Twenty years ago, Japanese girls were told that marriage should be the last item on the list of to-dos after college, that hankering after a wedding ring was idiotic and that the first and foremost concern should be work and a career.

The dirty word back then was sengyoshufu (housewife or homemaker). These were women who did the housework without budging from the house. Shunned though they were, there seemed to be an awful lot of sengyoshufu around.

Post-World War II Japanese society had rigged it so that women didn’t have the means or opportunity to work after marriage, and for a long time the majority had no choice but to stay home and tend to the family.

Marriage meant giving up a lot of things, namely personal freedom and a chance for independence, in exchange for love, stability and the so-called tsuma no za (the wife’s position) that ensured social respect. Now the tables are turned as sengyoshufu have become the Japanese working woman’s secret wish.

Since the Equal Employment Employment Opportunities Law for Men and Women started in 1986, women work as much or even longer hours than men and are just as dedicated. Female bosses have emerged in the workplace, wielding the kind of power and taking on responsibility that would have been unthinkable only a short while ago.

But such things can take their toll; fatigued and often disappointed, women long for solace and a partner to call their own.

“Anteiga hoshi! (I want stability)” is my friend Mariko’s mantra. At 36, she claims to have had enough of work, dating and karaoke to last several lifetimes. When she hits a low point, she taps the following into her state-of-the-art cell phone: Shufu ni natte, okashizukurini sennen shitai (I wanna be a housewife and devote myself to baking).

Ah, yes, the shufu (and by implication the baking) thing. It all sounds so cushy, sometimes. Staying in a mai-homu (my home) purchased on a 35-year mortgage, playing with a gorgeous Golden Retriever puppy, baking maccha chiffon cakes for an adoring husband who does the dishes on Fridays and takes you to restaurants every Saturday night. Such is the dream scenario and the wondrous thing is that, in Japan, it is possible.

For this is a nation that has traditionally revered the women in the household, as those that engage in kaji (housework), a most serious undertaking that supports the men and their 16-hour workdays.

Many men, regardless of age or social position, claim they prefer their wives to stay at home, rather than share the burden of ricewinning, er, I mean breadwinning. The reason? Chanto gohan wo tsukutte moraitai (I want proper cooked meals).

It’s also generally believed that the longer women work, the less cute they become. Kawaii okusan (the cute, stay-at-home wife) may be an illusion, but it’s also an ideal for both genders. After all, it was a woman (that brilliant essayist/social observer Junko Sakai) who coined the term make-inu (loser dog) to describe single, childless women over 30.

The kachi-inu (winner dog), of course, are the married women with kids and homes, whose kitchens contain cake molds and cookie cutters. And boy was she convincing! When you are sprinting for the last train, your insides full of beer and nicotine, you realize how truly remote cookie cutters are from your sorry existence.

On the other hand, a sengyoshufu still has the stigma of being a tad too privileged for their own good. A chupu is a modern-day housewife that is a jikochu (short for jikochushinteki, a selfish person) with too much time on her hands. She carries around a deco-den (decorated cell phone), which she fiddles with on the street with one hand as the other pushes the baby stroller.

At night, she’s glued to the computer screen, cutting deals on yahuoku (Yahoo! Japan’s online auction site) on which she hawks her used wares for outrageous prices, partly because she’s ignorant and partly out of a strong sense of shufu entitlement.

Her suri-weito (three things that she holds dear) are: her husband’s income, her children and her credit cards, in that order. Her jikka (her parents and their network) is her life-support system.

It’s where she goes to relax, chill out and leave the kids so she can go out for karaoke with the girls. The big question: How exactly does one become a chupu and how fast can one get there?

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