Good Wife, Wise Mother

Japan 2011 – 2016

JAPAN IS FACING many challenges when it comes to gender equality. After WWI, economic growth and rapid industrialisation generated a new occupation among middle class men: the white-collar workers. The men earned enough for their wives to stay at home. In this way, the Meiji ideology from the late 1800s and pre-war Japan, Ry Sai Kenbo (Good Wife, Wise Mother), was maintained by the well-educated housewives taking care of the home and raising the children. This laid the foundations for a strongly gender-segregated labour market.

This ideology continues to generate a gender segregation of the labour force in the Japanese society. Although more Japanese women start working, creating new role models for the future, it is still very challenging to combine work with family life. Many women still quit  their jobs after they marry and have children. In 2018 Japan ranked 110 out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap score. However, with the elder boom, declining birth rate and today’s restrictive immigration policy, Japan will soon need more manpower. Here the women can play a key role.

WHEN I TRAVELLED to Japan in 2011, 2012 and 2016, I was excited to hear what the women were going to say about work and gender equality. I wondered how they viewed their freedom in a gender perspective. How did they look upon the future? I met strong, progressive women who welcomed change. Women in the midst of a period of transition where the stagnant, traditional gender roles are being put to the test.

One in five women in Tokyo has reported sexual harassment in the workplace. A survey from 2000 states that 48,7% of women have been sexually harassed either on the street or in a train in rush hour. As a solution to the problem women-only rail cars were introduced in Tokyo and other major cities.
Junko Kondo (38) works as a secretary at a construction company in Kyoto. She is not married yet, and lives with her parents. Though she would like to have children, she thinks it will be too late for her to have them now. There have been drastic changes in the marriage rate, as well as a declining fertility. The dropping rate in fertility could be related to the to the increasing proportion of unmarried women in their 20’s and 30’s. Many of these so- called Sogo Shoku, or career women, live with their parents, spending their considerable income on consumption and travel.
Yorie (75) has been living on the island Miyajima with her husband, Konishi (75), for the past fifty years. They run a small souvenir shop down the street from their house. The older generation, especially in decentralized and smaller places tend to be more traditional when it comes to gender roles. The original meaning of the word for wife or “my wife”, Okusan, in Japanese refers to someone who stays at the back of the house, someone hidden.

Mai Yano

Mai Yano (21) lives at home in Kobe with her mother, Chie (48) and sister, Yuki (22). It’s rare to move out before marriage in Japan, unless you move due to career decisions. Her father, Masaaki (50) lives and works in the real estate business in Tokyo and spends most of his time there. One weekend a month his job pays for his ticket home to see his family.


Mai helps out a little bit in the house, but her mother tends to most of the house work.


Mai tells her mother about her new boyfriend. “But don’t tell dad yet”, she begs.


Mai (21) is studying for a major in economics at the Kwansai Gakuin university an hour commute from her house. She has already obtained a high ranking job in a German pharmaceutical company. Her wish is to combine a family life with a fruitful career. One of her demands when she applying for jobs was good arrangements for maternity leave.


Mai and Ken on a date in Sannomiya, Kobe.


Mai (21) has officially been dating Ken Yoshida (22) for about a week. He attends a different university, and they both have part time jobs, so it’s hard to find time to meet. A lot of the dating time is spent on the phone or on Skype. Though it’s rare to show affection in public, the new couple can’t help themselves giving each other a good night kiss outside Mai’s apartment block.


Mai Yano (25) is marrying Ken Yoshida (27). One of the staff at the Shinto shrine in Kobe explains the ceremony. Her mother, Chie (53), her sister Yuki (27) and her brother in law Kosuke (27) are preparing. According to the patriarchal Ie-system a couple has to decide upon one sir name after marriage. I most cases the husband’s family name is used in the Koseki, the family register.


After the ceremony the families pose together for the first time. The phrase ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) refers to the traditional Japanese ideal women who tends to the home, cooking and fostering of children. She makes sure the hard working husband has a comfortable workweek. The old phrase is still relevant today as many women put great pride in being a good wife and a wise mother.


Mai and Ken at home in their new apartment in Kobe. Moving out has been hard for Mai, doing all the house shores, cooking and performing her best at work. Ken is helping out more and more.


Manami “Mana” Sawa

Mana (28) is a choreographer and dance instructor. She is running the dance company “Tokyo Party Time”, instructing, choreographing, as well as managing thirty female go-go-dancers.


At the club XEX Nihonbashi the girls from the dance company prepare to go on stage. To remember the night Mana makes sure the girls pose for a picture. They like to refer to themselves as go go dancers or show girls that preform “sexy dance”.


In addition to managing her dance company, Mana loves working as a dancer in the clubs. Mana’s husband, who is also Japanese, has no problems with her profession, and comes along to watch from time to time.


In daytime Mana teaches hip-hop dance to children and other dance forms at community houses around Tokyo.


Mana and one of her employees on their way to work.


Kanako Satosaki

Kanako Satosaki (35) put Yuki (3) and Mizuki (3 months) first at all times. The translation company she works at has introduced maternity leave for women. Many women choose to leave their jobs when they get married and have children and 60% leave their job permanently after having their first child.


Family expedition to Tokyo Sea Life Park. Shin (35), Kanako’s husband travels a lot for work and works long hours at the office every day. It’s common to go out drinking with colleges after, and in many cases it is expected of you. Even tough Shin rarely see his children during the work week, he does his best to make up for it in the weekends.


As part of her more alternative child rearing, in the Japanese sense, Kanako partakes in an outdoor kinder garden run by the parents in Yoyogi park three times a week.


On way home from kinder garden in Yoyogi park.



In April 2013 Kanako lost her permanent employment. She wanted to spend more time with her children, and her company was no longer committed to grant for her permission. She was now one of the many less privileged part time working women in Japan.


Family expedition to Tokyo Sea Life Park.


After their last move Yuki (8) has to walk 45 minutes by herself to school. Mizuki’s (4) private, parent run kindergarten is luckily not par from the house.


The past six months Kanako Satozaki (39) has started working again after several years being mostly mother and house wife. On a normal day she usually gets up at 4 am in the morning to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next day, before she brings Mizuki to the kindergarten and commute to work. Her husband, Shin (39) now works in the sports industry, and after starting his own company the past year he has had even less time with the family. This Sunday is no exception. Yuki (8) does her homework and Mizuki (4) is drawing a long and passionate letter to her mother in the fading daylight.


Kanano, Yuki and Mizuki on their way to the local park, passed the crayon house and a little further.


Pregnant women is a relatively rare sight in the streets of Tokyo with a birth rate at 1,09 children per women in 2012.


It might seem like a silent compromise is made in Japan, a consensus to how society is structured. But a growing population of elderly, and declining birth rates indicates that Japan is in great need of manpower.