during the nineties are just one manifestation of the deep attitudinal shifts which are occurring within Japanese society. In 2001, the average age of marriage reached 29 years for men and 27.2 years for women. Consequently, the corresponding average age of a mother giving birth to her first child was 28.2 years. New ways of thinking about marriage are one of the factors altering the way Japanese people conceptualize traditional gender roles. In 2001, several national opinion polls highlighted how views on gender are gradually evolving, even if some traditional elements remain strong. A new September 2002 study clearly indicates that this process is continuing to gain momentum.
On 7 September 2002, the Cabinet Office (Naikakufu) released the results of a gender equality survey, which is conducted every five years. Previous surveys were carried out in 1992 and 1997. The 2002 poll represented the views of about 3560 adult men and women.*
For the first time ever, attitudes towards the gendered division of labour were evenly split. The 2002 poll found 47% supporting and 47% opposing the statement, "Husbands should work outside the home and wives should take care of their families." These figures represent a significant shift from the two previous surveys, illustrating the steady transformation which is occurring within Japanese society. In 1997, 57.8% of people said they supported the gendered division of work which was little changed from the 60% recorded in 1992. Those who disagreed with traditional gender patterns represented 37.8% in 1997 and 34% in 1992.
These new findings contrast somewhat with a 2001 study done by the Child Future (Kodomomilai) Foundation. This poll represented the views of about 1140 adults of both sexes. In the survey, the subjects were divided into three categories, parents with children under 15 years of age (child-rearing group), married couples with no children and unmarried single people. **
In the 2001 poll, 57% of women and 55% of men in the survey's child-rearing group agreed with the statement "When children are small it is best women devote themselves to child-rearing and wait until the child is older before returning to work." This represented the views of 499 women and 378 men in this category. The results reveal that the concept of intensive mothering for infants is still strong in Japan. Nevertheless, in the same group, 30% of mothers and 23% of fathers thought that "Regardless of marriage, childbirth, etc., it is best for women to continue working." The number of men who thought that wives should not work at all stood at just 13%.
Although the 2002 Cabinet Office poll had no specific parent category, it also showed that the number of people who believe marriage or motherhood should not force women to abandon their careers is steadily increasing. The survey found 37.6% of people thought women should not quit work for childrearing, compared with the 1997 figure of 33.1%. On the other hand, 36.6% of people currently think women should only return to work once their children have grown up, with 9.9% saying they should only work until pregnancy and 6.2% saying they should quit when they marry. These last three figures all represent declines from the previous surveys.
These data sets show that there still exists a strong societal belief in the concept of intensive mothering for infants, but the various survey results also indicate that these attitudes are going through a gradual metamorphosis. Presently, the majority of parents appear to believe that infants are best cared for by the mother. This situation is reinforced by the fact that most Japanese childrearing books recommend that the mother herself should look after a child until it reaches the age of three. This would seem to indicate that views on childrearing will probably be slower to change than overall attitudes towards gender roles. Nevertheless, a decade-long series of polls clearly illustrate that opinions about traditional gender divisions are shifting and this is having, and will continue to have, a major impact on every aspect of Japanese society.
* Fu ga soto de hataraki, sai wa katei wo mamoru, sanbi 47% - naikakufu yoronchousa (Japanese)
["Husbands should work outside the home and wives should take care of their families" 47% supporting and 47% opposing - Cabinet Office poll finds]
Nihonkeizai-Shimbun, 8 September 2002
[Cabinet Office] (Japanese with some English)
** Josei ga kosodate oya no han suu (Japanese)
[Women should look after children say 50% of parents], Asahi-Shimbun, 3 May 2001
Zaidan houjin kodomomilai zaidan (Japanese)
[Child Future Foundation]