Earlier this year, house builder Asahi Kasei Homes produced a video “white paper” based on a survey of 1,371 “double-income families” with children. Seventy percent of the husbands surveyed said they had been subjected to kaji-hara, or “housework harassment,” by their wives.

AKH defined kaji-hara as “an attitude of finding fault with a husband’s housekeeping methods.” The idea is illustrated by a scene in which a man has just finished washing the dishes. His wife thanks him but adds, “I’ll have to wash them again.” The husband’s thoughts are manifested in text on screen: “When I heard that, I decided I didn’t want to wash dishes any more.” Similar reactions follow in which men’s house-cleaning and laundry skills are criticized. AKH concludes that too much complaining on the part of the wife only makes him not want to pitch in with housework.

Commenters on AKH’s home page and other websites slammed the implication that women need to flatter husbands in order to get them to do domestic chores. Moreover, the logic of the dramatized example was offensive. “If parents complain about their child’s homework habits, does that mean it’s OK for the child to give up math drills?” asked one person. “If your boss lectures you on a mistake you made, should you stay home from work the next day?” said another. Mayumi Taniguchi, associate professor at Osaka Kokusai University and the founder of the Obasan (Middle Aged Women’s) Party, told Tokyo Shimbun: “Traditionally, it is husbands who complain about their wives’ housekeeping skills, but that doesn’t mean wives quit doing housework.”

AKH has altered the video slightly, since it was working under a misconception from the start. What kaji-hara really means is not wives pestering husbands about housework, but rather society treating full-time housewives with veiled contempt.

Mieko Takenobu, a professor at Wako University and former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, coined the term for her book “Housework Labor Harassment,” which said that until women are freed from the “roles” of homemaker, child-raiser and family nurse, they will never be accepted as legitimate members of the labor force, because society doesn’t accept those three tasks as “real work.” They are simply things women are expected to do, which is why professional day care workers and caregivers make so little money even though there is a labor shortage in both fields. If men do these things, it’s exceptional, as AKH implies.

Takenobu’s thesis predated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech last fall at the United Nations, in which he pledged to help Japanese women “shine” in the workplace. Her book has received renewed attention because no matter how welcome women are in the workforce, as long as they are expected to carry the burden of domestic work, they can never achieve true independence. And while Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party pay lip service to women’s full participation in the workforce, the media continues to push the ideal of the efficient homemaker, especially in TV commercials, where male-female domestic roles are as distinct as they were in the 1970s.

Masae Ido, a former national lawmaker who has raised five children, complained to Tokyo Shimbun about a current commercial by food maker Ajinomoto that shows how mothers have made meals for their families since the stone age. “Where’s the father in this commercial?” she asks. Though the ad, which has since been taken off the air, congratulates a mother-homemaker’s dedication to her family, it doesn’t make Ido feel good. All it does is remind her that things haven’t changed.

Last year in the Asahi Shimbun’s online magazine Webronza, Takenobu responded to the LDP’s women-positive position with skepticism. The government has pledged to close Japan’s gender-related income and management gaps, the highest in the developed world, but she figures that’s impossible if working wives are still expected to be the primary focus of housekeeping and child-rearing. Attitudes are shaped by policy, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed in 1985, the same year full-time homemakers were given special status in the tax and pension systems. On the one hand, women were being encouraged to excel in the workplace, while on the other, women who opted not to work were financially rewarded for staying at home. In the long run, dedicated housewives made out better economically than did working wives.

Asahi has illustrated this conundrum in a series about working men and women. In one article, a 38-year-old wife who had worked full-time since graduating from university quit her job when her husband’s company transferred him. They had a 2-year-old son and she didn’t want to take care of him by herself, but what made her decide to move with her husband was the benefits. If she legally became his dependent his company would give him a monthly “dependent allowance” of ¥17,000. In addition, his tax burden would decrease significantly, and she could still be in the pension system without having to pay anything thanks to the special “No. 3” designation for dependent spouses implemented in 1985. The same goes for health insurance. So even though their household income decreased significantly when she quit, they can survive. But as the woman said, “Once you become a dependent, it’s difficult to go back unless you know you can make a lot of money.”

As women who take time off to have babies know, that doesn’t happen. Takenobu points out that women who return to the workforce always do so at greatly reduced pay. Many wives with part-time jobs work with their employers to make sure they don’t earn more than the annual dependent ceiling of ¥1.03 million, a common situation that keeps women’s pay low.

The media puts homemakers on pedestals, and Takenobu says it’s misleading since society doesn’t respect “women’s work.” That’s why the husband in the AKH video was an ostensible object of pity. Why should he be scolded for that? But this is a double-income family. A better question is: Why don’t they just buy a dishwasher?

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