Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Late Twenties to Early Thirties:
Conflict between Marriage and Employment Markets
Women under thirty-five faced pressure because most wished both to work and to marry, and they realized that their value in both employment and marriage markets declined as they aged due to discrimination against older women. Further, women felt that they could not simultaneously succeed at both markets. If they invested time and energy into their work, some feared that they would lose the opportunity to marry. But if they married earlier and made sacrifices in their career for children or family, they worried that they would lose opportunities in the employment market. Women thus were faced with the same problem encountered by previous generations of women of having to choose between marriage and career, but in an age in which one in four marriages ends in divorce, marriage is no longer a source of security. The women i met understood that in the event of an unsuccessful marriage, they would be thrown back into the job market with significantly lower employability and earning power than when they had left. They were worried but held on to hope that they would be able to succeed in the marriage and employment markets by developing their abilities and through perseverance and hard work.
Consider the example of yūko, a twenty-nine-year-old woman who had been successful in her career and continued to be ambitious but worried about Her ability to marry. Upon graduating from a mid-tier university in tokyo, yūko found a job at a tv station and eventually was allowed to film short documentaries while carrying the camera and writing the script herself. After suffering from a health crisis due to overwork, she decided to change career paths and through her connections in the media industry was hired by a major advertising company to promote advertisements through mobile phones. The department in which she worked was staffed primarily by women, many of them single and in their thirties and forties. While yūko claimed to admire these women's independence, she did not want to follow in their path. Rather, she wanted to marry as soon as possible to start a family. The main obstacle to her marriage was her boyfriend. She said, “this contradicts what i just said [about the opportunities women have at work], but i want to get married! I've been seeing my boyfriend for three and a half years. . . . He's just changed companies again, and he's really busy now. Last year i asked him when we would marry, and he said next year. This year he says “next year” again. Now i'm wondering if he's really the best person for me.”
Yūko lived with her parents at the time of the interview—she had returned to live with them after a few years of living alone in a rented apartment in tokyo. Although she needed to commute a longer distance to work when living with her parents, she said that her parents preferred that she live with them so that they could ensure that she was eating properly and not working excessively, as she had done when living alone. Her parents urged her to marry, reminding her with greater frequency as she approached thirty. Yūko agreed with her parents that she should have children by her early thirties. Surveys in Japan show that the most common reason for women's wish to marry is the desire to have children and a family; 47.7 percent of single women aged 18–34 in a 2010 national survey indicated that they wanted to marry for this reason (national institute of Population and social security research 2011).
Yūko was unusual among my informants in the strength of her ambition and devotion to the dual tasks of developing a career and finding a husband. She was not unusual, however, in expressing her anxiety about being able to achieve both career and family. Her narrative emphasized her achievements at work, attained through hard work and perseverance, but she found that these approaches were not successful when applied to securing a husband.
Not all women i interviewed wanted to continue to work. Mari, a thirtyone-year-old high school graduate, lived with her parents and said that she wanted to become a “full-time housewife.” She was not as ambitious as yūko, but she was also aware of the dual markets and wished to succeed in both. While in her twenties, she had worked as a regular staff member for a record company and then quit to spend eighteen months studying english in new york, an experience paid for by her parents. When she returned to tokyo, she found a job at a small perfume-importing company consisting of seven family members, she being the only non-family member on the staff. She found this situation to be difficult and stressful, however, and was searching for another job, also as a regular staff. She said, “after taking one more job as a regular staff person [after this job], i want to marry and work as a temporary staff and take it easy. At least, that's the plan. [Laughs.] I want to have children by the time i'm thirty-five. I don't have to marry this year or next year, but i'd like to get married by the year after that . . . If i have a partner.”
Mari thus tried to make the best of the dual markets in her youth; she wished to find work as a regular staff member while she was still able and find a suitable partner and marry so that she could have children. She said that women did not need to marry these days, but when i asked her what was most important in her life, she answered, “Family and marriage [are most important]. At the moment i feel that if i can't marry, i can't do anything.” At the time of the interview, Mari had been dating her boyfriend for eight months, and he was not yet ready to marry due to work and family problems. In sum, she felt that marriage was a major goal that she needed to achieve to enter the next stage of her life, and work was of secondary importance.
Her experience replicates that of previous generations of Japanese women. Unlike the previous generations, however, Mari knew that she could not give up struggling to improve her position in the employment market, and she would marry only if she had a suitable partner.
Well-meaning parents, colleagues, and friends encouraged women in their late twenties through early thirties to succeed in both markets. Women were encouraged to capitalize on their university education to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them at work, and they were also expected to secure a husband and start a family. This situation differs from that of their mothers' generation, when women were encouraged to succeed in the marriage market alone. The marriage market itself has changed in that women have higher expectations of their potential mates, while men's expectations of women have changed little. Women hoped that they would be able to succeed in both markets even as they saw tremendous obstacles. In this context, they described strategies that they hoped would allow them to achieve their particular dreams. Next, we consider women in their thirties who continue to struggle in these markets but see that they are unlikely to succeed.
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