Women and Careers in Japan

woman in teal dress shirt sits near wall

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“I just want to get married quickly and be a housewife.”

When I was teaching at the technical college, I used to hear this a lot from my female students. Back then, I was teaching a class of about 20 students, almost all of them women who were hoping to get a job in the airline industry. In the seven years I’ve worked there, I’ve only had three male students.

I taught them English, specifically the language one would use when speaking to non-Japanese-speaking customers. Sometimes, though, we would do conversational English. I often lead discussions about their dreams and hopes for the future, and to my shock and disappointment, I would get the above response from a third of the students.

Sigh.

In those moments, I would often feel the gulf of difference between my upbringing in the US versus their upbringing in Japan. Most of the people I know grew up in households were both parents worked. Here, I’ve seen many more women stay home to raise children and take care of the household.

But then again, I’m not really sure if this is only a cultural thing. I have definitely seen more housewives here in Japan than I have seen back in the US. On the other hand, there are lots of factors to why this is so: lack of daycare facilities, lack of job opportunities for women, and strong social support services from the government. Why bother working if you can get welfare?

On the other hand, all of my American female friends who have children are working. Either that, or they took a few months off work to raise their children–but they eventually went back to work when their maternity leave was up.

I’m not saying that being a housewife is bad. In fact, I have a healthy respect for women who are content and can actually do this. Personally, I would go crazy. Being a stay-at-home mom or a housewife is not for me. I need to be out, interacting with others and making money.

I think, because my students were still young, 18-19 year-olds, they thought that being a housewife was the easy way out. The advice I often gave to them was that they should learn a skill or a trade so that they could find a way to make money to support themselves or their families in the future. Simply relying on a man to provide for them was not going to help them in any way. Husbands can get sick–or die. Or, they can turn out to be assholes who abuse or take advantage of you.

What would you do in that situation? Find another man to support you? What would you do to support your kids if a man was not around? In most cases, you would need to go out and work. That’s were the skills and the trade come in. If you have those assets, it’s easier for you to get a job, or rather, a higher-paying job.

I wanted to share with them my situation, that I really imagined a happily-ever-after type of life for me and my husband. Sometimes, though, life throws you curveballs so you need to be ready for them.

When my husband got sick, I knew that I had to step up and take responsibility. I am lucky enough that I have a strong work ethic, that I don’t mind doing the hard work to support myself or my husband if it comes to that. I made sure that I am not completely reliant on my husband’s salary. I was earning a paycheck and saving whatever I could so that our future would not be so dark.

For my students, going to school and learning what they were learning was a good way to insure against an uncertain future. Once they graduated and gained some work experience, they could transition to better opportunities. Or, if they choose to get married and become housewives, at least they have that background–in case something causes their husbands to get sick and become unable to work. Because they’ve had the experience, they could do something to help themselves.

I think, though, the one thing that marked me different from my students was probably self my confidence. I also have a strong belief in myself that I can go out there and get a job and do it well. I’ve had this belief since I was young, and I’ve also seen many women around me, like my family and friends, who are just as educated and just as good at earning money.

I never got this sense from my female students. Because they were young and they were treated differently than the male students, I don’t think they were all confident in their abilities–which was why they thought marrying a man was their best way to happiness. Again, though, I’m basing this on conversations I’ve had in class. I wish I could have explained more that having work experience, developing a work ethic, and gaining useful skills was something every woman–actually, everyone–should do.

But, I just didn’t feel comfortable preaching to my student about all this. I understand that most young people live for the moment (YOLO) and  some of them might not have really thought about their futures and were just saying the above quote in passing. But, I have hope that these students are ambitious and will really succeed in their future careers.

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