Theater of Cruelty

Japanese women's views on life, gender roles and society

Good Wife, Wise Mother
Forfatter: Anne-Stine Johnsbråten (foto)
Forlag: Journal (Sverige)
PHOTO / Japanese women struggle between traditional gender roles, an expectation of work effort and reproduction while maintaining the role of "good wife, wise mother".


Anne-Stine Johnsbråten's photo book Good Wife, Wise Mother borrows the title from the Japanese term ry-sai-kenbo, a modern term for the female role that emerged during the Meiji period (1868–1912) according to the article "The Good Wife and Wise Mother" by Shizuko, Koyama and Sylvain in the US-Japan Women's Journal (1994). During the Meiji period, Japanese society opened up to the West, with the aim of promoting industrialization and technological development. This was to pave the way for Japan's economic growth after the First World War and mobilize those who worked in agriculture to take other jobs in office and trade in a more modern Japan.

Japan's miraculous economic growth promoted a gender-based division of labor, which was very different from pre-industrial times, when women and men performed largely the same tasks. The author Silvia Federici has a similar point when she in the book Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004) write about a Europe before the 1600th century, where both men and women worked in the field, "women's domestic chores were more valued", and men and women "had the same social conditions".
The gender-segregated working life arose when women's "unpaid work and reproductive work" became subject to the reproduction and growth of the labor force. In Japan, male office workers earned enough money to support both their wives and children, and women were delegated to reproduction, child rearing, and housework. In this context, we can say that Japan's economic growth created an unequal gender distribution in the labor market.

Economic growth in Japan continued throughout the 1900th century, until the crash on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1990. By then, Japan had been in an "economic bubble" and taken out large loans. Japanese women were forced to return to working life while the modern ideal of "good wife, wise mother" persisted.

According to the World Economic Forum's report on global gender inequalities (2020), Japan came in 121st place out of 153 countries, and on the list that reveals wage differences between the sexes, Japan ends up in third place.
The proportion of women in working life has grown dramatically since 2012, but this has not affected the number of hours of work performed by women – simply because most of the jobs women have are part-time, and something the Japanese tax and social security system also stimulates to.

Traditional gender roles combined with a culture where long working days are normal make it difficult for Japanese women to combine career and family. However, it is estimated that Japan's population will decrease by 25 percent by 2050, and when Japan has had a shortage of labor since 2011, women will be required to participate in working life in the future.

Mai Yano and Ken Yoshida at home

100 Japanese women

Documentary photographer Anne-Stine Johnsbråten lives in Oslo. The pictures to Good Wife, Wise Mother was taken between 2011 and 2016. With this project she won first prize in the category of documentaries abroad in the competition Norwegian Picture of the Year 2016. The debut book depicts around 100 Japanese women, they are young and old, from several generations and with different social affiliations, different professions and from different regions, including Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Hiroshima. Johnsbråten writes that when she traveled to Japan, "she was excited to hear what the women wanted to say about work and equality", "how they saw their freedom in a gender perspective, and their thoughts on the future".

Good Wife, Wise Mother gives us an exclusive insight into the different roles of Japanese women in society. The images reveal the country's underlying social structures that prevent women from combining career and family, but also depict individuals who are tough, progressive and willing to challenge traditional gender roles. Johnsbråten conducted a short interview with the women who were photographed, and this turned into captions that provide information not only about the woman pictured, but also about Japanese society.

The traditional wedding.

Mai Yano and Manami «Mana» Sawa

In the book, we meet Mai Yano, a 21-year-old woman who studies economics and lives with her parents. Four years later, she marries Ken Yoshida in a traditional ceremony. The wedding photos reveal how Japanese culture combines the traditional with the modern, and at the same time show the life cycle of the photo project, which stretched over several years. In a caption, we can read that the Japanese legal system requires the use of a single surname, and that couples usually choose the man's surname.

Traditional gender roles combined with a culture where long working days are normal make it difficult for Japanese women to combine career and family.

This type of information helps us, the readers, to interpret the photographs further. In another picture, we see Mai and Ken in a shared home, and the caption says that Mai finds it difficult to keep up with the housework and at the same time have a challenging job, even though Ken helps with the housework more than before. May is expected to do most of the homework, just like Chie, her mother. Despite Ken's goodwill, traditional gender role expectations persist, as elsewhere in Japanese society. Achieving a balance between a successful career and family life may not challenge the actual traditional gender roles, but women's economic independence is nevertheless a step towards gender equality.

It is expected that Japanese women cope with both work and motherhood, and are a good wife

We also get to meet Manami "Mana" Sawa, a 28-year-old woman who leads her own dance company Tokyo Party Time, which performs at nightclubs. In a caption, we read that her husband "has no problem with her profession", but four years later Manami is divorced, still the boss of her own company, but she takes fewer assignments at nightclubs. Now she has a British boyfriend and hopes to establish a family in Tokyo – or preferably in London. Manami is an independent woman, and through her profession she defies traditional gender roles, but her desire to focus on the family is not far from the expression of the good wife and wise mother.

Challenges the gender role

Good Wife, Wise Mother illustrates the social conditions that give traditional gender roles a foothold in Japanese society. Nevertheless, the book also depicts strong women who, despite their contradictions, are willing to challenge precisely these roles. The book also provides a unique insight into Japanese culture and reveals its sharp contrasts through the views of Japanese women.

Translated by Iril Kolle

Patricia Sequeira Brás
Patricia Sequeira Brás
Patricia Sequeira Brás Teaches Portuguese Modern Cultures. The relationship between politics and cinema that motivated her doctoral work continues to shape her new research projects. Here Current Interests Include Representations of Crises in Cinema and Video; Explorations on film Viewership and political and Ethical Engagements; Communicative and Affect Capitalism. These interrogations are informed by work from an array of disciplinary fields within the humanities: film theory, philosophy, political theory and recent research in neuroscience.

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