JPRI Working Paper No. 33
Absent Fathers, Feminized Sons, Selfish Mothers and Disobedient Daughters: Revisiting The Japanese Ie Household
by Tomoko Hamada

Japan's political-economic ideology has been perpetually reconfigured from a variety of ideas and intellectual traditions, both foreign and domestic. These ideas both reflect and are bolstered by the social institutions, the educational system, the media, and popular sentiment. In creating a nationalism powerful enough to withstand the West, the ie, or Japanese household, emerged as a cultural symbol. "Without the ie," wrote a prewar nativistic scholar Yanagita Kunio, "it would be difficult to explain to oneself why one should be Japanese."

Although the state-as-family with the ultimate father figure (the emperor) supposedly died at the end of the second world war, a new company-as-household ideology was reborn in tandem with Japan's business expansion. Japanese management utilized the ie metaphor to incorporate an increasing number of Japanese workers into uchi no kaisha (the internal, familial world of the company) while also successfully domesticating western technology and capitalist principles. The system of life-long employment, seniority and internal promotion utilized by big Japanese corporations encouraged the subjugation of the individual interests to group (in this case corporate) welfare. Recently, however, dramatic changes in the socioeconomic and demographic environment and gender role expectations are challenging the monolithic ie ideology. New studies suggest that the degrees of emotional commitment to the family, corporate or otherwise, differ widely among Japanese and between men and women. These findings refute the conventional stereotype of the Japanese household.

The Use of the Ie by Japanese Corporations

During the postwar era, social scientists were searching for an effective paradigm that would explain the nexus between the public realm and daily life in Japan. To many Western ethnographers, the Japan of the last three decades was the test case for Western social organization theory. The concepts of ie, iemoto, kazoku-shugi, and dozoku were put forward to explain patterns of organization in Japanese institutions, often to contrast them to those in Western societies. Like many other prewar institutions, the ie had actually been abolished as a legal entity by the new postwar civil code. But social scientists argued that the ie still survived as a cultural artifact. Chie Nakane's influential book Japanese Society (1970) was interpreted by many to mean that Japanese society is vertically organized, and that in such a society it is impossible to define individual identity outside the group (in contrast to the definition of individuals in a society that emphasizes individual autonomy). Since the publication of Nakane's book, a number of social science studies have supported the image of the modern Japanese self as an individual within a collectivity, and the so-called Nihonjinron have also spread this image. Once such analyses became fixed, alternative ways of analyzing Japanese social reality seemed to dissipate.

By the 1970s, the Japanese corporations began to recognize that the ie ideology was an effective tool in business management that could be used to justify the status quo and quell any criticism that might pose a serious threat. This criticism could be either domestic or come from abroad, as the Japanese economy rapidly moved to the world's center stage.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, social science research on the ie again expanded. The ie connotation--that of organizational continuity over time, or "the reproduction of its structure over time"--was creatively consumed by business elites, who often used it to contrast with "individual-based" social control mechanisms. Nationalist scholars such as Eto Jun helped popularize this image by stating that while the self has become fragmented in Europe and America, Japanese have retained a firm identity because of their integration into the larger social group.

During this same period, not only Japanese management scientists, but also top Japanese firms such as Toshiba and Nippon Steel were eager to explain Japan and the Japanese people to the outside world. In 1982, Nippon Steel Corporation's division of human resource development published an English-language book entitled Japan, The Land and Its People that has sold more than half a million copies, mostly among business people, and that is now in its fourth edition. The videotaped version of the book won awards by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The company has shipped 12 volume-video sets and 10 volume audiotapes to more than 50,000 firms, schools and organizations globally.

Nippon Steel and other international firms are acutely aware of the likelihood of 'misunderstanding' and friction arising between Japan and other countries. Therefore, Nippon Steel argued, "from now on, it will be imperative for the Japanese not only to know more about foreign countries but also to take every possible opportunity to assist people everywhere to obtain a broader and deeper understanding of Japan" (p. 12).

Yoshino Kosaku, who analyzed the content of this book and other books popular among business people, concluded that Japanese business had adopted cultural relativism to explain the Japanese way of thinking. "Cultural relativistic thinking as applied to the Japanese context has resulted in the assertion of Japanese uniqueness because of the Japanese conscious attempt to challenge the assumption that the Western ways are the 'universal' ways, and to emphasize that the Japanese ways should equally be respected in the community of world cultures" (Yoshino 1992:179-180).

The Japanese businessmen I interviewed frequently attempted to explain the Japanese style of management as characteristic of Japan's "unique" culture. They often used the ie metaphor to explain basic organizational principles. Such cultural explanations neglect the fact that many frictions in labor management are economic or class-based and have little to do with culture. In addition, and perhaps more important, it neglects the fact that most Japanese historical experiences are extremely hybrid. Far from being unitary or monolithic, contemporary Japanese culture contains many more "foreign" elements than it consciously excludes. The more they discuss the image of unique Japanese society using the prototype of the Japanese household as if it were a pure or even purged theoretical model, the more they enter into the realm of fantasy.In revisiting the ie model in industrial settings, I want to present an alternative version of the contemporary Japanese household. Instead of talking about the collective household, I will focus instead on absent fathers, feminized sons, selfish mothers and disobedient daughters.

Absent Fathers

The ie became a collective symbol around which Japanese business elites rallied to identify and organize themselves in opposition to the Occident. But the ideological base of the corporate ie is actually anti-family. During the last several decades, Japanese masculinity has become more and more directly linked to corporate employment. The centralizing principle of corporate familism excludes women, while highly centralized and rapidly globalizing "keiretsu" firms incorporate more and more Japanese males into wage- and salary-based employment. Today 80% of Japan's labor force consists of wage-and-salaried workers.

It is important to note that until the 1970s, the word sarariiman (salaried man) conjured up a rather drab occupation and low socioeconomic status--the sons of the unpropertied classes who labored in urban gray buildings, and received salaries that were determined by their companies. A new image of company men emerged only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Japanese economic structure underwent a transformation, impelling gradual changes in both the occupation and the socioeconomic level of the salaryman. This era was also marked by frequent usage of the ie metaphor in analyzing the benefits of the so-called Japanese style of management. By then Japan's most significant economic activity had shifted to corporations, while the numbers of farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and small business proprietors steadily dwindled. As the occupation of salaryman absorbed more and more Japanese men, male-dominated work organizations began to provide a home-like social context for their members.

However, during this era, the educational level of the Japanese people continued to climb, and the economy expanded until the late eighties. The original stereotype of corporate automatons became woefully inadequate as some companies began to establish salaries based on individual abilities rather than seniority. A new word 'businessman' (bijinesuman) became prevalent to describe a respectable number of those who worked as pillars of large Japanese corporations. However, the pitiful 'salaryman' images continued to appeal to ordinary workers who related to and were comforted by them. Like the cartoon character 'Dilbert,' who exemplifies marginalized masculinity in contemporary corporate America, the bumbling, bone-lazy rank-and-file office worker called hira-shain became a stock figure of comedy in the Japanese mass media, TV home drama and manga (comic books).

In the official corporate familism, the gender role for Japanese males was always clear: Japanese men should find jobs and work hard for the company. They should be the sole bread-earner of the Japanese household. A Japanese husband could work as long and as hard as he wished at his job because his wife raised the children, looked after his house and attended to his daily needs with a high degree of competence. In other words, men utilized their wives as caretakers so that they themselves could perform at full capacity in the corporate world.

While the male managers I interviewed continue to want their wives to preserve a stable environment at home and construct the uchi (inside-the-house) for themselves and their children, their wives do not necessarily agree with them. Japanese women's concepts of the ideal household seem to be shifting. Some wives do not like their husbands' lengthy absences from home; and, unlike their husbands, they talk a lot about it.

Tanshin funin, or unaccompanied job transfers, in which male employees move to another city or even another country to work and leave their families behind, have become an object of social concern. As Japanese companies are moving production facilities to developing countries, this form of overseas transfers (already a sizeable number: about 250,000 in 1992) will continue to increase. Japanese men are now working in every corner of the world, and for most managerial staff in large companies, personnel transfers between distant locations are both obligatory and frequent. Some face difficulties in reconciling the need for mobility in the world of work with domestic responsibilities, and opt for tanshin funin, leaving their families behind for the duration of the posting.

A 1990 Ministry of Labor survey of large private firms found that 85.1% of tanshin funin employees gave as a reason for leaving their families behind problems surrounding the education of their children, and for 63.2% educational matters were the most important single factor, well ahead of any other cause. Problems associated with home ownership ranked second as a source of concern (cited by 39.6% of respondents), while other major reasons that families opted for partial migration included difficulties associated with the care and mobility of elderly parents (23.1%), and housing problems at the destination (13.0%). Only 10.4% of tanshin funin respondents cited the spouse's employment as a reason. Thus it seems that the Japanese "cultural" norm of stressing children's education, female (maternal) nurturance, and filial piety, all support the male's departure from the household.

Most Japanese firms do offer at least some financial assistance to offset the increased living and travel expenses associated with maintaining two households, but few firms have institutionalized assistance to ease the social and psychological strains on the "business bachelors" and their family members. Richard Wiltshire (1996) notes that when financial assistance for tanshin funin is offered on a conditional basis by the employer, the criteria that employees must satisfy are quite similar to those cited above: namely, major problems with children's education, elderly family members or home ownership.

The previously mentioned Nippon Steel book describes tanshin funin as follows:

     "In Japan it is not unusual for a husband to live temporarily apart

     from his wife for business reasons. Especially if a man is going abroad

     for a short while on business, it is quite common for him to go without

     his family. Even when a man is sent abroad for a long period, it is not

     quite unusual for the wife to remain in Japan for the sake of the

     children's education. If the children were to go to school abroad, their

     education would be handicapped by their deficiency in the foreign

     language, and upon their return to Japan it would be extremely difficult

     for them to catch up with their classmates. Not only when a man is sent

     abroad, but even when he is assigned to a post elsewhere in Japan, it is

     common for the husband to go alone to avoid disrupting the children's

     education" (p. 231).

This account does not even mention that it is also cheaper for the company to transfer only one employee rather than a whole family, even when the company provides some financial assistance for tanshin funin.

Tanshin funin is perhaps an ultimate form of paternal nurturance and sacrifice to feed one's family, and it disproportionately hits middle-aged men. A survey in the private sector found that 81.8% of tanshin funin men are age 40 or over. There is also a strong relationship between the husband's age and home ownership, as well as a higher incidence of dependent elderly.

In my study of the overseas employees of one manufacturing operation in southern China, five middle aged tanshin funin men lived together in a condominium purchased by the company. One man brought his wife, but she returned home after seven days. According to my informants, common hazards of being a tanshin funin were loneliness, poor mental health, poor diet and excessive drinking. Some also engaged in extra-marital affairs or patronized prostitutes.

A survey by the Prime Minister's Office found that more than half of male employees in their thirties and forties would prefer not to be transferred. However, another survey found a surprisingly high degree of tolerance for the practice among tanshin funin wives: 43 percent stated that the separation was not damaging to their marriage, compared to 20 percent who confessed anxiety over the extended separation. Of course this may reveal a 'response bias' (Japanese women are not supposed to complain) and the tradition of gaman (grin and bear it). But it may also be that except for needing their husbands' pay checks, Japanese women find tanshin funin much less stressful than men do.

Feminized Sons

The prewar ie ideology called for the authority of the father figure and a clear line of descent traced through the oldest son called primogeniture. Ironically, today's prototypical masculinity in Japan has become quite different from the traditional patriarch of the individual ie household. The "manly man" in corporate Japan is a manager who must be able to organize and supervise teamwork, who can motivate subordinates, and who is willing to devote his life to the betterment of his company as a human community. The ideal manager in a Japanese firm should not be overly aggressive, autocratic, individualistic, or independent. Instead, he should be a dedicated, sensitive, hard-working team-player. In a sense the ideal Japanese businessman has come greatly to resemble the ideal 19th century Victorian middle-class woman-driven by duty and loyalty, subservient and other-directed.

The Japanese construct of the ideal manager is a person who would be labeled as being 'feminized' if placed in the contemporary American cultural context. This illustrates the fact that gender is socially constructed. The attributes usually associated with "American femininity" are highly valued as managerial qualifications in post-industrial Japan, and perhaps also in U.S. corporations of the future. A similar finding was reported by Powell and Kido (1994), who studied stereotypes of American and Japanese managers among Japanese and American subjects. They discovered that their American subjects preferred American masculinity over American femininity, whereas Japanese managers preferred American femininity over American masculinity as their stereotypical image of a good manager.

Some scholars may wish to link this "other-directedness" to Japan's Confucian ethic, and may interpret the American subjects' preference for American masculinity as deriving from the American homophobic cultural tradition. However, I interpret it more as a manifestation of the highly network-based control of human resources in the Japanese company. In the corporate ie ideology, the institutionalized patriarchy of the "father-company" demands the obedience and service of sons in the organization. The manager therefore becomes a man who can serve. Japanese managers themselves use terms such as miya-zukae (servants of the lord) to describe their status of dependence and service.

It is important to note, in this interpretation of Japanese masculinity as a manifestation of human nurturance and service at work, that the company excludes female managerial participation. In addition, the company, particularly during the economic boom of the 1980s, allowed businessmen to use expense accounts for the rite of masculine privilege and sexual superiority at drinking sessions, after work, in bars and hostess clubs. Every evening in thousands of bars and clubs, professional hostesses acted out roles of sensual femininity. They were paid to restore their customers' masculine identities in opposition to their own commodified femininity.

During the 1990s, businessmen are increasingly subject to demotion and firing, making wage labor an unstable source of masculine identity and human dignity. In fact, even during the height of Japan's bubble economy, the corporate ideology of selfless devotion was not necessarily shared by all individuals in the organization. During the weekdays when Japan Inc.'s workaholic warrior businessmen were supposedly slaving away, movie theaters were filled with men in business suits who were just killing time or sleeping. Capsule hotels and hourly-priced hotels were popular, and coffee shops kept a supply of manga for businessmen who were just goofing off. In addition, starting in the late 1980s the shinjinrui, or 'new breed' of young business men, began to defy the doctrine of self-sacrifice that suggested they were nothing more than latter-day kamikaze pilots in business suits. They refused to sacrifice family and self for the corporate bottom line, and began to question the blind company loyalty and self-denying work ethic of their elders. They became concerned less with the job and promotions than with hobbies or family. After the recession of the early 1990s that completely burst the bubble economy, and the rising yen, even the staunchest former corporate warriors started to have doubts about corporate familism.

Selfish Mothers

In the official ie ideology, the greatest contribution women could make was the raising of children. Chie Nakane (1970) explained in her classic book that in Japan the primary family relationship is the mother-child unit, "to which the husband (father) attaches. . . . The core of the Japanese family, ancient and modern, is the parent-child relationship, not that between husband and wife" (pp. 127- 28). Many social scientists since then have pointed out that there is a high degree of emotional autonomy in Japanese conjugal relationships. Samuel Coleman found that the Japanese couples he studied had difficulties discussing which method of birth control to use because conjugal sexuality, like emotional intimacy, is deemphasized. Social scientists who have built the theory of amae on the child's emotional dependence on the mother also note that the recent dramatic decline in the birth rate has actually prolonged and made more intense the parenting by the Japanese mother and the period of dependency by the child.

However, recent research findings indicate that the image of the self-sacrificing, nurturing mother may no longer fit a majority of young mothers now in the middle of their childrearing years. My own research on young mothers in their twenties and thirties indicates that this new generation does not necessarily think that kodomo-ga-ikigai (my child is my raison d'etre) or kodomo wa jibun no bunshin (my child is my alter-ego).

The psychologist Kashiwagi Keiko observed that young mothers expressed frustration and anxiety over childrearing, by stating kodomo wa futan (children are burdensome) or kodomo kara kaihousaretai (I want to be free from children), and that the ratio of negative feelings toward childrearing was actually higher if the mothers were full-time housewives (Kashiwagi 1994). This sense of frustration among full-time housewives may match recent employment trends in which Japanese women now make up 40 percent of the labor force and more than half of all married women work.

For full-time mothers, having children has narrowed their freedom and they yearn for self-actualization beyond maternity (ikuji igai ni jibun no nouryoku o nobashitai). A cross-cultural study of women in Japan and Brazil conducted by Hanasawa Seiichi (1982) found that Japanese mothers lag behind Brazilian mothers in terms of their maternal identification with their offspring. The new mother in Japan is not necessarily a woman who devotes her life to her child (or children) but, rather, someone who seeks her own personal satisfaction, often outside the household. As soon as children reach kindergarten age, many so-called yan-mama (young mothers) leave their small urban apartments to satisfy their emotional, social, intellectual, and material needs.

Education costs and housing costs are two of the main reasons middle-aged women give for returning to work. They make up the fastest growing segment of the work force. The fact is that a vast majority of Japanese women were and still are largely blocked from seeking careers in large Japanese firms. These middle-aged women manage to find mostly minimum-wage jobs, as lunch delivery persons, supermarket cashiers, or part-time factory workers in Japan's gender-based dual-employment structure. Those who are financially better off enjoy their free time as consumers. They go to restaurants, concerts, theaters, department stores, shopping malls, onsen hot springs spas, cultural centers, karaoke clubs and on overseas shopping tours, while their husbands work to support their affluent lifestyle.

Meguro Yoriko (1987) found that the sense of independence is stronger among Japanese females than males. Higashi, Kashiwagi and Hess (1981), in their cross-cultural analysis of American and Japanese mother-infant interaction patterns, concluded that educational backgrounds rather than nationality and culture explain differences in mother-infant interaction. The classic image of the Japanese mother's close bond with her infant needs to be revised.

Degrees of emotional commitment to children or child-rearing differ rather widely among women, and between women and men, regardless of whether they are Japanese or American. Kashiwagi and Wakamatsu (1994) found a growing disjuncture between Japanese fathers' traditional concept of parenthood and Japanese mothers' shifting attitudes towards childrearing. Kashiwagi's previously mentioned study also found that those who tend to believe that kodomo ga ikigai (my child is my raison d'etre ) or kodomo wa jibun no bunshin (my child is my alter-ego) tend to be Japanese fathers, not mothers. Thus, we are seeing a clear gender difference in perceptions of the ideal household, and between the ideal and the reality. Traditional images of Japanese nurturance in term of maternity and paternity must be reexamined.

Disobedient Daughters

The 1995 census revealed that as Japan grays, people are staying unmarried longer, living alone more, and having fewer children. The latest population statistics show that those who are in the 65-and- older age group grew to 18.3 million or 14.5% of the population, while the 15-and-younger age group declined to 20.1 million or 15.9% of the population. The Japanese government has traditionally promoted the desirability of home-care for its elderly, but the government now realizes that such an approach is not going to meet the need. The number of those over age 65 is predicted to reach 20 percent of the population by the year 2011, and 25% by 2025.

Currently about two-thirds of those who need around-the-clock care are looked after by women, mainly daughters-in-law; the rest are in hospitals and nursing homes. Oi no michi, Onna no michi (Old Age Road, Women's Road), a series the Yomiuri Shinbun began in 1984, portrays various situations in which old people with dementia are being looked after at home, mostly by daughters-in-law. Increasingly, however, housewives do not want to take care of their aging parents-in-law.

While no one is out in the streets shouting about feminism, and indeed feminism is seldom, if ever, cited as the reason behind the growing number of Japanese women in the workplace, or the crisis in old age care, many of the women I interviewed are currently engaged in what I call "active forms of withdrawal" within the areas over which they have personal control. These forms of female noncompliance include such things as not cooking special dishes to accommodate the tastes of parents-in-law or fixing dinner for husbands who come home late; refusing to accompany husbands to a new job location; and refusing to clean up the house for them. As more and more women are working outside the household, some women refuse to take care of aging in-laws (a majority of whom are also women) and demand "burden-sharing" from their husbands.

Japanese women have the longest life expectancy of any people in the world. They can now expect to live to 81, quite a change from the prewar days, when most women died by the age of 50. In those days, the average woman had five children and unending household chores. Her youngest child entered school when she was about 42, and she herself died some eight years later. Today, by the time a Japanese woman is 35 or 40, she has become 'free' of child-rearing because she has typically had only one child, and she still has another 40 years to fill.

The latest census statistics also reveal that more than two-thirds of Japanese men and almost half of the women in the 25-29 age group are still single, the highest rate in the history of the census. The number of people living alone in Japan rose 19.7% between 1990 and 1995, to 11.2 million.

In my interviews with Japanese housewives, they seemed quite willing to reexamine the myth of the ie household and their traditional gender roles. Some are seeking new ways to reconceive marital and parental relationships. Japanese women have recently become more open about their own sexual needs and their perceptions of extra-marital sex. Japanese women's journals are filled with discussions about furin or furii-sekkusu (free sex.) Tanaka (1995) reports that only one-third of the housewives surveyed by Tamura Masaaki of Saitama University Medical School disapproved of the free sex trend among women.

There are also increasing incidents of prostitution among housewives and teenage girls that reflect, albeit in an exaggerated way, the sexual morality of the time. According to several reports, teenage girls want to have sexual relationships with adult men because they want spending money, to buy special brand-name clothes (such as Chanel suits costing $1,500 apiece) and special cosmetics (such as brand-name perfumes and spa products.) These young girls' commercial motivation in "selling their bodies" is directly related to the increasingly diverse, hedonistic lifestyle of adult consumption patterns and to deteriorating family environments.

Another statistic that indicates the changing moral standards of the Japanese family is the tenfold increase in alcohol consumption among young people compared to eleven years ago. While the legal drinking age in Japan is twenty, the law does not require entertainment establishments or liquor stores to check customers' IDs. In addition, Japan is the only country in the world where alcohol can be obtained from vending machines. There are more than 200,000 vending machines that sell alcohol in Japan.

Since the 1970s, the number of female drinkers has risen substantially as the alcoholic beverage industry has targeted the rising disposable income of women and their increased freedom. The phenomenon of the kitchen-drinking syndrome has spread among middle-aged housewives who drink while home alone (Tanaka 1995). Today the ratio of female to male drinkers has reached the European level of 1.0 woman to 1.4 men (Hughes 1995).

As the new economic reality of the 1990s sinks in, absent fathers have begun to look back fondly to their homes and children. But in the post-post-modern megalopolis, Japanese men, women and children--whom I have characterized here as the absent father, the feminized son, the selfish mother, and the disobedient daughter--face the task of establishing new and diverse meanings of the family and weaving multiple images of work and play. The idealized Japanese ie is probably gone forever.


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TOMOKO HAMADA is a Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. She is the author of American Enterprise in Japan (State University of New York Press, 1991) and co-editor of and contributor to Anthropological Perspectives on Organizational Cultures (University Press of America, 1994). A version of this paper was delivered at the meeting of the American Anthropology Association, San Francisco, 1996.

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