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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004

BILINGUAL

A woman's happiness is in the home . . . huh?


The term "shufu (main woman of the house, or housewife)" has shifted from derogatory to almost exalted.

Ten years ago, a lot of young women would rather have shot themselves in the foot than be called a "sengyo-shufu (a woman with no independent income who sticks to being a housewife)," but now surveys show many of the Shibuya-resident joshikosei (high-school girls) actually aspire to being just that.

The shufu no za (the housewife's throne) is seen as an enviable place to be, the quickie passport to ai (love), antei (security) and sonkei (respect). Before, it was hip to pretend one couldn't even boil water, let alone cook anything; now girls proudly lay claim to culinary skills that would impress those "ryori no tetsujin (iron chef)" folk. I wish I had known such a trend was coming at a time when it still would have mattered. At least I could've saved on all those instant cup noodles.

But my gut feeling is: Girls, why do it? In other parts of the world, women have jobs and maintain households, very often at the same time. But in Japan, society -- and a lot of women -- believe it's nearly impossible to do both and retain one's sanity, so many women opt for one or the other.

Currently, the popular choice happens to be "shufugyo (professional housewife)," despite the fact that the Japanese kaji (household chores) are so multilayered, complex and time-consuming. Yes, in spite of all the high-tech kaden (appliances), the abundance of sozai (ready-made or precooked meals) and the recent advent of the shokusenki (dishwasher), the average Japanese woman still devotes a huge chunk of her time to household duties and concerns.

Compared with her counterparts in the West, she spends longer hours in the kitchen, more time circling the house with a vacuum cleaner and attending to the needs of her children. The Japanese shufu is mistress of a thousand tasks, the bulk of which she must do alone, since outsourcing is still an alien concept (too costly) and the husband is perpetually stuck in the office. Besides, many women are averse to the idea of having someone else come and do the dirty work. They don't even like having friends over unless they're sure everything that has been meticulously cleaned, the kids are scrubbed and smiling, and the kyakuyo shokki (guest china) is out on display.

From childhood, Japanese women learn the drill: If a girl doesn't acquire the fine art of maintaining a household, she can't get married. And the threat that she may remain single while others smile triumphantly in the peal of wedding bells is so unbearable she gets cracking. She learns to cook, she learns to sew. She learns the rudiments of gardening and arranging flowers. She also learns to mix drinks and pour the beer so there isn't too much head (Japanese men don't like that). And she's told by her elders that "Toire soji no jozuna onna ni wa kawaii onnanoko ga umareru (A woman who's good at cleaning the toilet will be blessed with a beautiful daughter.)" Or as my grandmother used to say: "Otoko wa tokusuruyoni dekiteiru. Onna wa nakuyoni dekiteiru (A man will always get the better end of the stick while a woman will always end up weeping)."

There's also a sense that housework is a virtue, that these tasks will help her grow as a human being and her skills as a domestic goddess will increase her feminine worth ("onnaburi o ageru").

She can be multilingual or have a master's degree in nuclear fusion; the Japanese woman will still say that onna no shiawase (a woman's happiness) depends on her success as a wife, a helpmate and mother. The ultimate role model is Princess Masako, who ditched a brilliant Foreign Ministry career for, well, a marriage. Now, if Masako-sama thought it was worth it, then surely, for the rest of us the choice should be obvious.

And now for the good news: the term shufu has expanded to include men as well. Where once the kanji character for fu meant "woman," it can now be written with the character that means "husband." Indeed, a steadily growing number of house-husbands (still deplorably small, but they're there) are coming out of the closet, admitting their status, and even willing to say this housework thing isn't all that bad.

Award-winning horror-novelist Koji Suzuki (author of "The Ring") was the first house-husband to make it all look cool -- he even said in an interview, "Jitsu wa otoko no hoga kaji ni muiteiru (Actually, men are better suited for housework)."

If only grandma was around to hear that.



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