Recherche FFJ Research Statement Glenda Roberts

Glenda Roberts

Urban Salary women in Contemporary Japan: Models for a neo-liberal Japan?


I began the project in 2003, after having finished a study in which I compared the ‘work/life balance’ of Japanese women in a foreign-affiliated multinational finance corporation, ‘MNF’ (pseudonym) in Tokyo, and Japanese women working for a large multinational Japanese manufacturer with R&D as well as sales operations ‘Naruse’ (pseudonym) (Roberts, 2007, 2011). In the earlier project, I had been mainly interested in inquiring about how the companies recruited and retained women, as well as how far and how quickly they promoted them. I wanted to know the extent of the uptake of fairly newly implemented ‘flexible work arrangements,’ and ‘family friendly’ policies: how frequently they were used, and how workers and managers perceived them. I also hoped to understand whether and how those women who wanted to maintain their employment status yet also marry and have at least one child, were able to accomplish this (Roberts, 2003, 2004). As is well known, due to the gendered regime of labor in postwar urban Japan, all this (to marry, to have children, to climb the corporate ladder) was completely ‘normal’—indeed, expected-- for a man in white-collar employment, but it was anything but normal for women. Women as white-collar employees were to work, if at all, only before marriage, and to quit upon marriage, enter the household, and manage it as well as the ensuing children (Mclendon, 1984, Lebra, 1984, Ogasawara, 1998, Osawa, 2002). In more recent years, after the Equal Employment in Opportunity Law (1986), and with subsequent governmental laws added regarding Childcare and Eldercare leave from 1991 on, arguably it became easier for women to obtain similar employment status to that of men, and to stay in it. Yet, in the late 1990s—early 2000s when I interviewed women at the two corporations above, they often told me that there was still prejudice regarding women’s marriage and childbirth, in that women who married were assumed to lack the requisite commitment to their jobs. It is partly due to such a hostile environment that many women who wanted to continue their careers chose to remain single. In the Japanese firm that I study, single women form a majority of white-collar women, and, according to my informants, they have been promoted more rapidly than their married counterparts who have children. Of course, there were significant differences in the ways these two firms, one a foreign-capital firm, the other a Japanese firm, conceptualized how to manage their female white-collar employees. It is these differences that I emphasized in earlier work (Roberts, 2007).

I decided to continue to research those who also had children and who stayed on at the Japanese large firm, Naruse, in order to understand how they would manage their careers, their marriages, their responsibilities as daughters of aging parents (another obligation), and their personal lives. In a longitudinal study, one has the opportunity to get to know one’s interlocutors over the longue durée. One can see how far they progress in the firm and how they feel about and strategize their paths in the work environment, as well as how they view their roles as mothers, daughters, and wives as they encounter new and different challenges amidst changing times. I am especially interested in how they define and achieve their version of ‘well-being’ (Mathews and Izqierdo, 2011; also, see Duraes, Fauve-Chamoux, Ferrer and Kok, 2009; Roberts, 2011) as they strive to stay on in employment. Inspired by Folbre (1994), one of the central issues I pursue is the effect child-bearing and rearing has on other domains of these women’s lives—for instance, power in their marriages, economic wherewithal, social class mobility, self-determination). By now I have been carrying out in-depth semi-structured interviews every 2-3 years with 9-15 women at Naruse since 2003, and intend to follow them through retirement. The most recent interviews took place in 2017. While this is admittedly a small sample, it is the only longitudinal sample of its kind that I know of, and I do triangulate these informants’ narratives within the context of other sociological and anthropological studies of Japan. In the coming months, I will write a manuscript on my findings to date from these interviews. In addition, I hope to begin to discuss issues of family and work/life balance with employed parents in France’s private sector, who have long been accustomed to dual-career partnerships, and who are situated in a much different public welfare regime, for a comparison with their Japanese counterparts.

The importance of this research lies in how it is situated within the current socioeconomic and political framework of our societies today. In Japan’s case, through the in-depth case studies of this research, we can grasp how salary women are negotiating their life paths amidst shifts in the work environment toward neoliberal reforms (in the sense of encouraging people to take personal initiative in their career formation as well as shifts in governmental initiatives toward increasing women’s labor force participation.1  For instance, at the beginning of my research in 2003, executives in the personnel department at the firm told me that they took the long view for women university graduate hires, expecting them to build their careers slowly in the firm and giving them the flexibility to have and rear their children. This was at a time when the firm was still doing quite well financially, and it was under Japanese management entirely. Women did not get promoted quickly at all, but they were expected to stay. Now, however, the competition has become greater, and there have been some organizational changes. There have recently been new mid-career hires who worked for foreign-capital firms in Japan and abroad. Communication ability in English is expected for management positions now, so some of my interviewees are taking it upon themselves to learn English. People are being sent to take weekend courses at a management school, to become credentialed in topics such as CSR, or negotiation, or power harassment. Some are even doing this on their own time, without company funding. While women are being promoted faster than in the past, they are now also expected to work more intensively, with longer hours, and to actively manage their careers, in a sense. Some of my informants feel trapped between wanting to climb in the firm under these new conditions, yet also desiring to care for their children themselves, without hiring help for evening care. Some interviewees have also noted that they enjoy this new ‘self-improvement’ aspect of corporate governance, because they are actually being encouraged to learn something new even after 20 or more years of service.

In Japan, these changes are taking place in a larger demographic framework of a rapidly aging society and shrinking labor force. Often, social norms of an earlier era clash with new initiatives. Women in salaried employment still feel pressure from their kin, social networks and ‘convoys’ (Plath, 1980) to become wives, mothers and caregivers as well as to shoulder corporate roles accompanied by punishing long hours and heavy demands. The current Abe government in fact encourages both facets while failing to deliver sufficient public support (see Macnaughton, 2015). This research tells of the limits to such directives as it analyzes women’s own evolving thoughts on their well-being in contemporary society. While Japan as a case sometimes seems to be an outlier, in fact we can observe similarities in Europe as well, as populations decline, women’s labor force participation increases, and gender regimes undergo change. France is known as an example of a country that has sought to address with some success these issues, so its value as a referent may be highly useful!

1: I mean “Neo-liberal” here in the sense of an ideology encouraging people to be independent and take personal initiative in their career formation—to recognize who they are and what they want, and to strive for it, as well as in the sense of intensification of work. Please see Carrie Lane (2011) on neo-liberal ideology and its effects on the lives of US white-collar workers, and Nana Okura-Gagne (2017) on its effects on Japanese management systems and employees’ behaviors.


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Gagne, Nana Okura. “Correcting Capitalism”: Changing Metrics and Meanings of Work among Japanese Employees, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2017.

Lane, Carrie. A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, Cornell University, 2011.

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Macnaughton, Helen. “Womenomics for Japan: is the Abe policy for gendered employment viable in an era of precarity?", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 12, No. 1, March 30, 2015.

Mclendon, James. “The Office: Way Station or Blind Alley?” In David Plath, ed., Work and Lifecourse in Japan. 1984.

Okura-Gagne, Nana. “Salaryman in Crisis? The collapse of Dominant ideologies and Shifting Identities of Salarymen in metropolitan Japan. Yale University dissertation, 2010.

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---------------. “Twelve Million Full-time Housewives: The Gender Consequences of Japan’s Postwar Social Contract.” In Social Contracts Under Stress: The Middle Classes of America, Europe and Japan at the Turn of the Century, O. Zunz, L. Schoppa, and N. Hiwatari, eds., pp 255-280. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

Plath, David. Long Engagements. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Roberts, Glenda S. “Balancing Work and Life: Whose Work? Whose Life? Whose Balance?” Published by the International House of Japan, Tokyo, for the Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation, pp. 75-109, 2003.

----------------------. “Globalization and Work/Life Balance: Gendered Implications of New Initiatives at a U.S. Multinational in Japan,” in Heidi Gottfried and Laura Reese, eds., Equity in the Workplace: Gendering Workplace Policy Analysis, pp. 305-324. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004.

---------------------. “Similar Outcomes, Different Paths: the Cross-national Transfer of Gendered Regulations of Employment,” in Sylvia Walby, Heidi Gottfried, Karen Gottschall and Mari Osawa, eds., Gendering the Knowledge Economy: Comparative Perspectives. London: Palgrave, pp. 141-161, 2007.

---------------------.“Salary Women and Family Well-Being in Urban Japan,” Marriage & Family Review, 47:571-589, 2011.

Robertson, James and Nobue Suzuki, eds. Men and Masculinities in Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa. Routledge, 2003.

Rohlen, Thomas. For Harmony and Strength: Japanese White-collar Organizations in Anthropological Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1979.