Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Marriage and Employment Markets
Marriage involved a market in the sense that women and men searched for partners according to particular criteria and values. In referring to marriage in this way, i do not mean that love and affection were not important to Japanese women. Nearly all women we interviewed wanted to find romantic love and thought that romantic love should accompany marriage. In a 2010 national survey, 88.1 percent of women who had married in the past five years reported that their marriages were “love marriages,” relationships they had started through their own initiative and contacts, while only 5 percent were reported to be “arranged” by omiai (arranged meetings for the purpose of marriage) (national institute of Population and social security research 2011). My perspective, however, is that feelings such as romantic love and attraction are intertwined with social, economic, and practical considerations.5
Some women, particularly women over thirty-five, wanted to find romantic partners or lovers, and they were not interested in marrying. In this chapter, however, i will not discuss the market for lovers, boyfriends, or girlfriends. I focus on the marriage market because of its power to shape people's views of their choices and because most single women in my sample, like most women in Japan, wanted to marry. A 2010 national survey, for example, showed that
89.4 percent of single women ages 18–34 said that they wished to marry. Only
6.8 Percent said that they had no intention to marry (national institute of Population and social security research 2011). Through interviews, i found that women's degree of interest in marriage varies greatly. A handful of women were extremely eager to marry; about half said that they wanted to marry if an appropriate person appeared, and about one-quarter expressed ambivalence about marriage. Only one woman in my sample, a lesbian, said that she did not want to marry—although even she had considered marrying at one point in her life. What do women and men want from a marriage partner? In a national survey of over ten thousand unmarried women and men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, both women and men selected “personality” (hitogara) as the most important criterion in deciding on a spouse. The second most selected answer for both women and men was “a partner's ability to perform housework and take care of children” (national institute of Population and social security research 2011). These surveys tell us what kinds of issues are important to women and men, but they do not reflect how people actually make decisions about marriage partners. Sociologist Ogura Chikako has considered how women choose spouses. She writes the following: “Marriage is an exchange of resources between women and men. You have to locate your own resources, and even if you make a high standard of requirements of the other person, you may never meet your appropriate mate. According to a survey of university students, women most want 'economic ability' from men, and men want 'beauty' from women. Although they do not say this in so many words, this is what they persistently ask for. As a result, marriage is an exchange of kao [face] for kane [money]. Women offer their 'faces' and ask for 'money.' Men offer money and ask for beauty from women” (2003, 29).
Ogura interviewed fifty-two women and found that educational background was the primary factor that shaped women's views of marriage. According to Ogura, high school–educated women wanted to marry to financially survive (seizon), graduates of two-year colleges wanted to marry to depend on a man so that they could pursue their own interests (izon), and university-educated women wanted to marry while preserving their career choices (hozon) (2003, 31). Ogura believes that women's expectations for their potential marriage partners—for example, that they will find a man who will earn a high income and help with housework—are unrealistic, leading to later and lower rates of marriage. Recent popular phrases play upon women's expectations for marriage partners. In the past, the three “highs” women expected of men were said to be high education, high income, and height. since the 1990s, however, it is often said to be the “three Cs,” referring to “comfortable” (i.e., the husband brings in sufficient salary), “communicative” (he understands the woman's feelings), and “cooperative” (he will help with the housework) (Mathews 2003, 116; Ogura 2003, 36).
Although my informants told me that women today may choose not to marry, women who wish to marry face pressure to marry sooner rather than later because of the continued emphasis on beauty and youth in the marriage market. In the 1980s, women's value in this market was described by The analogy to the Christmas cake, which in Japan is customarily consumed on December 25. Like Christmas cakes, women were said to lose value after the age of twenty-five (see Brinton 1992; Creighton 1996). As the average age of marriage has risen, however, the Christmas cake analogy is no longer used. The once-popular phrase “appropriate age for marriage” (tekireiki) is also rarely heard. Nonetheless, my informants felt pressure to marry by age thirty, as this age represented a cutoff date after which women's value on the market declined more steeply. As men's value in marriage markets continues to be associated with income, men's ability to marry is less closely associated with age, and a man over forty may still marry a younger woman if he has money.
Employment markets for women in the 2000s were equally unforgiving. My research was conducted at a moment of change in the employment markets, as many companies had reduced costs by cutting “regular staff,” who enjoyed corporate benefit packages and lifetime employment, and replaced them with cheaper part-time and temporary workers. Companies were cutting “office lady” jobs (ippanshoku), clerical positions for women that generally offered corporate benefit packages and continuous employment contracts, and were hiring temporary staff (haken shain), part-time workers on short-term contracts who received much lower wages and few if any corporate benefits. For some younger women with higher levels of education and specialized degrees, these changes in corporate culture afforded opportunities for advancement and allowed them to be recognized for their abilities. For the women i met who had entered the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s, however, the changes in the economy brought increased pressures to gain a specialized niche in the workforce and worries about whether they would be able to compete in the new economy. When these women first entered the workforce, most were able to find work as regular staff in either management or clerical positions, regardless of their educational levels. They worried that if they lost their current regular staff positions, they would not be able to find another job as regular staff, and they would be downgraded to part-time and temporary work. Companies routinely discriminated against both older women and men in hiring, but age limits were more severe for women than for men. Newspaper advertisements, for example, commonly stated that particular positions were open to women under thirty-five and to men under forty, and informants told me that they believed that they were not being considered for jobs because of their age. Age discrimination in Japan is endemic and goes hand in hand with Japanese companies' rigid internal labor systems, which operate By hiring junior staff directly from university, training them internally, and promoting staff according to seniority.
The remainder of the chapter introduces the stories and experiences of single women. I argue that younger women under thirty-five were caught between marriage and employment markets in which their value fell as they aged; after their early thirties, single women saw themselves moving further away from conventional life choices even as many continued to hope for some combination of romantic relationships, work, and hobbies. After forty, single women viewed their struggles and achievements at work with varying degrees of satisfaction and saw romantic relationships and hobbies as luxuries. The women i met viewed the changes in the economy in the 2000s with worry, as most were unable to benefit from the opening of opportunities that they saw had become available to better educated and younger women. At the same time, perhaps because of their disadvantaged positions in the employment and marriage markets, women began expressing a new set of values, as noted above.
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