Professor Tanaka Sigeto’s talk began with a critical research question: why does inequality in Japanese family system perpetuate? His research explores how marriage and childbirth are disadvantageous for women in Japan, and the institutionalization of this disadvantage in family laws and in hegemonic family ideology. The focus of his presentation was on the adverse economic consequences of career interruptions and child-rearing responsibilities, which are often experienced by Japanese women – particularly those who got divorced.
Professor Tanaka first highlighted the research findings from the National Family Research of Japan (NFRJ), showing the results of NFRJ’s three surveys conducted in 1998, 2003, and 2008. One of the key findings was that there had been a significant gender gap in post-divorce economic living standards, which can be attributed to women’s interrupted careers and their responsibility to take care of children. An important number pointed out by him was that among those children whose parents have gotten divorced, approximately 80 percent of them are under sole custody of their mothers. This has led to higher cost of living and become a key factor of lowering post-divorce women’s income in general.
Professor Tanaka then discussed the issue of single mother households’ poverty through the lens of ideologies on family and logic of norms in Japan. He highlighted the existence of two main ideological groups regarding family systems: the traditional “Stem family” (ie) system versus the modern “Nuclear family” system. While the former emphasizes the importance of family business and deems parent-child relationship a foundation of loyalty to the state and emperor, the latter are characterized by individualization and altruism. Notwithstanding the ideological differences, when it comes to divorce, both groups prefer to deal with it by mutual consent and are against legal intervention. Statistics show that 90 percent of divorce cases were by mutual consent without legal intervention, while only 9 percent of them were mediated by court, and 1 percent based on unilateral judgement by court. The bilateral approach without court intervention usually triggers the problem of power gap in negotiation, leaving divorced women on the disadvantage side and thus making them suffer financial burden in most cases. Professor Tanaka argued that this has resulted in the lack of systematic criticism of the family system, as well as little attention on distributive justice in family.
Regarding the prospects for change, Professor Tanaka listed several policy and legal reforms aimed at promoting gender equality, including the Vision of Gender Equality in 1996, the Basic Law for Gender-Equal Society in 1999, and the Basic Plan for Gender Equality in 2000 (being revised in every five years). However, as he pointed out, the impact of increasing divorce and the related family issues have been outside the focus. For example, there is no chapter touching upon family issues in the 4th Basic Plan for Gender Equality in 2015. Although, according to Professor Tanaka, there is a long history of legal debate on how to regulate Japanese liberal divorce system to achieve equity, no wide-spread consensus has been reached. Moreover, the lack of research on marital-life results on post-divorce life and the shortage of public attention to the issues have undermined the prospects for the related reforms. In the end, it is still the abovementioned traditional and modern norms that prevent discourse toward public regulation of gender inequality concerning family issues.
In the Q&A session, a member of the audience wondered whether the family education in Japan can help break the vicious cycle. Professor Tanaka agreed that if parents can educate their children to be aware of gender equality and respect it, ideally the current inequality can be solved gradually. However, the fact is that sons and daughters still receive very different messages from their parents and thus leading to stronger gender socialization. This could hinder the progress.
Another member of the audience asked why mothers usually take the responsibility of custody after divorce, even though their incomes are generally lower. Is it because of the role of specialization? Why women’s negotiation power is weaker? Professor Tanaka answered that it could be a natural result because most Japanese fathers do not take care of their children as much as Japanese mothers do. Also, mothers usually give priority to their children. Another factor could be that in the case of domestic violence, women’s priority is often to escape from the marriage first. Therefore, Professor Tanaka explained, women usually do not have much negotiating power as compared with men during the divorce process.
Summary prepared by Bo-jiun Jing