The other day I had a chance to moderate a symposium at the Swedish Embassy that was attended by Sweden’s Minister for Employment, Ylva Johansson, on the theme of “the future of work styles and gender equality.” During this event, the ambassador of Sweden referred to furaryman.

Furaryman is a phenomenon recently taken up in an NHK feature program. The term — a coinage from salaryman and the Japanese word “fura fura” describing the way people hang around without purpose — refers to male company employees who, even though their overtime work has been slashed due to work-style reforms, do not go straight home and instead hang out in Tokyo’s entertainment/drinking areas like Shinbashi.

Among Japan’s typical company employees, there is no custom of dining with their family at home in the early evening hours of weekdays.

Since their children were small, many of the male employees — spending long hours at work — have left much of the child-rearing and household chores in the hands of their wives. Some of them don’t cook or even wash the dishes. Whether their wives also have a job or not, about 70 percent of male workers do little in terms of housework.

So when such men suddenly start coming home early (but not early enough), their wives don’t like it, because they might wake up the kids who have just gone to bed. After all, these men don’t have a space for themselves at home. So they choose to have a drink or two or idle away their time at game arcades before going home.

The phenomenon can be blamed on the established labor practice of long working hours, as well as the deep-seated culture of gender-based division of labor — that it’s all right for men to spend their time solely at their jobs.

Japanese women do not ask much of their husbands, either. They tend to think that it’s their responsibility to raise children. What pushes them to think so is the social mindset that it is the women’s role to raise kids. Most government pamphlets on measures for child-rearing support show pictures of a mother and child alone. A handbook encouraging men to join in raising kids now features the photo of a father and child alone.

The hit TV drama “Nigeru wa Haji Da ga Yaku ni Tatsu” (translated as “It’s Shameful but Useful to Run Away”), aired last year by TBS, has raised questions over such typical ways of married couples in this country.

Based on a manga story, the drama evolves around a jobless woman in her 20s who enters a “housework agent” contract with a male computer engineer in his 30s. She works seven hours a day and gets paid ¥194,000 a month. But since she does not have a home to live in, the woman lives in his apartment and splits the rent. Because it is still not so common in Japan for unmarried men and women to live together, they both tell their parents and work colleagues that they got married. But in truth, they are in a “contract marriage” comprised of housework agent and room-share contracts.

Viewers may wonder if the contract includes sex — since a younger man and woman are going to live together in the apartment. But their relationship does not develop quickly— because the homeowner is a virgin in his 30s. Today, one in four males in their 30s in Japan has no experience of sexual intercourse.

As they spend their time together, however, they come to like each other and the relationship develops into a love affair. The male homeowner asks her to marry him, instead of being the housework agent. However, she protests that the proposal is “an exploitation of love.” So far, she was being rewarded for her job as the housework agent. But when the man asked her to marry him (by giving an estimate of the costs and benefits of their married life), he estimates that she would do the housework for free.

Here the drama — whose title was popularly shortened to “Nige-haji” — exposes the “structure of exploitation” that has so far been hidden in the lives of married couples. Readers interested in what eventually happens to the man and the woman in the drama should look up its DVDs or the original comic books. But that development in the drama stirred discussions in the web sphere — as to whether ¥194,000 is adequate as reward for the work of a housewife.

Based on this drama, I co-authored with micro-economist Shungo Koreeda a book titled “Nige-haji ni Miru Kekkon no Keizaigaku” (“Economics of Marriage as Seen in Nige-haji”). According to an estimate by Koreeda, a husband who earns less than ¥6 million a year will be engaged in the exploitation of love on his wife if she has no job outside the home. The estimate also gives a desired ratio of the division of housework between the husband and wife according to the household’s annual income. If the husband earns ¥6 million, for example, he needs to spend at least 16.9 hours a week on housework (or 24.5 percent of the total hours spent on housework). In essence, the book is an attempt to assess the value of a housewife’s unrewarded labor from an economics viewpoint.

In Japan, even when both the husband and wife have jobs — or when the husband earns less than the wife — it is not rare for the wife alone to take care of child-rearing and housework. Roughly 70 percent of men do not engage in any housework, whether their wives also have a job or not.

Things get tougher when kids are born to these couples. Time spent on raising children and doing the housework will pile up further, and low-income couples will find it hard to get by.

To encourage more young Japanese to have a family and find it attractive to have children, we need to create an environment where both the husband and wife can work — such as by making nursery schools available for all parents who need their children admitted — and to get more men to help raise their children and do housework.

Also, the burden of higher education shouldered by households in Japan is high as the government spends the least among advanced economies. Children’s educational expenses are covered by hard efforts on the part of households. Unless public spending on children is greatly increased, the number of people who wish to marry or raise children will not increase. I hope “Nige-haji ni Miru Kekkon no Keizaigaku” (available only in Japanese) will serve as a trigger for discussing a new standard for the family structure in this country.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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