Career Women in Contemporary Japan


A review of Career Women in Contemporary Japan: Pursuing Identities, Fashioning Lives, by Anne Stefanie Aronsson.

Drawing on ethnographic research, literature reviews and surveys, Aronsson’s thesis explores the career paths and motivations of white-collar professional women and the ways in which they are reconfiguring notions of selfhood. Based on interviews with 120 women, she presents in-depth data of 16 individuals aged from their 20s to their 90s giving us a compelling view of professional women’s careers throughout the postwar period. She organizes her thesis along two axes: when they entered the workforce and the sectors they worked in, focusing specifically on financial services, industry, entrepreneurs, government and academia. After starting from a macro-perspective of exploring how the global economy has affected Japan’s employment environment throughout the postwar period, she analyses how these changes have affected changing hierarchies of gender in each sector, before finally investigating how these changes have been (and are) lived by individual women. One of her main analytical foci is to ask what keeps women in career-track jobs when so many others don’t stay. The first chapter serves as an introduction and discusses the gendering of the work force, female career options and an introduction to selfhood and the creation of a professional career woman self.

In Chapter 2 Aronsson provides a historical exploration of women and work in modern Japan, starting with an analysis of the shaping of female white-collar career trajectories. She draws specifically on Aihwa Ong’s ideas of  “neoliberalism as exception and exceptions to neoliberalism” (Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 1-14), to argue that whilst neoliberalism has given women increased opportunities in the workforce and the ability to assert their agency, it is often contradictory and conflicts with gender expectations in Japan (p. 56). In particular, Aronsson focuses on how neoliberal agendas have affected the career trajectories of women entering the employment market at different times throughout the postwar period. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and capital (Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980, pp. 52-56), she argues that we need to have a more nuanced understanding of social class in order to analyze the ways that neoliberalism, social class, gender and ethnicity intersect in the formation of identities.

Chapter 3 presents us with a wide-ranging literature review of female career routes and work in postwar Japan focusing on identity, family and career. Aronsson argues that public and academic discourses of gender have revolved primarily around the domestic roles of women as wives and mothers with limited attention being paid to farm laborers and blue-collar workers. Consequently, this chapter provides the historical context in which the professional women of her study are embedded to be better able to illustrate how they are combining the spheres of work and family in new ways to construct new forms of female identity.

Chapters 4 through 8 consist of ethnographic case studies of women aged from their 20s to 90s. Chapter 4 includes the case studies of five women spanning four generations; aged from their 60s-90s. Aronsson argues that these “outliers” (p. 113), having lived and come of age after either the first or second World War, gained considerable emotional strength for enduring difficult situations, which served them well in the face of opposition, critique and discrimination over the course of their careers. Whilst today many women are increasingly feeling forced to choose between marriage and careers, the cases presented include women who did not feel they had to make an either/or decision. Whilst sacrifices were made before retirement she argues that these women were both happier and healthier than the single women who experienced significant loneliness post-retirement.

Chapter 5 explores the lives of women in their 50s, focusing on two main case studies. Aronsson argues that these women were also tempered by their experiences growing up in the relative hardship of the 1950s and early 60s, allowing them to face down the challenges of patriarchal employment environments. Significantly, however, she suggests that the implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) in the 1980s came at a time in their careers that served to strengthen their resolve, self-confidence and belief that the path they had taken, and the extra hours they had worked and sacrifices they had made, had been justified. Having had no role models she argues that these women felt they had nothing to lose, and therefore were able to fearlessly pursue their aspirations in ways that younger women are hesitant to do for fear of making a mistake.

Chapter 6 focuses on the lives of six professional women in their 40s and focuses specifically on experiences of mid-life crisis brought on by the pressures (and desires) to marry and have children before it’s too late. Aronsson argues that these women are representative of living in a “neoliberal trap” (p. 243). They entered the workforce at the height of the bubble economy and were easily able to find work and develop their careers with support from new company policies and the state. Consequently, they felt they could do and have anything. However, now in their forties and reflecting on their lives and decisions they realize they are not able to have it all and have limited opportunities ahead of them. Not only does this manifest as a desperate desire to marry and procreate, regardless of whether they had previously wanted children, but also has led to a loss of ikigai, and the development of depression and health issues culminating in mid-life crises for many.

Chapter 7 argues that women in their 30s were the generation with the most agency in their lives. Drawing on Anthony Giddens’ arguments of the creation of self and identity (Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, pp. 1-70), Aronsson suggests that her interviewees are in a stage of both finding themselves and fitting in. Whilst women in their 40s are accused of working like men, she argues that women in their 30s are able to negotiate femininity in the workplace to their favor: navigating male dominated work places and “pushing the glass ceiling further away” (p. 280). They do this through the strategic use of amae, defined as “depending on somebody else’s kindness” (p. 280) (Takeo Doi, Anatomy of Dependence. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1973, pp. 65-101). Her interviewees suggest that if they were to act and speak in a masculine way they would not being taken seriously, thus the use of amae has become crucial to navigating the “intricate power dynamics and politics at the workplace” (p. 288). Meanwhile, in their personal lives women were finding it hard to ignore the social pressure to marry. Aronsson suggests that their desire to marry was actually a desire for the kind of stability that they don’t feel is present in their jobs or workplaces. This she attributes to being part of the lost generation and having started work after the economic bubble burst.

Chapter 8 explores the career transitions of women in their twenties from their entrance into the employment market during a time of instability and recession to their current positions. She illustrates that many women in their late twenties, although highly educated, are turning back to education (either MBAs or graduate degrees) because of the economic downturn in an attempt to “collect credentials for their resumes” (p. 325). The cases she presents are filled with anxiety and insecurity about the employment environment and their desires for female role models to follow. Despite this lack however, Aronsson argues that having no role models is a “blessing in disguise” (p. 339) because it allows women to create their own career path rather than following a predetermined one such that their male colleagues follow.

In the final chapter Aronsson provides a summary of the dissertation’s arguments, from the development of a career woman archetype, to the constant transitions that women find themselves in, and how women of different generations have negotiated the world of work and family life. She argues that women’s choices to pursue careers have gradually shifted family dynamics, and although women previously had to choose between marriage and career, increasingly younger women are now achieving both. Aronsson concludes that increased full-time female workforce participation, with increased childcare services, would be a viable way to offset Japan’s demographic woes. Not only would it mitigate against the shrinking labor force, but given that increased female participation rates tend to be positively correlated to fertility rates, she argues it would help improve Japan’s fertility rate and boost economic health.

The material that Aronsson presents is a fascinating exploration of professional women’s lives and the ways in which they negotiate existing gender structures. It is a significant contribution to understanding how women in Japan have developed and sustained white-collar careers and created new identities as career women throughout the postwar period.

Emma Cook
Associate Professor
Office of International Affairs
Hokkaido University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic research consisting of semi-structured interviews with white-collar career women.

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2012. 407 pp. Primary Advisor: William Wright Kelly.

Image: Career Woman in Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

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