Gender Roles of Women in Modern Japan

Working woman, Japan, c 1900. National Museum of Denmark.

Working woman, Japan, c 1900.
National Museum of Denmark.

This article focuses on women’s gender roles in modern Japan; we cannot discuss these roles without touching on gender role history and the roles of men. Both male and female roles influence each other. The roles are also shaped by history. My previous article about gender expectations in Japan, gives you a brief outline of Japan’s history with gender roles. I will only touch on a few key points before looking at how these roles are changing.

Brief History of Female Gender Roles

Japan, like China and Korea, is heavily influenced by Confucian ideals. Confucian society focuses on the family. Men are the heads of the household; women are dependent on the men. Women are expected to marry, produce heirs, and over see the household. Marriage was often arranged. It is a contract between families. Wives could be returned to her family if she failed to produce an heir. Family lineage is more important than marriage. Ideally, three generations would live under a single roof.

Wash Day c. 1870

Wash Day c. 1870

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), women did not legally exist. Women could not own property and were subordinate to men in every way (Friedman, 1992).

Gradually, Confucian family ideals shifted. The largest shift happened after World War II. In 1946, the Japanese Constitution revised a set of laws that defined Japanese family relations. The Civil Code of 1947 granted woman every possible legal right:

  • Women could own property.
  • Women could inherit a family estate.
  • Women could marry and divorce freely.
  • Women gained parental rights.
  • Women could vote.

Women were granted additional rights. The revised Civil Code sought to create equality between the sexes. Despite legal equality, in practice women were not equal. The Civil Code was a marked shift in thinking. Before, a woman was expected to be dependent on her father, her husband, and finally on her eldest son. All were heads of the household. Now, should could be the head of the household (Sato, 1987).

Women were still expected to protect the household. Men were expected to be the breadwinners (Cooper, 2013; Sato, 1987; Saito, 2007 ).

Chores and Marriage

In 2007, Japanese men average only 30 minutes of housework, child care, and elder care each day (North, 2009). This is regardless of how much the wife works.  Wives are expected to shoulder these tasks. Although this is changing. Part of the slow pace of change simply has to do with time. In Japan, men are often overworked and underpaid. They live their jobs.

Yuko. c. 1900 Meiji Period

Yuko. c. 1900 Meiji Period

  • Men are expected to be ideal workers, putting the goals of the company first.
  • Children are entitled to having a full-time parent.

Women are expected to be this full-time parent. The man simply cannot be a full-time parent with the demands of his company (mandatory over time, for example). Women are entitled to not much beyond motherhood; men are not entitled to much beyond work (Bae, 2010).

Women’s happiness is found only in marriage, according to tradition. Women marry between 22-27 years old. It was not uncommon for women to be socially outcast if she failed to marry by 27. However, this is changing. It is becoming more acceptable for both men and women to marry later in life.

Traditional Family Structure

A Summer Day In The Woods. Kusakabe Kimbei c. 1890s

A Summer Day In The Woods. Kusakabe Kimbei c. 1890s

It is important to understand traditional family structure to get a better grasp on the problems women face. The traditional family system is called the ie.  The head of the household was responsible for finding a marriage partner for the family’s heir. Married women were expected to produce an heir.  This structure is reflected in how a husband and wife refer to each other in public (Kawamura, 2011) :

  • shujinused by a wife to address her husband in public. It means “house master.”
  • kanai – used by a husband to address his wife in public. It means “one who remains inside the home.”

Children are almost exclusively birthed within marriage. Only 2% of births are to unmarried women. Marriage and children are synonymous (Kawamura, 2011; Saito, 1987).

While the traditional structure and societal expectations seem to work against women, they work equally against men. Men who do not want to work long hours or want to be stay at home dads face criticism.

The Three Submissions

Traditionally, women are expected to submit to male authority in three ways (Cooper, 2013).

  1. When young, she submits to her father.
  2. When married, she submits to her husband.
  3. When old, she submits to her sons.

These submission are reflected in the ie and in various folktales.

Motherhood is considered the defining characteristic of a woman. Motherhood is adulthood in many regards. This is why many young Japanese women struggle to form their own sense of identity apart from this cultural expectation. The idea of shojo caused a stir when it first appeared because it was between girlhood and motherhood. Kawaii bunka, culture of cute, is another effort to form an identity between girlhood and motherhood that is apart from the expected three submissions. It is becoming more common for single women in their late twenties to early thirties to be recognized as shakaijin – members of society, but there is still social pressure to marry (Pike and Borovoy, 2004).

The Shifts in Female Gender Role

Onna-bugeisha (Woman Samurai) late 1800. One of the female warriors of the upper social classes in feudal Japan.

Onna-bugeisha (Woman Samurai) late 1800.
One of the female warriors of the upper social classes in feudal Japan.

Phew, with all of that behind us, some of you might be a little upset. Women are making strides toward equality in Japan. Equality benefits men as much as it does women. First, it is becoming more acceptable to want a career. Women are better able to balance work and home life; men are able to be at home more often as well. Many men want to be present fathers rather than distant father figures. Mandatory overtime still stop his efforts  (North. 2009).

Some women crave gender-defined tasks despite the progress of equality. Filling these roles (such as shopping and taking a dinner menu request from the husband) is seen as intimacy and validation (North, 2009).

A Teahouse Girl 1898

A Teahouse Girl 1898

Moving away from traditional roles opens both men and women up to problems. Many follow the traditional method to avoid rocking the boat with family members. Even “modern” families, those that try to evenly divide work and family obligations, keep some of the traditional roles. The roles kept vary. Advertising is slowly catching up with this role negotiation. Fathers are more fashionable and there are even magazines dedicated to fatherhood (North, 2009).

I will outline some of the shifts in women’s gender roles and effects of these shifts:

  • Both men and women express strong intentions to marry. In Japan, like in the United States, marriage is a marker of adulthood (Kawamura, 2011).
  • Married women in Japan increasingly hold part-time and full-time jobs (North, 2009;  Japan Times, 2012).
  • Dual income households report less stress on the husband compared to traditional households (Bae, 2010).
  • Both men and women feel more satisfied in dual income households that share family roles (Bae, 2010). The sharing of family roles is slowly increasing.
  • Japan faces a shortage of children because of the shifting roles of women, economic realities, and the reluctance of many men to share what was once considered female tasks (Kawamura, 2011).
  • Despite the changes, Japanese TV still portrays traditional gender roles: men hold male jobs (police officer, soldier etc); women hold traditionally female jobs (housewife, nurse, etc). This is thought to slow role changes across most demographics (Shinichi, 2007).
  • Women are increasingly educated. Like in the United States, Japanese women with college level education are overtaking men.

 Preference for Daughters

Young Japanese girl and her doll. Late 1870s to 1880s

Young Japanese girl and her doll. Late 1870s to 1880s

Increasingly, families want to have daughters rather than sons. Woman favor daughters more than men, yet men also increasingly  favor daughters over sons. Remember, Japan shares Confucian views with China and Korea. Sons are supposed to carry on the family name. Traditional-minded men tend to favor sons. Traditional-minded women favor daughters.

The preference for daughters points to a continuation of tradition in regards to women and a more liberal view with men. Women may favor daughters because they want the daughter to help in traditional roles: care giver and companion. (Fuse, n.d.).


Like in the United States, Japanese women have a distance to go to achieve full equality. Part of the equality is the option to continue traditional ways if she chooses. Family life involves a negotiation with the husband about childcare, household chores, chores, care for parents, and other aspects of life. Much of Japanese television we see on the ‘net smacks of misogyny and degraded roles of women. Japanese game shows are famous for their zany antics and nudity. Although,  men are also portrayed negatively. Men are often shown in these game shows as being driven by sex and comradery.

Games shows like this portray men as pursuers and women as pursued. Women are demure; men are assertive. These are traditional traits in both Japanese and American societies. I find them disagreeable.

There is more to men than lust, sports, and beer. Just like there is more to women than breasts, child bearing, and housework.

Young Japanese WomanIt is encouraging to see women make strides in equality. It benefits men as well as women. Men are able to shed the silliness of masculinity (Big boys don’t cry. Men must be strong, etc) and embrace our “feminine side.” I don’t view the male emotional and caring side as feminine. I view it as part of balance. Women working alongside men reduces the stress men have with shouldering the family. Likewise men working with women reduces the stress of women shouldering the family. There is nothing wrong with role division. I am pragmatic. Whomever spends the most time at home should do most of the housework. That isn’t to say he or she does all of it, but it is only logical to have the person at home the most handle the household.  Role/work division is necessary, but it shouldn’t be based on gender. Roles should be distributed based on practicality: time, education, and other factors.

Gender has no bearing on a person’s capabilities. Men are not inherently smarter than women. Women are not inherently smarter than men. Women are not inherently better at raising children than men.  Most of the difference we place on gender is cultural rather than biological. However, cultural change can be as slow as biological change.

Clearly, men and women both stand to benefit from gender equality. Extending rights to women does not impinge on the rights of men. Rights are not a commodity that reduces when granted to others. Rather, expanding rights and equality expands their benefits for all aspects of the population.


Bae, J. (2010). Gender Role Division in Japan and Korea: The Relationship between Realities and Attitudes. Journal Of Political Science & Sociology, (13), 71-85.

Cooper, J. (2013). The Roles of Women, Animals, and Nature in Traditional Japanese and Western
Folk Tales Carry Over into Modern Japanese and Western Culture .

Friedman, S. (1992). Women in Japanese Society: Their Changing Roles.

Fuse, K. (n.d). Daughter preference in Japan: A reflection of gender role attitudes?. Demographic Research, 281021-1051.

Kawamura, S. (2011). Marriage in Japan: attitudes, intentions, and perceived barriers. (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation). Retrieved from

Kazuko Sato, E., Mitsuyo Suzuki, E., & Kawamura, M. (1987). THE CHANGING STATUS OF WOMEN IN JAPAN. International Journal Of Sociology Of The Family, 17(1), 88.

“Married Women Want to Work.” The Japan Times. N.p., 4 June 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

NORTH, S. (2009). Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan. Social Science Japan Journal, 12(1), 23-44.

Pike, K. &  Borovoy, A. (2004). The Rise of Eating Disorders in Japan: Issues of Culture and Limitations of the Model of “Westernization.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28:493–531

Shinichi, S. (2007). Television and the Cultivation of Gender-Role Attitudes in Japan: Does Television Contribute to the Maintenance of the Status Quo?. Journal Of Communication, 57(3), 511-531. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00355.x

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