Japanese housewives

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.

Japanese Household Spending Rises for 4th Month in a Row

9 thoughts on “Japanese housewives

  1. Anonymous

    The idea that Japanese housewives would spontaneously and collectively reduce spending as act of feminist political will seems a bit far fetched. Such would require Japanese housewives to suppress a significant cultural tendency toward conspicuous consumption and the need of keeping up with the Fujiyama’s. Moreover, it requires that multitudes of Japanese housewives will have forgone the individual pleasure of spending and acquiring in an act of unconscious collective social protest. Perhaps household spending was down because Japanese housewives were responding to a depressed economy.

    Is this a joke?

  2. Grant

    No, it’s not a joke, but thanks for asking.

    I am assuming the name “Charles C. Boycott” is not unknown to you. The term “boycott” describes precisely these moments when individuals suddenly engage in an act of protest, and use their consumer behavior to do so.

    But it is a good question because it asks us to ask how a movement of this sort might have happened in a community that is not “wired” in a conventional ways.

    Now, I am assuming that the name “Howard Dean” is not unknown to you. But here was an instance in which individuals unknown to one another found one another and in the process a “way in” to the political process.

    But it remains to be asked how Japanese housewives might have resolved to engage in a boycott. And I think a “6 degrees” equation, established merely by word of mouth, would serve to explain the phenomenon in question.

    There is of course the question of whether there was sufficient motivation to engage in such an action. Do I have to ask whether you have heard of feminism?

  3. Rajeev

    How would one test such an idea? And what was the contribution (if any) of this factor relative to the total decline in the economy?

  4. grant

    Thanks, Rajeev

    I think it could be tested by qualitative and quantitative means. A feminist sentiment is easy to spot with the second (it is an “active” understanding as opposed to a subterreanean one) and easy to measure with the first. Consumer behavior is still easier to investigate and the figures, broken down by sex and income, are probably already available.

    Your second question is the tough one. There are so many other factors at work it would be difficult to tease out. It doesn’t look like they interact that much (banking, housewives and distribution are nicely segregated) but how they weight? Tough one.


  5. Tom

    I’ve read elsewhere that Japanese women (and, I believe Italian women) are refraining from marrying because men in their culture have adhered to traditional male-dominant role definitions in a world in which images of alternatives to those distinctions are available daily. In Italy, men who want women to behave “just like Mama” are living with their parents well into their ’40’s; they’re called “mamoni” there. Italy’s birthrate is plummeting, with this being at least one cause.

    Then I read about the Japanese women resisting marriage for similar reasons. And now spending…wow, refraining from marriage is one thing, but refraining from spending is REALLY dangerous!


  6. Marie Nauppas

    The idea that women controlling household budgets may be on strike, and that this may be a factor in the economic downturn in Japan, is stimulating and provocative. However, your text raises several issues:

    – as pointed out in the first (rather bigoted) comment, a strike implies concerted action and there is no evidence for this (for the feminist movement to work in the west, women had to create a platform outside the home as the latter is by definition a closed environment). I would argue instead that, rather than concerted action, there has been a shift away from competitive conspicuous spending between households (and housewives in particular) for which there is much evidence as a factor in the economic boom of the 1980s and that the shift is towards competitive thrift. Competitive thrift would imply a different kind of relationship than that suggested by a strike and is perhaps better suited to the realities of struggling smaller income families. It is another way of keeping up with the Fujiyamas, indeed, but also enabling not only conformity (all can and should engage in it) but also adherence to an ethic of economy (as in thrift) on which the Japanese success of the 1960s was based. This does not preclude concerted efforts: indeed, the revival of cooperative style shopping has brought together housewives within neighbourhoods in order to benefit from cheaper prices available at wholesale. For example, fishmongers buying at the famous fishmarket in Tokyo are now competing with housewives (out to get the best deal for their neighbours) instead of catering to them in their shops.

    – Women are ‘often confined to the role of secretaries and assistants’ in the work place: this was (and is) true but is not necessarily the best argument for lack of independence or the need for adopting Western-style feminism. Indeed, secretaries and assistants were also the highest spending group during the boom period as they
    were often unmarried women living at home with few or no expenses other than their personal needs. This provided a financial independence which for some, albeit a small proportion, enabled establishing broader independence (e.g. by eventually buying or renting their own place or putting their funds towards new accommodation once they were married) which ultimately lead them to entering marriage on a stronger footing with some personal wealth.
    So, if anything, feminism ‘à la West’ (and it is tempting to include good old Mae here) should have been better off during the economic boom period.

    – Also, outside the confines of the large urban sprawls, i.e. in the countryside and smaller towns, the question is rather different. For one thing, people may have been seriously affected by the economic downturn, but they have also a much more recent memory of periods of hardships (other than post-WWII): e.g. there were several famines in the north of Japan, during the 1st half of the 20th century. This is not to imply that they are better able to cope or that they do not mind the current loss of affluence, but that the role of women and their spending within the household should be viewed somewhat differently. While I cannot claim the knowledge or insightful understanding of the workings of consumer culture that would come with the experience of running an ad agency and retaining good contacts, I would argue that an understanding of why Western style feminism has not caught on in Japan may require more sustained anthropological fieldwork in a community of households.

    – This brings me to another point: while I too frequently heard comments of the kind made by your translator and was often mocked too for being a single woman travelling and working in Japan, what my fieldwork taught me was the difference between this type of discourse and what went on in the homes. The public shaming of sorts that women are sometimes subjected too is never quite as acerbic or effective as the psychological give and take managed by the women within their household and in part through the budget. And surely anthropology is also about recognizing different levels of discourse?

    – And (ok, this is the last point): it strikes me that there is one element that would strongly support the feminist argument and this is the high proportion of young Japanese women who choose to marry non-Japanese and preferably Western men. This pattern is usually accompanied by moving and living abroad, while the reverse is also true: a majority of Japanese men who marry non-Japanese women tend to remain in (or return to) Japan.
    Does this mean that this pattern enables e.g. a Japanese woman to retain, maintain and perpetuate only those aspects of her culture that she wishes to pass on without the negative traditions of male chauvinism?
    But what this data suggests to me is that further research is required to understand what new role models are being provided for both young men and young women within contemporary Japanese society for them to create a happy household and that feminism may not have the answer.
    In Japan, one should perhaps look at the growing numbers of alternative lifestyles that young couples are adopting, particularly in large urban areas and spreading from there to smaller communities where this lifestyle can be acted upon. This may be a delayed imitation of 1960s-1970s Western-style community life but is so much closer to well-established social structures of the neighbourhood communities in Japanese history that it has a higher chance of success than the import of Western-style feminism.

    Perish the thought… but perhaps women can work at it with the men??

    Thanks for your patience,

    Marie A. Nauppas

  7. JB

    “…as pointed out in the first (rather bigoted) comment…”

    Thank you Maria. You state the case more eloquently then I. Nevertheless, I’m confident your reproof effectively disassociates your thoughts from mine and that others will not think lesser of you.

  8. Grant

    Zounds, has there ever in the history of blogging been a post more interesting and useful than Marie’s? “Competitive thrift” is a lovely notion, and if the ghost of Veblen is reading this blog, he will surely have taken note. As to the rest, may I say what a pleasure it is to read somehow who knows what she is talking about? I stand corrected and illuminated on all points. Thank you, Marie.

  9. Marie

    Apologies to you, JB. I simply had the time to lay out an argument and you are no doubt better versed in the conventions of this kind of pithy discussion.

    And, sorry Grant, I have no claim to original thought: ‘thrift’ as useful to think with anthropologically comes from Daniel Miller’s later work on consumption and shopping in north London in particular. I don’t recall him actually using the expression of ‘competitive thrift’ and I would argue that it would require a different slant to be applied to Japan but still, that’s where the idea comes from!


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