Gender and Sexuality in Japan

Mar 11, 2016

Senior Fellow Devin Stewart speaks with sociologist James Farrer (Sophia University, Tokyo) about the changing norms around gender, sexual rights, dating, and marriage in Japan. They also discuss Farrer's advice for researchers interested in Japanese society. Farrer is co-author of "Shanghai Nightscapes: A Nocturnal Biography of A Global City."

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart, here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm talking with James Farrer. He is a sociologist at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan.

It's great to talk to you today, James.

JAMES FARRER: Good to talk to you, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: And Happy International Women's Day. It's International Women's Day here in New York, although it was yesterday for you in Japan. Did you see any celebrations?

JAMES FARRER: Well, I only saw them on Facebook. But there were people talking about it in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: So it is something that people do pay attention to in Japan at least, yes?

JAMES FARRER: Yes, some folks do pay attention to it. The whole social media thing means there is an internationalization of every holiday now. So somebody is picking up on these things.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, you have been teaching sociology in Japan for 18 years. Can you give us a sort of general assessment of how you see Japanese society, how it has evolved over the past two decades, and where you see it today?

JAMES FARRER: I came to Japan 18 years ago. I am originally, and still remain, a China specialist. I also do some research here.

One thing that, from my perspective, is quite clear is that Japan has remained—I came here, and it was a great society. It is a very affluent and very safe and secure society. But compared to China—not much has changed compared to China. China has boomed economically. Every year you go there and something is going on. So I guess for a lot of observers, especially from the West coming to Asia, they will look at China and see all the dynamism, look at Japan and see Japan, in a sense, stagnating.

But the good side of that, of course, is that Japan has remained a good place to live. Despite the economy being anemic and not growing very much, it is still a good place.

There are a lot of changes related to the topic today, related to demography. You really are seeing, I think, the aging of Japanese society, more visibly. You are actually getting real population decline in Japan now. You can sort of feel that. It shows up in the macroeconomic statistics as well. You can see the effects and start—I guess you study the effects of delayed marriage and a large number of single women in society.

DEVIN STEWART: On that point, one of your specialties is gender and sexuality, and it relates to the project that we are launching here at Carnegie Council. What is the big picture on recent developments in Japan regarding gender, sexuality, different views on rights? Do you see significant change?

JAMES FARRER: I'm a sociologist and I do a lot of qualitative research. But the larger background is very important to understand what's going on in Japan and also in a larger Asian context. What we are seeing all over the world, really, is a decline in marriage. This is dramatic in so many countries, all through Latin America, North America, and Europe, but also in East Asia. One of the things we are simply seeing is that people are not necessarily sitting there—and I think it's very important to understand that people are not sitting there when they are 23 or 20—I don't think most women are sitting there saying, "I don't want to ever get married." I think a lot of them plan to get married, but in fact they are delaying marriage, for all sorts of reasons. I will come to some of those in a second.

Delay in marriage is a phenomenon all over East Asia. The delay in marriage and the rising marriage age has a tail on it statistically, and that is the never-marrying age, the people who don't marry by the time they are 40—basically, not marrying ever or not marrying in time to have children. This has produced a large number of unmarried women, a decline in the number of women who ever have children. This is associated with the problem of lower birthrates, which again, it should be clear, is not just a problem of Japan, but really all over the developed world and certainly all over East Asia, with the exception of mainland China, to some extent.

China is an interesting case. You still have high marriage rates in China. You have a lot of pressure to marry in China. That also is an interesting point of comparison. In China I think you see what Japan used to be—enormous pressure on women to get married—and men, but I think Chinese women really live through this pressure. Educated Chinese women, urban Chinese women experience a huge pressure from their families to get married.

This used to be the case in Japan, but what is really interesting now is that in the last 30 years I think Japanese women have normalized this idea that "I'm just going to wait and find somebody I like." So even though we could see this as a problem, the good side of this is that Japanese women have a lot of autonomy in their intimate lives. I think it is very important to understand that this is related not just to the state—because it's so easy to report on what the prime minister is doing—but it's related very much to the societal relations, especially family dynamics. I think Japanese families have given women the autonomy to decide on their marriage partners, much more than, say, in mainland China—not just decide on them, but decide, "Well, I'm not getting married. I'm just holding out."

This, I think, is an enormous change. It is in and of itself an important right, a very important right, of women—and men, but we are focusing on women now—to decide if I'm going to get married and who I'm going to get married to. Japan really stands out as, I think, having achieved that level of autonomy for women.

DEVIN STEWART: You said you would talk about some of the causes and consequences of this change.

JAMES FARRER: I think some of the causes of it are really that, first of all, women have achieved—they get jobs. Women are highly educated in Japan, as they are in most of East Asia these days, Northeast Asia, and therefore able to get jobs; they are able to work. Basically, as women get educated all over the world, they have higher demands on what they expect out of a relationship.

The good side of that, of course, is that people know what they want intimately, have an idea they want some egalitarian relationship. I guess the somewhat more problematic side is that as women become educated and enter the labor force, they also look at men and say, "I really need a man who is going to be at least as educated as I am and is going to have a steady job." That automatically becomes a problem, because women are outperforming men academically all over the world, including East Asia. So women are really looking at a declining pool of eligible men.

In Japan this is exacerbated by a big problem here, and that is that women's income has remained lower than men's. Women haven't experienced what has happened in the West, the greatly lessened gap between male and female income. I think in Japan you have a bigger gap between male and female income. And this is mainly because when women get married, they drop out of the labor force and when they come back into the labor force, they are taking part-time jobs.

There is a kind of complicated story there. I will try to make it real simple, though. I think basically it boils down to work hours here being extremely long and jobs being extremely demanding of people's time. So most couples, even if they want both people to work, look at it and say—once they have children, it becomes very difficult.

Women know all this. Young women, like my students at Sophia, know this. They look and say, "If I'm going to get married, I have to get a guy who is not only a nice guy, not only a guy I like and I'm compatible with, I have to get a guy who has a steady job that can support the entire family on one income." That lessens the pool of eligible men even more. So women are looking at a marriage market in which, if you want to get married, you not only have to have a guy you like or love, you have to have a man who has a steady job, a permanent job. This pool of permanent, steady employment has diminished in Japan with the economy.

In terms of marriage, I put it this way: I don't think people's ideal of marriage has changed as much in the last 30 years as perhaps one would expect. I think people still expect to get married; after they get married, for the woman to work a lot less, maybe not at all, and take care of children. But the reasons for that are not so much that people are hidebound traditionalists in their attitudes, but rather that the labor market makes it very difficult to do things in a different way. So this has had a result of people really delaying marriage and having fewer children.

It creates the biggest dilemma policy-wise for the Japanese government. Basically, how do you get people to have more children? How do you get more women to stay in the labor force? The obvious answer has been to make it easier for women with children to work. That has been an obvious answer, but they haven't necessarily come through with a solution. They are trying to, I think. Building more daycare centers is one very concrete and practical solution to that. For many years, you had a real dearth of daycare in Japan. Women just didn't have a place to put their children. There were long waiting lists for daycare. If you didn't have a job, you couldn't get on the list, but if you had a job—it was sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. Once you dropped out of the labor force, it was almost impossible to get in daycare, and if you didn't have daycare, you couldn't get a job.

So this has been, I think, where the policy has entered into it. There has been some movement to create more daycare centers.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you hopeful about being able to resolve this dilemma?

JAMES FARRER: I think this part of it is solvable, and there is some progress. There is not enough. There is still a problem of people waiting on daycare. It's still difficult to get daycare in urban Tokyo, for example, where it is most needed, where there are a lot of jobs and there are a lot of women and a very, very low birthrate. This is where women are really needing daycare and want to work and have an opportunity to work.

There is some progress, and you can definitely see this progress. I don't have the statistics on daycare centers sitting in front of me unfortunately, but you can definitely see that the state has put some effort into it. So I am cautiously optimistic on that.

The other part of this, though, is not really something the state can mandate. This is long working hours, just really excessive working hours, of Japanese in the private sphere, and to some extent, also public employment. People come home from work extraordinarily late in Japan—7 o'clock, 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock. With some jobs friends of mine have had in publishing, people are regularly coming home at midnight. With those kinds of work schedules, where you are working until late at night, doing overtime, it becomes very difficult on families. Unless Japanese workplaces change, I don't think you are going to be able to solve this problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see any changes in the culture that give you optimism?

JAMES FARRER: I think there are changes in the culture that do give me optimism. I think that people in Japan, first of all, have recognized the desirability of both people being able to work. They have recognized the desirability of men being very involved in the family, of men being good fathers. There is a real cultural shift in a new model of masculinity of a man who is very sensitive to women's needs, especially to the family and to being a good dad.

I think those cultural changes are important because, otherwise, there would be no political will to change anything. There would be no will within companies to understand what women's needs are.

So I think the culture has changed, to the extent that I think a lot of people at least understand what the problem is and frame the problem in a similar way—that is, "How can we get women to be able to work?" rather than, "How can we get women out of the workforce and make them stay home and have kids?" So I think, by and large, the mainstream view now is one that people would like to have more work-life balance, like to see men more involved in the home and see women have more chance to work. But I don't think it's a smooth process and I don't believe that it will ever get us back to replacement-level fertility in the foreseeable future.

DEVIN STEWART: James, what about changing norms among the youth, and also dating? That's something you have done some research about. Tell me about that.

JAMES FARRER: I think dating and youth sexuality and the sexuality of young adults is a very important area of human rights for women that is often overlooked in the media reports. It comes down to several issues that relate also to different periods in people's lives. One question is, do young adults or, say, teenagers, adolescents—do they have sexual rights and are they able to learn about sexuality in a positive way and able to start learning about it interpersonally through dating or experimenting with their friends? Then there is the question of young adult sexuality, and do people have autonomy to choose their partners and also to have a sex life without necessarily getting married.

These are issues, I think, where Japan has a fairly positive history. I think Japan has never had the sort of patriarchal restrictions on young women's sexuality that you see in a lot of places. People have had some freedom to experiment around. In high school people date, and you see a level of adolescent sexual behavior that is somewhat similar to what you might see in some parts of Western Europe, but lower.

But there are some sort of funny and strange and problematic things that are going on here in Japan. One is actually a decline in adolescent sexual behavior. This, I think, is a bit hard to explain. It could be a harbinger of things to come or it could be a statistical fluke, but quite reliable surveys have showed a decline in youth sexual behavior. From the point of view of—I guess epidemiologists worry about STDs, (sexually transmitted diseases) and you could say, "Oh, this is a good thing." But from the point of view of people looking at sexual rights and thinking about, do young people have partners, are they able to meet each other, I think it's problematic because, basically, what you are seeing is just a decline in people's ability to meet other people, to date other people and find partners, whether it's short-term or long-term.

It is actually kind of speculative as to why this is going on. Some people blame social media, the decline of actual social spaces where people meet. Some people say that men don't have a clear model on how to approach women, that young men really just don't know how to meet young women.

Then there is the serious problem related to the long-term marriage market, and that is the decline of eligible guys, guys who would seem appropriate as future husbands. Therefore, women just don't have anybody. They reject these other men as not being appropriate. So you have a situation, I think, in which young women have freedom to pursue sexuality, but actually are seeing in the real world declining opportunity.

The other aspect of this is related to—I still don't think Japan has very effective sex education. The Ministry of Education and, in general, the public attitudes towards sexuality as opposed to the private ones are still rather conservative. So kids don't have very positive sex education. A lot of them don't know much about contraception. They are very misinformed about oral contraception, for example, and the risk. They are misinformed about long-term contraception. They don't know much about it. So most people engage in fairly risky sexual behavior. They don't use condoms with their regular partners, but they are not using oral contraceptives either. So I think there is a sort of dearth of sexual education. That is a problem, I think, for young women.

Then there is the delay in marriage. Unlike the West, where you have very high rates of cohabitation and premarital sex and people actually having children outside of marriage, in East Asia you don't see that, in almost any East Asian society. What you are seeing in Japan is actually a lot of women in their 20s not getting married, but apparently not even in relationships and not cohabitating. I think this is also kind of a lowering of people's capacity to enjoy their lives in some cases. A lot of people are somewhat isolated or lonely. I think there is also a problem there in how Japan can create a society in which it is easier to be sexually satisfied and to be sexually active without necessarily being married.

DEVIN STEWART: James, you have given us an incredibly complex and rich picture of Japanese society here. I would like to just end with a sort of methodological sociology question. Maybe you have taught some courses on how to do sociology. If you were to recommend or give advice to people who are interested in Japan and are looking at where Japanese society is heading, what types of things, as a sociologist, do you recommend to look at?

JAMES FARRER: I'm a qualitative sociologist. I have been talking a bit like a demographer, which is sort of funny, but I wanted to give the big picture.

But I will say this: Whether you are doing—especially because a lot of the researchers who come to Japan, including some returned Japanese, but a lot of Americans and Europeans, really want to do research on gender and sexuality in Japan. It is a pretty common topic. But I find people steer themselves towards what I see as the borderlands of sexuality. It's important to understand—a lot of things are very important. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement and transgender issues, these are really, really important issues. But I also think that people need to focus on the types of heterosexual relationships that the vast majority of Japanese people are engaged in and look more deeply at how sexual rights play themselves out in these relationships. How do women feel about these sorts of long-term dating relationships? What about sex and marriage? I think these are really important issues. People talk about sexless marriages in Japan. Is this a reality? Is it not a reality?

I think a lot of the issues surrounding the male-female relationship in Japan are still very much underexplored in social science. So although I think it has been wonderful that people have focused on the kind of more cultural-studies topics, like manga and anime and sexual representations in the media, I think we could still learn a lot by very basic studies of things that people supposedly are doing on a daily basis at home.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great advice for a lot of people who will be visiting Japan, I hope.

Thank you so much, James. It has been a real pleasure talking with you.

JAMES FARRER: All right. Thank you, Devin.

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