Are Japanese housewives no longer on strike?
The NYT today tells us that household spending is up. And it is widely understood that Japanese housewives control the household budget.
The most intriguing explanation for the long-standing downturn in the Japanese economy I ever heard is from Alan Middleton who teaches marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. (And to be fair to Alan, he was not insisting that this was the only factor nor that it was a certain one. He suggested it as a possibility only. It’s also worth pointing out that Alan ran an advertising agency in Tokyo some years ago and continues to have very good contacts there.)
Alan says that he thought it was possible that the downturn was created in part by a version of Japanese feminism. Japan has embraced many cultural innovations, but it is not clear that feminism is one of them. In fact, it looks like the cultural division that once prevailed, more or less, in the West prevails there still.
Women control the domestic space, men the world outside the home. Women do participate in the world of work, but very often they are confined to the role of secretaries and assistants. What is worse, men continue to treat women with a high hand and a presumption of superiority.
I caught a glimpse of this when I was doing research for Kodak a couple of years ago in Tokyo. As one interview began, there was a long exchange between the head of the household and the translator. As we were leaving the home, I asked her what it was about.
“Oh, he was asking me why I was not yet married. He was mocking me.”
I waited. It sounded like there was more coming.
Fnally, she said, with great feeling, in a quiet but unmistakeable voice addressed a little to me but mostly to the world.
“What I didn’t say was that if I was married I would have to live with a pig like him.”
She was, it should be said, about 35, intelligent, attractive, presentable, and very, very clear.
This is just one data point, but it spoke volumes. In cases like this, anthropologists, and for many of them this may be the only time they do so, play a statistical game. This woman, as I got to know her over a week of constant company, with the opportunity to watch her interacting with households, in every respect a conventional creature. The chances that this feminist sentiment should have taken hold in her and not in some substantial part of the educated, middle class, was remote. Single remarks from single individuals can speak volumes for the rest of the community.
So several things are possible: 1) that feminist sentiment is alive and well in many Japanese homes, 2) that there has been almost no movement in the larger culture and economy to accomodate it, and 3) that Japanese women began to use the last weapon at their disposal. They controlled the household economy and to this extent some part of the domestic consumer economy…and they went on strike.
Clearly, there were many other things at work in the economic downturn, including a banking crisis and an economy that has in some respects, especially to do with channels of distribution, not very much changed since the middle of the 20th century. But this factor, if it is a factor, would be a very interesting one, not least because it will take more than banking or channel reform to fix it.
This is where anthropology meets economics in the most conventional way. Economics is very good at making numbers matter. Most of the things that are wrong with the Japanese economy can be indexed, charted, graphed and otherwise made manifest in the data that comes to economists from Dow Jones and the Bloomberg system.
What will never show in these numbers is the way Japanese women think about themselves, their husbands, their households and their economy. This factor, if it is a factor, will play like a shadow on a spread sheet. It may somehow have changed, and changing, made the new upturn possible. But it is more likely that Japan continues to refuse feminism and that the “housewive boycott” will live on to make itself felt another day.