Back in the late 1970's I had to visit a Japanese company in Tokyo on business. I was received by a gentleman about 20 years my senior, who was assigned to accompany me from one office building to another. That walk, over a distance of about 300 meters, is something I’ll never forget and was quite educational.

The gentleman walked ahead of me. I tried to keep in step with him by speeding up but had major difficulties. Every time I got close he lengthened his stride, extending it to the point where we were practically running. Here I was, a young woman, so how could I have imagined that my place was next to the man and not three steps behind him?!


After that, I wasn’t even surprised when the restaurant staff served the men in the group first and me last.

The role of women in Japanese society goes two ways. From the outside we see that a woman’s place is primarily in the home, with the family. They are employed by businesses but only until they marry. In the workplace it is the woman who makes the tea, even if she is a college graduate. She will have a very tough time trying to make it to the top, even if she comes from a family whose upper class standing has already paved the way to a career. At the same time, with a husband who is exhausted from regular overtime and a daily 2-3 hour commute, it is the wife who handles the family budget, sees to the education of the children, makes all the school-related decisions, and manages and resolves all other problems. Without her, the smallest cell in the social fabric would be paralyzed.


Today, of course, these sharp boundaries have blurred a little. We see a growing number of young fathers pushing baby carriages. It is no longer unheard of for a man to do the shopping, take cooking lessons, or to look after the kids while his wife goes to the hairdresser. In fact, the language has found a new word to describe these young men: on the analogy of the word “ikemen” イケメン, (which means a good-looking young man) came the word “ikumen” イクメン , the child-raising guy.

ikumen  japanese-women-415x260

While back in the 1960's it was mainly single women who worked and fewer than 40 percent of them were employed, today there are more women at work than in the home. Admittedly, their pay is barely 60 percent of what a man earns, nevertheless a rising number of them have made a successful career, both in politics and business alike. The change has begun and traditional family roles are slowly adapting to the new model. The questions now are, what do the men have to say about this and do the kids like it? What impact is it having on the next generation?



Sources of the pictures in their order of appearance:;;;;