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. % 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. There is a new term for the female counterpart of the “salaryman” (?????? ), the “career woman” (???????? ).