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Three versions of the ‘good wife’ in Japan

by David Cozy

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was unusual for a Japanese woman to aspire to be anything other than a “good wife and wise mother”— an aspiration so predominant that the Japanese for it, ryosai kenbo, is a set phrase in the language.

THE JAPANESE FAMILY IN TRANSITION: From the Professional Housewife Ideal to the Dilemmas of Choice, by Suzanne Hall Vogel with Steven K. Vogel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013, 187 pp., $49 (hardcover).

The phrase describes a woman who has mastered the housewifely arts — cooking, sewing, household management — and devotes those skills and all her energy to maintaining a husband in fit condition for long days at the company, and to fostering children who, if boys, will succeed academically, and if girls, will become, in their turn, good wives and wise mothers.

It is certainly true that Japanese women are not to blame for creating a society in which such a role was the most desirable of the few options open to them even as late as the 1980s (and, some would argue, today), but it is also true that more than a few Japanese women have embraced the ryosai kenbo role with pride. The creation of a happy, peaceful home and the raising of successful children is, after all, no small thing.

Now, though gender equality is far from being the norm in Japan — the country ranked 101st out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2012 — ryosai kenbo is only one of many roles to which a woman might aspire. In “The Japanese Family in Transition,” Suzanne Hall Vogel chronicles the changes she observed in Japanese women’s lives from the middle of the last century until her death in 2012.

The story begins in 1958 when Vogel and her then husband, Ezra Vogel, began interviewing and observing six Japanese families. In the Vogels’ study (the results of which were published in “Japan’s New Middle Class”), Suzanne focused on the women in the families, and kept in touch with her subjects, and then their daughters, over the ensuing decades. Thus, what began as a cross-sectional study of the Japanese middle-class became a longitudinal study of middle-class Japanese women.

“The Japanese Family in Transition” focuses on the good wives and wise mothers of three of the families featured in “Japan’s New Middle Class,” and is (in a fly-on-the-wall sort of way) unfailingly interesting. We get a look, for example, into the family of Hanae Tanaka, a woman who Vogel describes as, “the most content and successful with her lifetime role of housewife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.” Because Tanaka is so comfortable in her role, it is illuminating to compare her with the next generation.

Tanaka’s three daughters are, in the mid-’70s, when Vogel visits them, housewives themselves, and unlike the generation before them, all complain that their husbands do not “help with housework or childcare, and did not understand the wives’ pressures.” Vogel points out that for housewives of Hanae’s generation, the strict demarcation of gender roles made such complaints almost unthinkable; with the erosion of traditional gender roles in the generation following Hanae’s, however, such complaints had become nearly universal among Japanese wives.

One housewife who didn’t hesitate to complain when given the chance is Vogel’s second subject, Yaeko Ito, “the most modern and progressive, and the most Westernized.” Fortunately, she married a kind and helpful, if perhaps passive man who, bucking the trend of his era, spent a lot of time taking care of the house and kids while Yaeko, frustrated that her own ambitions to attend university had been thwarted, pursued a career and was involved in various businesses. The third of Vogel’s informants, though she probably didn’t complain about it, deeply resented the submission necessary to succeed as a ryosai kenbo, and therefore used what ploys she could to maintain control over areas where her submission need only be apparent: her house, her children and her body.

Most of Vogel’s observations about her subjects — not least that they are different from one another — ring true. Her background in psychology, however, seems to compel her to offer up just-so-stories to explain her subjects’ behavior that are sometimes plausible, but at other times seem overly neat and simplistic. These bits can be ignored where that seems wise in favor of the skillful and unadorned observation that characterizes most of the book.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and a professor at Showa Women’s University.