Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Men Forced from the Family
Other men i interviewed found their senses of being men in pursuing their own artistic or career dreams as well as in having families, but these different goals may be incompatible. In the cases of the two men i describe below, their wives had no use for their dreams, and once these men's incomes shrank, their wives divorced them.
I interviewed a man of thirty in 1990, when he was on the cusp of getting married to a woman who disapproved of his unrealizable dream of becoming a doctor; they had two children within several years, and he abandoned that dream. In 1992, he found a job in a company doing marketing reports; he worked there for twelve years and was paid quite well. But he tired of it and quit to start a coffee shop—one more of his dreams and one that brought home far less money than his earlier job. His wife, a full-time housewife, accused him of abandoning the family by not earning enough money. “i wasn't her husband anymore because i wasn't supporting the family; that's what she told me,” he said. “she didn't want to lose the high standard of living she had when i was working for a company. That, finally, is why we divorced. . . . She really didn't understand the kind of person i was, what i was looking for in my life. . . . Yes, my salary was really high when i worked for the company—it's really fallen! But we could have gotten by!” His wife eventually found a job, he told me, but one that brought in even less money than he was making; a court deemed that, other than a few remaining years of child support, he owed his wife nothing. He never sees his children now—his wife won't allow him to—but claims that he does not miss them too much. Now he lives alone and dreams of becoming a novelist. Just as he has for all of his adult life, he lives for his dreams, but now they are dreams he holds bereft of his family.
Another man i interviewed twenty years ago was a self-employed designer Who had recently gotten married and had a son; he saw himself as an artist and felt considerable frustration at the gap between his artistic dreams and the requirements of his new family. His wife insisted that he devote himself to his family, he told me, and worried about whether he could make enough money to support his family. By the time i interviewed him twenty years later, he had lost his design company—it folded in 2000 in Japan's ongoing economic downturn—and had become a taxi driver, taking the night shift, which he has been doing for over a decade. Four years ago his wife divorced him while he was in the hospital suffering from stomach cancer. The divorce happened because of a specific incident: his son had a car accident for which my interviewee was indirectly to blame, and after a heated argument his wife served him with divorce papers. But underlying this discord is the lack of money. His income has consistently been low, and his wife, who also worked and brought home over half the family income, had grown increasingly weary of his lack of contribution to the family. He did half of the cleaning and cooking and child rearing, he claimed, but admitted that if he had had more money, the divorce might never have happened. His ikigai, the center of his life, he said, was half his children, whom his wife allows him to see once a month, and half the book he is writing about his experiences as a night taxi driver.
In both these cases, these men's wives seem to have felt that if their husbands weren't making enough money, then they weren't properly playing their roles as husbands. These men's dreams, so important to their own senses of themselves, were dreams that their wives seemed to consider no more than hobbies or pastimes, to be tolerated only if the husbands' income was sufficient. Their wives may have put up with them in the past for the sake of the money, but if they weren't bringing in money, why bother? One can hardly blame these wives. If they had married within the earlier assumption of a gender role division, then their husbands had shirked their responsibility by not adequately supporting their families. If they had married within the emerging new assumption, expecting communication and commitment from their husbands, then their husbands, in putting their own dreams first, had rejected such commitment. Or perhaps these wives expected both their husbands' high incomes and deep emotional commitment, a double expectation that may be impossibly hard to fulfill. We cannot know; we hear only from their husbands, who claim, one vociferously and the other more implicitly, that their wives failed to understand the dreams that they felt defined them.
Wives' satisfaction in marriage is consistently lower than that of husbands in Japan, by statistical measures (inaba 2009, 122–130); this dissatisfaction is A major reason for rising Japanese divorce rates, which tripled between the mid-1960s and the early 2000s (Ogawa, retherford, and Matsukura 2006, 27; tsuya and Bumpass 2004, 7), with over 30 percent of marriages today destined for divorce (alexy 2011, 238). Divorce has been increasing largely because with women's greater ability to earn a good income (as is the case for one of the wives discussed above, if not the other), they need not stay in a marriage only for the sake of their husbands' incomes if the marriage is not personally fulfilling to them (yamada 2001, 196). Japanese divorce laws are, however, still rooted in an earlier era of gender role division, allowing only for single-parent custody, typically the mother's (alexy 2011, 239; “Child-snatchers” 2012; Kumagai 2008, 63–64). Thus divorced men can see their children only on their wives' forbearance. The two men discussed above both insisted on following their dreams and had sought to maintain families while more or less following those dreams. At this point, having been expelled from their families, these men had nothing to live for but their dreams.
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