Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Value Conflicts over Children
A significant source of conflict in marriage among the people i interviewed is that of how children should be raised; a major source of parental pride, and many men's masculine pride, is having children turn out well. One man, who twenty years ago was a corporate worker with young children for whom he had high hopes, now feels upset when at a business meeting a customer or colleague mentions how his children are at top universities or companies when his own children have never been able to find career-track jobs. Two of my best Japanese friends for decades are now not talking to each other, evidently partly because while one of them has had a mediocre career and has retired, his two sons are both successful and have secure jobs and marriages that have produced grandchildren. The other, although still working as a corporate executive, has sons who are not working or married. When i meet these two men (separately), they refer obliquely to the other, asking, in particular, how the other's children are doing. This alienation is tragic, but given how these men define their sense of being a man, it is perhaps inevitable.
I interviewed a young man of twenty-five twenty years ago who worked for takugin, Hokkaido's leading bank. At that time he chafed at the bank's restrictions on his life, such as requiring him to live in the company dormitory, but he accepted as a matter of course and with considerable pride that his entire career would be spent at the bank. In 1997 takugin went bankrupt, as he learned from the news on television one morning at breakfast. After much initial shock, he recovered nicely, going to work for another bank and then changing jobs to work at a related company at a high salary. However, he remains haunted by how fragile such employment is; he quietly acquires rental properties in case his job again vanishes. His wife wants their daughter and son, aged twelve and ten, to go to good universities and enter top-ranked companies, but he is opposed: “My children need to be able to make their own paths in life, and have skills apart from their companies, because companies can go bankrupt. I know This from my own life.” Because of his own career experiences, he, unlike his wife, does not trust conventional expectations of career success for his children. This interviewee has a miserable relationship with his wife, a full-time housewife. He told me that he would like her to work, but she won't. She is completely uninteresting to talk to, he says, and they have nothing in common; when he makes breakfast once a week for his family, his wife is unhappy, he claims, since he is stealing her role. He and she remain as a couple for the sake of their children, he said. “why did you ever marry her?” I asked him. “well, i didn't know that marriage was going to be like this,” he said. Twenty years earlier, i remember his girlfriend—not the woman he later married—as being beautiful but with nothing to say (although she may have been particularly shy in front of me); finding a person with whom he could communicate through thick or thin didn't seem to be on his mind then, and perhaps not later as well. In any case, it seems that the shock of his firm's collapse that has shaped his life and view of the world is one that his wife has never recognized, as is apparent in their different
Hopes for their children; he told me that they had never really talked about it.
Part of the problem in their relationship may lie in the changing nature of Japanese marriages, where the ideal of communication has only recently emerged; possibly, if he were a young man today, he would not embark on such a marriage. But part of the problem may also lie in the nature of marriage itself throughout the developed world, based as it is on romantic passion, which inevitably to some extent fades. Proponents of miai kekkon—marriages arranged by families (rather than through the individual choice of the partners), the dominant form of marriage in Japan up until the late 1960s (edwards 1989, 53–76; yamada 2004, 124)—have sometimes maintained that arranged marriages are superior to love marriages. In the latter, they say, love fades after marriage, whereas in the former, love—not necessarily romantic passion but deep friendship—grows. Looking at the marriages described by my interviewees, i wonder if this might not be to some extent true—although arranged marriage reflects an earlier Japanese era, never to return.
Another corporate employee i first interviewed in his mid-forties, now in his mid-sixties, has a similar story of marital disharmony, although opposite in its particulars. He has a son who has been hikikomori, or socially withdrawn, and another who quit his career-track job—two unemployed children in their late twenties living at home.5 He has long tormented himself over how such a thing could have happened; today, in retrospect, he blames himself: “i wanted them to go to top universities and enter top companies, but i see now that i was putting too much pressure on them. I never should have done that.” His wife and sons sided against him for several years, and his family was an emotional battleground, as i saw when i visited them. His wife felt that he should simply let his sons make their own paths, rather than inflict on them his own high expectations, and she seems to have taken it out on him through emotional distancing. Finally, he came to see the error of his ways, he told me, and came to fully understand that his sons must be let go: “it's their own lives at this point. They need to make their own way.” But at their age, can they? He believes that in Japan today, financial doldrums have created new opportunities for more diverse ways of life than in the recent past; one of his sons is studying to be a craftsman, while the other, in the privacy of his room, studies investing. He and his wife, after years of difficulties, seemed happy together when i last visited them, almost as they were twenty years ago.
The two men interviewed above have found their senses of being men not just in working hard to make a good living for their families, but also in trying to make families that are happy; one eventually succeeded, it seems, while the other seems likely to fail. Both these men fit the standard role of an earlier era: well-paid corporate employees with stay-at-home wives. However, it is not enough; value differences over their children have plagued their relations with their spouses, with one man blaming his spouse for her conventionality, and the other blaming himself for his own conventionality. Such conflicts could happen in any era but are more likely in today's Japan, where “bringing home the bacon” is not enough for a man to be a man and where society's once taken-for-granted paths for men and women have been called into question. What a man should be, and what a woman should be, were more settled in the Japan of thirty and forty years ago, but today the criteria are up for grabs.
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