During the Showa Era (1926-1989), men were the mainstay of families, working for 40 or so years until retirement to better the lives of their wives and children. They were expected to be tough, stoic and competitive.
Such masculine norms may sound increasingly outdated today, when most married couples support themselves on double incomes while the government urges companies to promote women to higher positions.
But in reality, many men still feel pressure to conform to traditional stereotypes, leading work-centric lives under the assumption that it’s their only option, according to Toshiyuki Tanaka, an assistant professor who specializes in men’s studies at Musashi University in Tokyo.
As it was 30 or more years ago, after graduating, men get jobs, marry and work until retirement age, he said.
Once, during the period of rapid economic growth between the 1950s and 1970s, this path could have brought satisfaction. In that time, one’s wages increased with how hard one worked.
But today, amid a barely-growing economy, it’s tough being a man, he said.
“Men’s plight is very difficult compared to that of women. At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong. … But I want people to imagine a life on that one path (of working until retirement),” said Tanaka, 41, who has an 11-month-old son.
“Many say men-at-work women-at-home is an outdated notion from a bygone era. But the work-centric way of life for men remains the same,” he said.
“In reality, for men in general, there is no option of quitting their job,” Tanaka said. Even though the number of working women is growing, many are part-timers who support their family budget while the majority of men remain the chief breadwinners, he said.
Tanaka penned a book earlier this year titled “Otoko ga Hatarakanai, Iijanaika!” (“Men Don’t Work, What’s Wrong With That!”).
“I wanted men to be liberated from this idea of getting a job once they graduate from school and continuous work until retirement,” Tanaka said of his intentions for the book. “Many are following such mainstream paths, believing there is no other choice. And that’s the issue I want to raise.”
In Japan, the division of labor along gender lines is hundreds if not thousands of years old. During the rapid economic growth between the 1950s and early 1970s, men increasingly joined companies, while women shouldered all domestic chores and child-rearing duties. Men earned the money, devoting most of their lives to their jobs.
Back then, the more they worked, the better they could provide for their families. But that time has passed. Today most struggle to earn enough to improve their families’ lives, and many still work excessively long hours.
While they continue to devote most of their time to work, today men are also being asked to shoulder more domestic chores and child-rearing activities.
At a workshop Tanaka has been holding for more than a decade, men in their 30s and 40s with full-time jobs discuss their struggle to balance their domestic and professional lives against a backdrop of employers that are unsympathetic to their situation.
“Of course I believe men should shoulder more domestic work as well as child-rearing,” Tanaka said. “But it is hard to be told to do that when, in reality, men are still working excessively long hours.”
In Cabinet surveys on happiness conducted between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of men who said they were happy was consistently lower than 30 percent. The figure for women has been higher, at about 35 percent.
Even when men find it tough to continue working, the traditional masculine image of toughness and stoicism makes them refrain from quitting or even discussing their suffering, Tanaka said, suggesting this may be why more men commit suicide than women.
According to National Policy Agency data in 2015, about 70 percent of suicides were committed by men.
The field of men’s studies in Japan is still relatively new and minor compared with women’s studies. Research on the subject began in Japan in the latter half of the 1980s, following the establishment of women’s studies, according to Tanaka.
The purpose of men’s studies is the same as that of women’s studies — to realize gender equality and versatile ways of living, he said.
But while the hardships women now face, such as lower pay and gender discrimination at the workplace, are easy to understand, the plight of men gets little recognition, Tanaka said.
Some people point to a weakening of the gender roles, but even among the young many still view men as playing the leading professional role, he said.
In a 2014 survey Tanaka conducted on university students, around 70 percent of both men and women said men should be the one to confess their love first. When it comes to proposing marriage, nearly 90 percent of both genders said men should be the one to pop the question. While there is some indication that young people are changing the way they think about gender, the reality is that men are still expected to make important decisions in couples and marriages.
Unless this way of thinking ends, he said, women, regardless of their abilities, will continue to be seen as playing supporting roles.