“In Japanese society, the company comes first, not the family. We have no foundation of the family being a priority.” Kikuko Kondo, who works in management at a 20-person company went on to say, “Workers are made to feel they can never take a day off unless everyone else is off. The point is long hours and doing the same thing as everyone else, not working smart and getting home to more important things.”
The company-centered attitude of Japanese society is keeping married women from participating fully in the workplace. And it continues to discourage many women with career ambitions from ever getting married and having children in the first place. The serious decline in the population and the resulting lack of workers means that Japan has no choice but to reconsider its way of doing business.
The stereotypical salary man has been conditioned to put his company first. As Ms. Kondo said, “To him, the best way to show love to his family is through money. There’s not a concept here of showing love through spending time together.” He may have received a week or 10 days of vacation to go on his honeymoon, but he will likely not get that many consecutive days of vacation again until he retires. He is esteemed at work based on how late he works, not so much on his productivity. As “Mayumi,” a working mother, told me, “If my husband were to come home at a decent time, people would think that he’s not talented and not needed at his company.”
A good salary man will spend time after work drinking with his co-workers instead of going home to his lonely wife. What’s more, he may be expected to go on short vacation trips with his company, while leaving his wife at home. Though he may legally have sick days, if he uses them, he will lose respect. He expects his wife to take complete care of the household and raise the children, as his mother did. Though he may want to be more supportive and involved with his children, he probably doesn’t have the energy or he would rather do something fun in his scanty spare time. (I have been told, however, that young men who can’t get “good jobs” are focusing more on their families.)
You can imagine how this plays out at home. One thing that comes through in most conversations with married Japanese women is strong dissatisfaction. By the time husbands get home, often after 10 p.m., they are too tired to make good conversation. A young stay-at-home mom recently told me what I have heard many times, “My husband has nothing to say, so I go to bed before he gets home. If I could get a good job, I’d divorce him.” There is a saying here, “A good husband is healthy and not at home.” This seems to be an attitude that women arrive at gradually after giving up on an intimate marital relationship. “For many Japanese couples, after having children, sexual relations come to an end, and the mother focuses completely on her children,” Mayumi admitted. Sadly, husbands can often be seen as good only for a salary.
For mothers who want to go back to work, the first hurdle they face is the inability of their husbands to help them. As Mayumi said, “I know my husband would want to be supportive if I had a second child, but the reality is that he wouldn’t be able to help me.” How many American mothers could work regular jobs if their husbands didn’t come home until 10:00 or later every night, didn’t pitch in around the house, and weren’t involved with raising their children?
The second barrier is fitting into such a family-unfriendly business culture. If women get sucked into the same situations their husbands are in, what will happen to the children? In addition, what will happen to the women themselves as they, too, become slaves to the company? This is one reason why women who re-enter the workforce after having children, no matter their level of competence or potential, usually choose low-paying, part-time jobs such as waitress and supermarket cashier. While it’s true that companies will typically not hire women with children for full-time jobs, it’s also true that the women themselves have too much sense to want such a life as their husbands lead.
For young, single women who enter the workforce and focus on their careers, getting married and having children seems an impossibility or something they need to put off for a long time. Often, they wait too long and can’t find a husband or have a hard time getting pregnant because of their age. While I’m sure many are happy in the life they have chosen, I have heard from others who aren’t. A young, single career woman told me, “Few Japanese women really like their jobs. They’re just working for the money.” When I asked why, she answered, “Women want to focus on their work and get home quickly, but in Japan everyone has to work until the same time and do things the same way…I wish I could have a regular vacation.” Not to mention the fact that women are routinely paid less because of their sex.
Ms. Kondo appreciates a mother who works at her company because, “She is focused and productive while at work. Even though she needs to leave early every day, she still contributes more than usual.” Ms. Kondo has encouraged this mother and other women at her company and has purposely created a supportive environment for them. But she admits it’s an uphill battle.
There’s very little flexibility in Japanese business culture where the company is a kind of god, and money is life’s highest blessing.
Families are expected to put up with anything demanded by the husband’s job. In most cases, women cannot live up to their potential in such a system without sacrificing their families and, thus, the future of Japan. Far from hurting Japanese business, a family-friendly approach would be its salvation.