September 2, 2014 — Recently, I was back home in my native Japan—I currently live and work in the United States—catching up with family and friends. I hadn’t seen some of my friends in seven years, so I was obviously looking forward to spending time with them. But having recently worked on Catalyst’s The Case for Gender Diversity in Japan infographic, I was also eager to hear my friends’ thoughts on their work-life situations firsthand. Much had changed in our lives since we last had seen one another. Some of them had gotten married, had kids, and continued to work full-time, but others had quit their jobs to become full-time moms.
I was particularly struck by what one of my friends, a mom who also works full-time, told me. Even though she and her husband have similar jobs and earn around the same amount of money, she does most of the housework, which is pretty common in many Japanese households. When she asks her husband for help with a specific task, he does help. But he sees this as doing a special favor for her rather than taking on his share of domestic responsibility. My friend spends quite a bit of time with her husband’s parents, and after careful observation she began to realize that her husband had grown up without seeing his father do any of the housework. Hearing this was discouraging. How could you change a habit or attitude that was learned over the course of an entire lifetime?
Luckily, when I shared my friend’s story with my own brother-in-law, I got a different perspective. My brother-in-law is a father of two and is very involved in both parenting and housework. He and my sister moved to the countryside so that their kids could go to a progressive preschool. He told me that his fellow fathers, the men he’s met through his children’s preschool, are all very involved in parenting and housework. Hanging out with them made doing his share at home feel like a natural, normal part of being a parent, not a favor he was doing for my sister. By befriending like-minded fathers, he began to realize that he isn’t doing anything special—he’s just doing his part.
It’s been good for my brother-in-law to see other men also stepping up at home, good for my sister, and good for my niece and nephew. And a shift towards equality at home could mean a much broader cultural shift for Japanese women—at work and in the family.