Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
The Girl, the Smiling Guy, and the Car
Sachi met her husband, Fujii Masaji, when she was eighteen: “i met him on the street. He was on a big motorcycle. Wearing a big helmet. I nodded to him. That was the beginning! I thought he looked cool, so i nodded my head. And he asked me to go out.” At the time, however, she already had a boyfriend, so she turned him down. But Masaji was persistent. Eventually her boyfriend left her, and a friend of Masaji's convinced her to go with him to visit Masaji in the hospital, as he was having kidney surgery and might die. That was the start of their relationship. She was nineteen, he, twenty-one. They married in 1976, when she was twenty-one—three years earlier than the average age for a woman at first marriage at the time. The groom, too, was younger than the average groom. Sachi was the first among the sisters to marry. She noted, “i wanted to leave home as early as possible. . . . Because we had so many of us [in the family], in any case i wanted to get out. Back in those days it was popular in tv dramas to feature young brides. We called them osanazuma—young wives, right? So i wanted to marry early.” Although sachi was younger than average for her cohort, twenty-one was not an unusually young marriage age for someone who had been in the workforce since age fifteen. Furthermore, she had already passed the age of twenty, the legal marker of adulthood.
While in recent years desirable men have been described with the attributes of the “three c's” (cooperative, communicative, and comfortable)—and before that, the “three highs” (tall, high income, and high education)—sachi was attracted to Masaji because he was kind and gentle (yasashī): “that was my only thought: in any case, [i wanted] a gentle guy.”
Although she had been earning a living since graduating from junior high school, sachi remained living with her parents as was the custom (and still largely is the custom, especially for younger women). This practice was encouraged by the factory; it expected young women who could commute from home to do so, and it did not provide a dormitory for young women whose parents lived nearby. Masaji had been living in a company dormitory since his family lived in a distant prefecture, but sachi's family lived near the factory, so the only legitimate reason for her to move out would be marriage. Masaji was a high school graduate from rural western Japan. He had come to Kansai to attend high school and then obtained regular employment at a large and well-established battery company after he graduated.
Sachi and Masaji had a wedding, but they did not ask their parents to pay for it: “From our parents we got a futon and an inexpensive kimono and dishes. . . . So we didn't get money. . . . The two of us saved our money. We saved
¥50,000 a month; he saved ¥40,000, and i saved ¥10,000. That was how we rented a place to live and bought furniture and paid for the wedding.”9 it was a prodigious sum for them to save. This would have been about $170 a month In 1974 at the average exchange rate of ¥290 per $1 (economic research 2012). Sachi's contribution represented 10 percent of her disposable income. She gave half of her income to her parents. Masaji was able to set aside much more because he lived in a company dormitory. Perhaps another benefit of his years in dormitories was his expertise at cleaning house and doing the laundry, skills that he willingly put to use after marrying sachi.
Sachi hoped for two or three children, and she and her husband wanted a house of their own. Before marriage, they discussed their goal of becoming homeowners, but they did not discuss how they were going to achieve it. It would have been an impossible goal had she not kept her position as a regular employee. But she did keep it. Nobody in her family objected since they knew she was aiming to buy a house. And although it was not easy in the inspection and packaging division to have children and remain working at azumi (roberts 1994), as noted, sachi was encouraged by the few senior women in that department who had kept on working after childbirth.10
Sachi was able to give birth and return after fourteen weeks' maternity leave each time. Her own mother lived close by and was willing to look after the babies for the first six months until they could enter day care (hoikuen), so she paid her mother to care for the children and remained at work: “it was tiring. I didn't have much morning sickness, but it was the standing [that was difficult]. But if you sit, you get terribly stiff shoulders. I am still going to the chiropractor now. All that work looking down [in inspection]. . . . It was really tough work.” We should note that she paid her mother for her services. Sachi and her siblings, growing up in a working-class family, were expected to pull their weight. Yet the Fujiis did not enforce this norm with their own children when they became employed, perhaps because they wanted to indulge them, and until Masaji passed away, they could afford to do so.
The three children, two girls and a boy, were born in the span of six years. Soon sachi had all three children in different public day-care centers. She drove them all to their centers first thing in the morning, on a motorbike, with her son, the youngest, on her back. she would leave work an hour early, at 4:30 p.m., to pick up the children. I asked her why they did not have a fourth. She replied, “Probably i would have kept having kids until we had a boy—my husband really wanted a boy. Because i saw the disappointed look on his face when our second child was a girl. Everybody had been saying it looked from My shape that it would be a boy. I was taken aback, and i decided to keep trying. But after we had a boy, i thought, that's it for me!” Up until the 1980s, the preference to have at least one son was still strong, as sons were seen as important as the ones who would carry on the family line. Nowadays this preference has weakened, as daughters are seen as preferable to daughters-in-law as companions and caregivers in one's old age (Fuse 2006).
The couple bought their first house when sachi was twenty-four, in 1979. (at this point her elder daughter had been born.) They took out a thirty-year loan for the house, with a down payment of $4,550, which they had saved. The house price (at ¥220 per $1) was $55,700 (economic research 2012). Then in 1984, in order to take advantage of the after-school day-care program in another neighborhood, they sold it and bought another house for $100,000 (at ¥240 per $1) and a twenty-six-year mortgage. Because of rising land prices, they were able to make a small profit on the sale of the first house. The new neighborhood was suburban, peopled with salaryman/professional housewife families. The home was a modest two-story affair on a very small lot with a carport but no room for a garden.
By this time, their son also was born. They had achieved their dream: they had completed their family, they had their house, and they were both working steadily. Sachi had the good fortune to be blessed with a very strong mentor, who asked her to take the test for the first level of promotion.11 she passed it at age thirty-one. It was around this time, in 1986, that Masaji became gravely ill and had to start kidney dialysis. This was also the beginning of Japan's bubble economy.
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