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Gender has been an important principle of stratification throughout Japanese history, but the cultural elaboration of gender differences has varied over time and among different social classes. In the twelfth century (Heian period), for example, women could inherit property in their own names and manage it by themselves. Later, under feudal governments (the Shogunate), the status of women declined. Peasant women continued to have de facto freedom of movement and decisionmaking power, but upper-class women's lives were subject to the patrilineal and patriarchal ideology supported by the government as part of its efforts at social control. With early industrialization, young women participated in factory work under exploitive and unhealthy working conditions without gaining personal autonomy. In the Meiji period, industrialization and urbanization lessened the authority of fathers and husbands, but at the same time the Meiji Civil Code denied women legal rights and subjugated them to the will of household heads. Peasant women were less affected by the institutionalization of this trend, but it gradually spread even to remote areas. In the 1930s and 1940s, the government encouraged the formation of women's associations, applauded high fertility, and regarded motherhood as a patriotic duty to the Japanese Empire.
After World War II, the legal position of women was redefined by the occupation authorities, who included an equal rights clause in the 1947 Constitution and the revised Civil Code of 1948. Individual rights were given precedence over obligation to family. Women as well as men were guaranteed the right to choose spouses and occupations, to inherit and own property in their own names, and to retain custody of their children. Women were given the right to vote in 1946. Other postwar reforms opened education institutions to women and required that women receive equal pay for equal work. In 1986 the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect. Legally, few barriers to women's equal participation in the life of society remain.
Education and workforce participation
Gender inequality, however, continues in family life, the workplace, and popular values. The notion expressed in the proverbial phrase "good wife, wise mother," continues to influence beliefs about gender roles. Most women may not be able to realize that ideal, but many believe that it is in their own, their children's, and society's best interests that they stay home to devote themselves to their children, at least while the children were young. Many women find satisfaction in family life and in the accomplishments of their children, gaining a sense of fulfilment from doing good jobs as household managers and mothers. In most households, women are responsible for their family budgets and make independent decisions about the education, careers, and life-styles of their families. Women also take the social blame for problems of family members.
Women's educational opportunities have increased in the twentieth century. Among new workers in 1989, 37 % of women had received education beyond upper-secondary school, compared with 43 % of men, but most women had received their postsecondary education in junior colleges and technical schools rather than in universities and graduate schools (see Education in Japan).
Working women in Japan
After World War II, the fixed image of the Japanese woman has been that of the office lady, who becomes a housewife and a kyoiku mama after marriage. But a new generation of educated women is emerging, that is seeking a career as a working woman.
Japanese women are joining the labor force in unprecedented numbers. In 1987 there were 24.3 million working women (40% of the labor force), and they accounted for 59% of the increase in employment from 1975 to 1987. The participation rate for women in the labor force (the ratio of those working to all women aged fifteen and older) rose from 45.7% in 1975 to 50.6% in 1991 and was expected to reach 50% by 2000.
In 1990 approximately 50 % of all women over fifteen years of age participated in the paid labor force. At that time, two major changes in the female work force were under way. The first was a move away from household-based employment. Peasant women and those from merchant and artisan families had always worked. With self-employment becoming less common, though, the more usual pattern was separation of home and workplace, creating new problems of child care, care of the elderly, and housekeeping responsibilities. The second major change was the increased participation of married women in the labor force. In the 1950s, most women employees were young and single; 62 % of the female labor force in 1960 had never been married. In 1987 about 66 % of the female labor force was married, and only 23 % was made up women who had never married. Some women continued working after marriage, most often in professional and government jobs, but their numbers were small. Others started their own businesses or took over family businesses. More commonly, women left paid labor after marriage, then returned after their youngest children were in school. These middle-age recruits generally took low-paying, part-time service or factory jobs. They continued to have nearly total responsibility for home and children and often justified their employment as an extension of their responsibilities for the care of their families. Despite legal support for equality and some improvement in their status, married women understood that their husbands' jobs demanded long hours and extreme commitment. Because women earned an average of only 60 % as much as men, most did not find it advantageous to take full-time, responsible jobs after marriage, if doing so left no one to manage the household and care for children.
Yet women's status in the labor force was changing in the late 1980s, most likely as a result of changes brought about by the aging of the population (see Elderly people in Japan). Longer life expectancies, smaller families and bunched births, and lowered expectations of being cared for in old age by their children have all led women to participate more fully in the labor force. At the same time, service job opportunities in the postindustrial economy expanded, and there were fewer new male graduates to fill them.
Some of the same demographic factors—low birth rates and high life expectancies—also change workplace demands on husbands. For example, men recognize their need for a different kind of relationship with their wives in anticipation of long postretirement periods.