A pair of wooden dolls dressed as emperor and empress of the Heian period.

Hina dolls displayed for Girl’s Day (March 3). Photo © conifer, licensed Creative Commons Atribution.

Gender roles in Japan may not be as straightforward as they seem. There’s a general perception by many Americans that Japanese women have lower status than men, that they don’t have equal rights. As evidence, we point to the majority of Japanese women who marry, quit their jobs, and stay at home to raise children (or one child, these days) while men are out in the world. If women had equal rights, our thinking goes, they would want full-time careers, no? Each of us brings our own cultural values and perceptions with us when we encounter another culture. The word “housewife” in English has a connotation of low status, as in “just a housewife.” By contrast, the Japanese term shufu is composed of two characters that mean “master” and “woman.” In other words, shufu is the female master of the home.

Would Japanese women rather switch their job for long hours of work at a company for 30 or more years? The answer is as varied as the individual.Japanese wives keep track of finances, make economic decisions, and give their husbands an allowance. They budget carefully and keep meticulous records of where the money goes and make decisions about the children’s education. They shop frugally and buy fresh produce daily and take pride in cooking nutritious meals. Many women take classes in flower arranging, kimono wearing, tea ceremony, and cooking in order to prepare for their career in household management. In large urban areas the husband has a long commute, gets home late, and rarely sees the children except on Sundays. Some women say it’s easier when their husband’s not home—he’s just one more child to take care of. Husbands who retire are sometimes referred to (tongue in cheek) as sodai gomi, or oversized trash. After working 60 hours a week for 30 years, the husband rattles around the house and gets in the way.

Would Japanese women rather switch their job for long hours of work at a company for 30 or more years? The answer is as varied as the individual. It is true that companies often hire young women fresh out of school to be “flowers of the office,” to file papers and serve tea. At least they can go home at five, while women who choose the managerial track stay overtime with the majority of male employees. On the other hand, women who work as teachers, nurses, and in other service roles often continue their careers after marriage. And it’s not unknown for men who are self-employed or writers to stay home while the wife works outside the home. Women are politicians and business owners and entrepreneurs. In Japan I never met a woman who wanted to swap places with a man.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.