Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s April 19 National Press Club speech about boosting women’s participation in the workforce has been covered extensively in the domestic and foreign media since it signals a sea change in the Liberal Democratic Party’s view of women’s role in society. He said the government will work to increase the number of day-care facilities and encourage longer childcare leave for women who work. Though the impetus behind this attitude shift is concern over the fate of “Abenomics” (“Utilization of women should be the core of our strategy for economic growth”) and whether or not women will vote for the LDP in this summer’s Upper House election, the press seemed satisfied that Abe was being sincere.

But most of the foreign reporters overlooked one comment the domestic media emphasized. Abe said he wanted to “support women who returned to work after three years of holding their child as much as they wanted to.” Though the comment refers to the government’s proposal for getting companies to extend maternity leave to three years, the expression Abe used alludes to a Japanese platitude that says a child should be “held” by its mother until the age of 3, meaning it should be exclusively raised by her.

An editorial in the Okinawa Times found Abe’s turn of phrase “cute,” but when last year’s Lower House election was held the official LDP policy was that children should be reared by full-time mothers, while the stance of its opponent, the Democratic Party of Japan, was that they should be “raised by society.” To appropriate Abe’s usage, the DPJ thinks that as many people as possible should hold a child until it turns 3, and that includes day-care workers.

Regardless of whether or not these two policies work at cross purposes, they offer relief for working mothers and undermine the conservative bias toward traditional family structures. Consequently, they will have an effect on the image of the so-called professional housewife (sengyō shufu), which is already suffering in the light of all the attention being paid to the trials and tribulations of women in the workforce.

The April 10 edition of NHK’s morning information show, “Asaichi,” discussed this image change, first by showing in a negative light young women who are obsessed with becoming full-time homemakers and so only look for spouses with high salaries. The program profiled a 24-year-old woman who, despite graduating from an “elite” university and securing a good job with “a foreign firm,” is spending all her time and resources pursuing a marriage that will allow her to quit and be a housewife, like her mother.

“I won’t date a man unless he works for a major company,” she says. “That’s pointless.” And while she admires colleagues who are raising children she believes that’s not the life for her, and describes an older coworker who takes her work home when she has to leave early to be with her child. “Once she sent me some emails and I noticed they’d been written at 4 in the morning,” the woman says. “I’d never want to do that.”

When she talks about potential mates’ “specs” and a long-time boyfriend she will never marry because “his pay isn’t high enough,” the commentators in the studio gasp and moan. “As a man, I find her offensive,” says one. Various experts are interviewed and point out that while the woman’s utilitarian view of wedlock is not unusual she is fooling herself if she thinks lifelong security is that easy to obtain in the current economic environment.

Statistically, the professional housewife has been losing ground to working women since the end of the bubble era in the early 1990s. They are now in the minority. Granted, many working women are part-time irregular employees, but the upshot of this two-decade-long trend is increasing antipathy toward women who would presume to be nothing but homemakers. Viewers sent faxes and emails during the show. One woman in her 50s wrote sarcastically that the woman portrayed “was quite brave to rely on a man the rest of her life,” while one who called herself a sengyō shufu revealed, “My neighbors sometimes say to me that it must be nice not to have to work.” In a survey NHK conducted, 40 percent of full-time homemakers admitted to feeling “guilty” that they didn’t bring in money.

A recent article in Aera looked into “mamatomo melancholy,” which is experienced by young mothers who feel pressure to get along with other mothers. “Mamatomo” means “mothers who are friends,” and the piece stresses that the friction is almost always between working women and full-time homemakers. One 42-year-old I.T. company manager describes moving with her husband and young daughter into a condominium where her college kōhai (junior), a sengyō shufu, also lives. Despite her seniority in terms of age, the new tenant is the subordinate in this new relationship because she relies on her old friend to help her make the right impression on the other mothers in the building. The friend tells her not to dress like a “career woman” at PTA meetings because it will make the full-time housewives uncomfortable.

The pressure can lead to extremes. A full-time housewife told Aera she bought an expensive motorized bicycle to bring her daughter to kindergarten, but a neighbor told her that the working mothers in the building thought the purchase was “vulgar,” since it implied she was rich enough to afford such a vehicle without a job. She started walking her daughter to school.

These conflicts have not only been socialized and internalized, they’ve been commercialized. The April issue of Very, a phone-book-size fashion magazine for women in their 30s, has numerous features on clothing for young mothers, whose “manners,” as one headline puts it, are changing by the minute. What is “proper” for a “casual look”? Are high heels appropriate for jaunts in the park? What should you wear when you make your “debut” at a mamatomo function? Considering the sensitive feelings involved, a suit of armor sounds about right.

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