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Professor Miki Kohara, Osaka School of International Public Policy

Professor Miki Kohara
Department of International Public Policy, Osaka School of International Public Policy

"Japan's gendered work-life balance"

Work-life balance in Japan

When "work-life balance" is mentioned, most people might think of the importance in keeping a good balance between working time and leisure time in their daily lives. Once this phrase is used in the Japanese context, however, it has a different implication - the balance of working time inside and outside of the house, between married men and women.

According to the latest Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities (Japanese Statistics Bureau, 2016), the working man's average time spent working is 6 hours and 49 minutes a day, while their daily average time spent housekeeping is just 13 minutes. In contrast, the working woman's average working time is 4 hours and 47 minutes a day, while their daily average housekeeping time is 2 hours and 27 minutes. The difference is more apparent between married couples - the average daily housekeeping time is 49 minutes among married men, while it is 4 hours and 55 minutes among married women.

Discretionary powers of Japanese women within the family

Some of the typical questions often asked by overseas researchers are “Why don’t Japanese women work outside the house?” and “Why are Japanese women so devoted to household chores?” Yet lately, these questions seem to have changed into “Why is it that Japanese women cannot work outside of the house?” and “Why do Japanese men compel women to do household chores?” I agree that the social norm which implies that men should work outside and women should work inside does exist in Japan, but I feel uneasy when I hear things like, “Japanese women are so weak that they must obediently follow what they’re told by men.” This statement does not always match the facts. According to the 2016 Japanese Panel Survey on Consumption (compiled by the Keio University Panel Data Research Center), 36% of wives and 98% of nonworking wives report that they (not their husbands) are in primary control of the family budget. That is, they decide what a family purchases and how much is allotted to their husbands in the form of an allowance, or “pocket money.” Although we cannot compare this figure with other countries, we can say that Japanese women have discretionary powers at least within the family. This shows that not only are Japanese married women not treated with disregard by their spouses, but they also do not blindly follow their spouse’s instructions.

Increase in married women's labor supply & changes in married couple's time allocation

However, at the same time, I do not deny that this country is male-oriented; women’s power is not as significant in society overall, especially in the work place. One of my research topics is the Japanese labor supply, including both men and women, those that are married and unmarried, and the youth and seniors. Bipasha Maity (Ashoka University) and I have examined how work-life balance policies implemented by companies and the government mainly after the year 2000 have affected the labor supply in terms of married couples. We found that while beneficial work-life-balance policies are not largely connected to a rise in the husbands’ time spent on household chores, they did lead to an increase in the wives’ labor supply. We also found that this may raise married women’s willingness to have more children. In other research that I conducted with Kozue Sekijima (Nippon Institute for Research Advancement), I found that Japanese couples’ decisions on time allocation changed after the year 2000. That is, like the wives, husbands do respond to a spouse’s time constraints as well as their own. Specifically, when a wife’s commuting time was exogenously prolonged and her working time became longer, her husband would decrease his working time and increase his time performing household chores. Surprisingly, this response from the husbands was absent in the 1990’s. Japanese families are changing.

Even so, these findings do not necessarily suggest a change in social norms. Social norms are not easily changed in any part of the world. The results, however, suggest that there can be other ways to change individual and family behaviors even in a country where there remains a strong set of social norms.  

In search of ways to improve work-life balance in Japan

As a concluding thought ... 5 hours seems like a lot for the average daily housekeeping time for married women. There are a number of high quality ready-made foods in supermarkets and convenience stores in Japan. This leads us to question whether or not we are making full use of the country’s advanced technologies in order to support our household chores. Could there not be smarter and more efficient decisions made for better balance between work and life by utilizing these products? What can companies do to support their employee’s intra-family decisions to raise their productivity in work place? These are my next research topics.

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