Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Cherylynn Bassani (2003) 'A Look at Changing Parental Ideologies & Behaviors in Japan'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 1, <>

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Received: 25/9/2002      Accepted: 11/2/2003      Published: 28/2/2003


This paper discusses changes in Japanese parenting over the past two generations. Using an inductive approach to the understanding of Japanese families, 10 separate families were theoretically sampled in the Kansai area during the summer of 2000. Concepts surrounding changing parenting emerged from talks with parents. Four interrelated concepts are eminent in the interviews: the rise of individual ethics in parenting, changing parental roles, impacts of changes on children, and romanticized parenting. Key generational and gender differences are apparent across all four concepts. Concepts that emerged from these interviews reflect changes in society and the family that past research has addressed.

Changing Parent Behaviors; Individualism; Japanese Family; Roles


The Japanese family has undergone massive changes over the last two decades. Scholars have empirically documented some of these changes by examining an array of demographic characteristics in the Japanese family, including transformations in divorce, marriage, fertility rates, as well as spousal, parental and child behaviours, values and the like (Bassani, 2001; Fukuzawa & Le Tendre, 2000; Iwasawa, 2000; Kumagai, 1992 & 1996; Masami, 2001; Retherford et al, 1996; Retherford et al, 2001; Shields, 1995). The amount of research conducted on parenting in Japan however is much smaller, as scholars typically touch on parenting though it is usually not the central research question (Fujimura-Fansleow & Kameda, 1993; Fukuzawa & LeTendre, 2000; Kumagai, 1996; Shwalb et al, 1996). Compared to the literature in other industrial countries, few empirical studies have been conducted on Japanese parenting. Rather, historical research appears to dominate the discipline.

Within Japanese academia, research tends to focus on descriptive methods when examining changing family values and household behaviours (Atoh, 2000; Iwasawa, 2000; Kumagai, 1992 & 1996; Retherford et al, 1996; Retherford et al, 2001). As noted by Kawamura (1994), this trend is seen not only in family studies, but is detected throughout the sociological literature in Japan. Limited research has examined the family in a theoretically informed way. Furthermore, only a small minority of projects are inductive. Monbusho (2000), the department of education in the federal government, publishes annual reports on the condition of and changes in the family. Such reports frequently use interviews conducted by the bureau, though these papers are not of an academic nature.

Within the literature, a dichotomy exists as to the changes that have occurred in parenting behaviours over the past few decades. One group of scholars suggest, that parenting is still based on traditional ideals, which has shown little change from generation to generation (Shwalb et al, 1996), while the other group maintains that changes are presently taking place (Fuller et al, 1986; Kinoshita, 2000; Haiman, 2001; Masami, 2001; Ministry of Health and Welfare, 1999; Shields, 1995) . Over the last decade the number of scholars in the latter group have increased, as have the number of studies on parenting behaviours and values. The family interviews presented in this paper side with the latter group; suggesting that major changes appear to be taking place in Japanese parenting practices and ideologies.

Within Japanese society, family roles have been both socially and legally embedded within the individual. Due to the hierarchal nature of Japanese society, 'roles' are not only an important defining feature for the individual, but also comprise the framework that holds the society together. Family roles, defining the father's position in the economic sphere and the mother's position in the domestic sphere, were legally entrenched in the late 19th century by the Meiji government, and act as persuasive cultural norms even today despite the reformation of gender 'roles' in Japanese society during the post-1945 Occupation (Bassani, 2001). Major changes in parental roles are pertinent to sociologists because they are indicative of periods of societal transformation, during which time the individual and society at large may need the aid of sociologists in the way of policy and program development.


The data discussed in this article are taken from interviews with Japanese parents in the summer of 2000. The following pages discuss the study's sampling methods and describe the participants to allow the reader to become immersed in the findings. My goal is to not make any 'representative' generalizations, but to inform the reader of the people whose thoughts and views will be discussed.

Grounded theory methods (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) were used in the interviews and when analysing the transcripts. These methods begin with inductive reasoning, thus draws on emerging themes within the data, rather than holding an a priori hypothesis which is tested. Once themes were noticed emerging from the interviews, they were examined and emphasized within subsequent interviews, thus employing a constant comparative technique. In this way, the reality of each parent is permitted to emerge without a strong sense of researcher bias, which is a fundamental issue in hypothetico-deductive studies.

Theoretical sampling, a fundamental component of grounded theory, was employed, thus allowing the researcher to hone in on the meaning and importance of emerging concepts by including the most appropriate, or informative respondents in the study. This sampling technique varies considerably from deductive styles of data collection and analysis that solely examine interview transcripts once all interviews are completed.

Before arriving in Japan I conversed with colleagues whom I thought would be valuable gate keepers. In the end, I used one of the gatekeepers, who led me to the majority of my sample. [1] In the beginning of the sampling process, based on referrals from the gatekeeper and the two initial interviewees, I was able to develop a list of potential interviewees that I thought might be able to inform my understanding of the changing Japanese family. As I interviewed more parents, the list of potential interviewees grew. In this way, a similar technique to the snowball sampling method was used; I received names of individuals, or leads, from the interviewees, however I selectively chose each parent based on the limited information that their friend or colleague provided me with (age grouping, family type, number of children, socio-economic status, area of residence).

With the emergence and development of parenting concepts, interviews were reflexively shaped, thus the type of parent that I sought became more specific and purposive over the course of the interviews. Whereas at first, I sought to interview 'typical' nuclear family[2] parents, I soon decided to redirect my focus on extreme cases. For example, in addition to meeting with these typical nuclear family parents, I also met with affluent and working class individuals because I thought they might present variant stories. However, after hearing scant differences in opinion between the two groups I turned my sampling focus to young (those with minor children) and empty nest parents (those with adult children who may have children of their own). As will be later discussed, there proved to be important distinctions between these two groups.

Taking place over a five-week span in July and August of 2000, I met with a total of 15 parents. Three of these interviews were not audio recorded due to mechanical troubles, however they did concur with the concepts that emerged within the other meetings. Because transcripts could not be produced for these meetings they have been excluded from the analysis.

The data presented herein represent 10 families: eight unrelated participants, one married couple, and a daughter and mother, whose interviews were audio recorded. Gender-wise,11 mothers and 1 father participated in the study. Regrettably, I was able to interview only one couple due to the husbands' extreme work schedules. Although in the beginning I had originally desired to have both a male and female perspective, it became obvious early on that this would be virtually impossible with my limited time in the country. However, I have confidence in the developments that arose from the female perspective. Future research will definitely need to look into the male perspective; not only is this voice absent in the information reported here, but also within Japanese family research in general, as has been recognized by other scholars (Fujimura-Fanselow & Kameda, 1993).

In the end, three of the twelve interviewees were not associated with the gatekeeper, but came from contacts that I had made in the Kansai region. Because Japanese culture works in a closed network system[3] I feel that the sampling procedures support the validity of this research. Being introduced to potential participants by interviewees brings a degree of trust into the interviewer-participant relationship. Trust, a fundamental attribute that all congenial relationships are built on (Coleman, 1990: Fine, 2001), is particularly important within Japanese culture. Had existing relations not been in place with the original informants or with the gatekeeper, I doubt that I would have gleaned as much candid information about the participants' lives.

The age of participants ranged from approximately 35 to 91 years. Age among women is a very sensitive matter in Japan, thus the participants' direct age was not asked. Only if parents stated their age was it recorded, otherwise age was estimated based on the participant's life history. Excluding the 91 year old parent, the mean age of parents was approximately 40 years. All parents were of Japanese descent, though most had visited or lived abroad for extensive periods of time. Ten of the parents were married to their original spouse, one was divorced, and one was widowed. The majority of parents had 2 children: 6 had children under 18 years of age. These parents are referred to as young parents. The other 6 participants had children 18 years of age or older who did not live in the same household. These parents are referred to as empty nesters. All mothers had some type of post secondary education, though only 7 of the male spouses had a post secondary education. About half of the participants' fathers had a university education, while less than a quarter of their mothers held a post secondary education. Although Japan prides itself for being predominantly middle class, it was clear that respondents in this study are fundamentally upper middle class.

Interviews varied in length from 45 minutes to 4 hours, with an average interview not exceeding 1 1/2 hours. Interviews were semi-structured, beginning with a set of basic questions that all parents were asked. In this paper, to protect the anonymity of the parents, fictitious names are used when quoting participants.[4]

All interviews were conducted in English. Participants were intermediate to advanced in their English ability.[5] Occasionally, certain ideas could not be expressed in English, due to the lack of transferability of the word. Examples of such words are gambaru and juku, which translate as: to try one's hardest and persevere and an extra curricular study school that helps youth with entry exams into middle school, high school, and university. Because words do not exist in the English language for such actions and institutions, the mixing of English and Japanese language was necessary at times, thus adding to the validity of the concepts being discussed in comparison to interviews that would have been conducted only in the English language.

Changing Parental Ideologies and Individualism.

Two major interconnected themes emerged from the interviews: changes in parental ideologies and increased individualism. Both themes appear to be part of a larger post-material value shift that has been taking place throughout the developed world. The following section discusses post-materialist theory and the theme of individualism in the context of Japanese parenting. Three concepts are associated with this individualist theme: changes in parental schedules, changes in parental roles, and changes in the view of motherhood. Within each of these concepts clear gender and cohort differences are detected.

Post Materialist Theory and Individualism

The parents interviewed in this study agree with scholars who argue that Japanese society is becoming more individualistic, as Westernisation increasingly encroaches upon the culture (Kumagai, 1996; Retherford et al, 1996; Retherford et al, 2001). As the impact of globalisation spreads throughout the world, in the words of Ingelhart (1990), individualism can be seen as producing a 'cultural shift'. This cultural shift has been detected within the roots of society's value system. Post-materialist theory argues that major changes are occurring throughout the world due to a drastic shift in emphasis of values to 'post- materialist' wants and desires.

As Inglehart (1990) illustrates, the rise of individualistic values has not been confined to Japan, but rather it is seen as a global trend that has impacted and continues to impact on all societies in some respect. The theory of post-materialist value change argues that an individual's values are contingent upon the economic, social and political conditions that prevail during one's pre-adult years (Inglehart, 1990: 56). Combining the scarcity and socialization hypothesis, scholars suggest that materialist value orientations are derivatives of childhood experiences of economic insecurity and privation. In opposition to this, post-materialist values emerge when children have experienced 'formative security' (Inglehart, 1990: 134). These two value orientations do not represent 'new' values, but rather are sequential to one another. Based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, an accumulation of materialist needs (such as shelter and food, or other first order needs) enable people to develop post materialist needs (such as self actualisation, self expression, and intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction).

Upon reflecting on the changing values and behaviours that parents in this study shared, it became clear that parents were actually discussing the impacts that post-materialist, individualist, and Western values were having on the Japanese family. Individualist tendencies identified within Japanese parenting in this paper reflect a shift from materialist to post-materialist values within the nation. Results of the post-materialist value shift in Japan can readily be seen within the changing parental attitudes and behaviours that are presented in the following pages.

"Selfishness" and Individualism

Both young and empty nest parents agreed that the way young parents think today differs widely from past generations. It is no shock that parental ideologies varied depending on generational experience. As indicated by numerous scholars across the social sciences, age or life stage, typically tends to emerge as a major source of disparity when examining ideologies and behaviours (Inglehart, 1990; van Deth & Scarbrough, 1995). However, intergenerational value change is fundamental to post-materialist theory due to the significant watershed that is observed between pre- war and post-war generations. In his examination of twelve European nations, Scarbrough (1995) notices stark disparities between successive post-war generations in terms of materialist and post-materialist values. Although similar research is yet to be conducted in Asia, the cohort trends identified by parents in this study are likely to be representative of changes that are occurring within Japan.

What was interesting about this value disparity however, is the fact that both groups felt that an increasing number of young parents had a 'selfish' way about them. Over half of the parents identified young parents with the specific word 'selfish.' Though acknowledging that the majority of parents are not this way, a rapid growth in the proportion of parents who are 'selfish' was identified. It is important to note, that informants did not identify themselves in this light, though they saw their family members and neighbours as creating this image. If we examine the term 'selfish', we see that young mothers are said to be becoming increasingly individualistic. What needs to be addressed is the reasoning behind the use of such a value laden term as 'selfish.'

The use of this word can be approached in one of three ways. The first, is that 'selfish' could have meant something different than what its English equivalent is, however 'selfish' is quite a direct and offensive word, therefore I reject this notion, for the Japanese language is extremely respectful, and the culture itself exudes non-confrontation. It is thus implausible that parents would make such an 'offensive' comment. Second, it is possible that respondents had not properly learnt the word 'selfish'. In my experiences of living in Japan this is a common problem, as marketing and government groups often use English words, but apply distorted meanings.

This explanation can be eradicated however, as three of the parents interviewed who used 'selfish' to illustrate changing patterns in parenting, had lived in English speaking countries for a number of years. As a result, they arguably understood the point that they were making by using the word 'selfish'. The same reference to young parents as 'selfish' can be found in Hamada's (1997) research. The mothers that she interviewed did not agree with traditional mothering roles, such as: kodomo ga ikigai, my child is my raison d'etre or kodomo wa jibun no bushin, my child is my alter ego, which have been associated with intense 'traditional' mother-child relationships. Rather, she found that many mothers expressed frustration in traditional roles, indicating that kodomo wa futan, children are burdensome, and kodomo kara kaihousaretai, I want to be free from children.

This trend is not exclusive to Hamada's interviews nor those presented in this paper, as other researchers have found similar findings among Japanese mothers (Ohinata, 1993; Masami, 2001). The feelings and attitudes given by these women appear to represent a tension between what is a socially acceptable role for mothers and what is individually acceptable or desired. Saal (1986) speaks of the 'psycho-social similarity of system' in past decades, where individuals, the family, and other subgroups within society shared the same values, of for example how to parent or educate one's child. What he points out, is that in the present time individual values are becoming "more and more diametrically opposed to the values and norms prevailing in society" due to social value transformations (1986:55). The impact of changing values within the family and society has been traced cross-culturally over time (Inglehart, 1990; Goode, 1965; Goody 1983, 2000). It has been argued that continuous changing roles within society tend to lead to unclear expectations of responsibilities and duties among individuals (Kurain, 1986). Such uncertainties that respondents reported, both on the part of the observer and individual are undoubtedly responsible for feelings of disapproval or resentment towards 'selfish' parenting. It is therefore probable that the term 'selfish' is used by parents to express the extreme changes that are currently taking place within the roots of their society.

The concepts extracted from the interviews appear to represent problems associated with the acceptance of 'new' parental values. Time after time, parents explained how mothers are increasingly holding individual-centred, post-materialist values: acting in ways that enhance their own personal satisfaction, attaining higher education, working in the full-time labour force, increasing their free time activities, and going out with friends. Differences in materialist vs. post-materialist values are noted between young and empty nest mothers, as parental ideologies of young mothers tend to revolve around these individualistic goals: career, personal education, and leisure. On the other hand, empty-nest parents tended to focus more on materialist goals, such as sustenance of the family and children when they were themselves young parents. Value differences between cohorts are not a unique dualism to Japan, rather this is a typical global trend (Inglehart, 1990; Saal, 1996).

In discussing global trends, one parent comments on how society and parenting behaviours were changing. She, and other parents, stated that now there is a:
'different system of society. How can I say, ... but not only that, but people's minds, all the world is changing.' Fumi
In fact, the majority of parents commented on value changes that were occurring within in their society and family - attributing them to the spread of Western ideals.

Unanimously, changes experienced within parenting behaviours were thought to negatively impact children, as it was strongly felt that these 'individualistic' changes might in fact hinder children due to the declining time spent between the mother and child.

Traditionally, Japanese mothers have spent a great amount of time with their children. Cross-cultural research has documented this trend; Japanese mothers tend to spend much more time and have much more contact with their children from birth than do Western mothers (Benedict, 1946; Lebra, 1994). Scholars have also examined the decisive role that mothers play in educating and shaping their children's future success (Kumagai, 1992 & 1996). Customarily these women have had the primary responsibility of educating their children for the adult world. For the eldest son at least, this often meant literally hours of studying together on a daily basis. For many Japanese people, this is the women's fundamental purpose (Bassani, 2001; Burgess et al.,1971). As such, women who are viewed as 'selfish' or self seekers may be seen as rebelling from traditional Japanese norms, a displeasing behaviour in such a homogeneous society. It is understandable then, that women who want to experience adult self- fulfilment outside of the mother-child relationship are regarded by others as self-seeking or 'selfish'.

The following three sections of the paper discuss components of 'selfish' parenting that were raised in the interviews. It is apparent that post- materialist trends have impacted on familial and gender related values in Japan, though of course participants did not identify it as such.

Parental Schedules

Both mothers' and fathers' schedules were seen as intergenerationally changing. Most parents explained that mothers and fathers were changing their behaviours, though in opposite directions. For mothers, a marked increase in the number of outside the family activities was noted, whereas for fathers, the reverse was detected.

Time spent with family members is a difficult area to examine due to the complexities that emerge as a result of gender and generational differences in familial interaction. According to the parents interviewed, in comparison to past generations, mothers appeared to be spending less time with their families while fathers were viewed as spending more time with their families. The nuclear family as a whole however, was seen as spending more quality time together, though less time was spent with extended families. These findings are quite different to what quantitative studies suggest, which typically measure time-use and cite general family interactions as increasing (Fuligni & Stevenson, 1995; Kumagai, 1996; Stevenson et al, 1993). This divergence is undoubtedly attributed to the way time-use is typically measured in quantitative research; in most cases, time spent watching TV is a primary indicator of family interaction. As for the interviews used in this paper, parents did maintain that family TV watching had increased, however TV watching is not necessarily a valid operationalisation of time spent with family members if it is interaction that researchers are trying to access. Time spent between parents and child must signify interaction for the shared time to be 'bonding'. In addition, quantitative studies do not typically differentiate who respondents are spending time with, and as a result 'family' social interaction is lumped together. This would result in an inaccurate view of family relationships, for important trends would be confounded due to limitations on operational validity.

Daily Family Life

The increasing time that mothers spend away from the home, the increasing time that fathers are spending in the home, and the decrease in time spent with extend family members represent fundamental changes that have taken place within the Japanese family. Although overall family interaction appeared to be increasing, due to leisure time spent with the nuclear family on weekends and holidays, when this was examined on a on a daily basis, parents maintained that interaction within the nuclear family was in fact decreasing. Participants noted that technological innovations, the media, and the massive increase in the Japanese population have hindered this interaction. One participant explains how technology has decreased the social interaction between family members:

'the Japanese economy was (increasing)[6]. And uh, everybody can have the power lights, we can have the other power... to light up the house. (People) would come from the country side to the city. (And at that time) the Japanese family house was small, it had (only) two or three rooms' Ayaka

This mother goes on to explain that larger urban homes with electricity and individual bedrooms have really altered parent-child relations due to the physical separation of family members in the home. Many respondents discussed how the consumer culture had brought divisions to families, rather than unity. The fact that most children have their own bedroom was seen as a hindrance on family interaction, though beneficial for their studies. One mother explains that:

'When I was young, I didn't have my room. Every family had one room for sleeping. But now, it is different...' Shino
The decline in social interaction caused by larger living spaces has been long known. Benedict (1946) first discussed this in her study of Japanese society, though it is interesting to see that Japanese families still see this as a cause of lowered social interaction within the family.


As previously stated, changes were detected in the amount of time that both parents spent with children. One parent commented that 'They (parents) are too busy... not a big secret' Fumi. This was a predominant comment, though most specifically, it was clearly stated that mothers have less time for their children. As parents noted, a growing number of mothers are spending less time with their children due to their entry into the work force and the increased time spent with friends or in club activities. For the most part, participants stated that their mother stayed at home during the days and nights: washing, cooking, and cleaning. These activities consumed the majority of their days, not only because non-mechanical household utilities were not available, but also due to the eating habits of the Japanese family. Families were reported as eating breakfast together, however lunch and dinners were usually eaten separately. This means that the mother, because she cooked all of the meals, would have an extraordinary workload. As discussed by Ayaka in the quote above, electricity did not come to the majority of Japanese households until the1960's, refrigeration was thus a major issue, which meant daily shopping trips.

According to the parents interviewed, eating habits of the Japanese family do not appear to have altered much from two or three generations ago, however technological innovations have decreased the time that mothers spend preparing meals. Women argued that young mothers have relatively less housework than that performed by their mothers or themselves, though daily shopping still appears to be a habit that is carried out by mothers and grandmothers alike.

With the increased usage of various household appliances, such as microwaves, young mothers agreed that they find themselves with greater amounts of free time. Participants however explained that this free time is now consumed with full-time jobs and leisure activities. As a result, mothers have become exceedingly busy, despite their increase in 'free time'.

Many respondents discussed the increased leisurely pursuits of young mothers and the troubles that it causes. One woman who lives in a young family neighbourhood says:

'Mothers have the life of only friends... (children go home from school) and the mothers say go home, (but ) the mother don't stay home. What do you do? It's difficult. They play outside because (if) they are playing in their house it is dark, and I think that the child is (afraid). Every time I think that the children are (alone), their parents gone out, I want to help them, ... the children...' Junko

Respondents voiced this opinion about their friends and neighbours who were mothers, though these trends were also detected within their own lifestyle, as young mothers frequently had numerous social activities, such as English class and tennis matches, throughout the week.

Four of the mothers interviewed were currently occupied as teachers, and discussed at length a trend where school mothers would drop their children off at lessons to gain free time. One English teacher comments:

'Okay, when I was a kid there were no cram schools. We learned from the parents. Nowadays, there are a lot of cram schools. They are full. And English schools. You have so many types of businesses for small children.' Ai
Another mother who has been an English and piano teacher for twenty-five years states:
'Before, (a generation ago) the mother and child came together, and they stayed for some time. (in the lesson and then visiting) But now, every time the mother and child come together, and then the mother goes here and there, and then about one hour later they (the mothers) pick up their children.' Ayaka

This issue is tied into what Ayaka sees as parents' decreasing role in their children's education. As previously discussed, Japanese mothers have traditionally been actively involved and held responsible for their children's education. Ayaka addressed the need to study with her child on a continuous basis, for if she was not involved in her children's lessons, then she could not help her child to study effectively. Empty-nest respondents who had adult children agreed with this line of reasoning and stated that the majority of their time spent with their child when they were young was in study. This is in sharp contrast to the information gained from the younger mothers, as no such comments were made. Rather, young mothers tended to discuss the after school learning activities that their children were involved in, such as English and music lessons.

What these parents are voicing are role changes that are occurring not only within the family, but within society at large. One parent comments that

'Moms are different (nowadays). Not so much, but basically their job is very different (from mothers of previous generations).' Ayaka

Since the 1945 Occupation, the responsibility of education in Japan has increasingly been taken out of the home and placed in the public and private sector. The professionalisation of children's education, through juku and yobiku, special cram schools, that prepare students solely for university entrance exams, are displacing the kyoku mama, educationally inclined mother[7]. Although the increasing influence of the state and private enterprise is seen in all developed countries, its impact in Japan is unique, as the mother's familial and national 'purpose' has been annexed. Numerous scholars have identified this situation, though scant empirical work has been written (Sheilds, 1995).

It is important to note that this process is not only happening in a top-down manner, but also from mothers themselves as they strive to perhaps alleviate the stress in their lives that is traditionally associated with being solely responsible for their child's education. Young mothers do not appear to deplore this situation, but take it as a positive step towards releasing themselves from the confines and stresses that are related to the mother's traditional family role. The results of these societal changes have been welcomed by young mothers who now have more free time to pursue post-materialist desires, such as intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction.


Unlike mothers, fathers were noted as increasingly spending more time with their families. Although fathers spend far less time with their children in comparison to mothers, parents did acknowledge that the time fathers spent interacting with their children had increased over the last three generations. Not only this, but it appears that fathers' behaviours are also changing. According to participants, the range of activities shared between fathers and children have increased in recent years. All young fathers were reported as taking their children for walks, to the park, to the pool, out shopping on a weekly basis, in addition to the traditional annual family vacations, which are taken as a family unit. Similar father experiences are offered in Fujimura-Fanselow and Kameda's (1993) research.

Far less interaction was reported between fathers and children who are now of the empty-nest generation. In these families the father took much more of an authoritarian role than young fathers today. Adult children reported that they would hardly ever spend time with their father, other than during traditional holidays. In fact, many empty-nest parents reported that they were somewhat 'afraid of their fathers' (Junko, Shino, Ayaka, Keiko) because of their stern role and limited time that they shared together. Even today, many fathers still work long hours, sometimes 6 days per week, which is comparable, though slightly changing from one or two generations ago. As a result of this work schedule, time spent with children is limited, though this fortunately appears to be slowly increasing.

Both young and empty nest parents indicated that fathers often spent their days off sleeping, resting, or watching TV with their families. The majority of respondents tended to point out that the interaction between her husband and the rest of the family was minimal across all generations. In discussing the father's role in the family, one mother states that:

'he watches and eats his food with out talking. I want to talk about the day but...' Keiko
Another respondent sums up the typical father-child interaction in Japan by expressing:
'I think a lot of Japanese don't get to know their fathers.' Junko
Although the parents interviewed indicated that interactions between children and fathers have changed over the last couple of generations, by far, the time children spend with the mother is much greater than that spent with the father.

These inverse changes seen between mothers and fathers are important findings both ideologically and academically. What this suggests is that post- materialism means something different between the sexes in Japan. Because men and women have differing materialist roles in society, post-materialism will necessarily be viewed uniquely through each gender lense. Both men and women are repressed in different ways by their societal system. Typically, feminist research keys on the repression of the women and other minority groups which have traditionally had a limited, if not nullified voice. The plight of men should not however be invalidated, for they are restricted under the same system as their female counterparts. We must not neglect to see that men, although historically given systematic power and authority due to patriarchal ethics, are also prisoners -so to speak -within the same confounding structure.

More so in Japan than in any other culture, we see men relegated to the 'work' sphere. Due to the immense pressures that business roles place on men, they have typically been restrained from enjoying a family centred role. This study, and other recent research illustrates the break that men are taking from the 'traditional' family role which has restrained their family interaction (Fujimura-Fanselow & Kameda, 1993; Hamada, 1997; Kumagai, 1996; Masami, 2001). This appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, as Mochizuchi (1995) addresses this as a new issue not even ten years ago in his discussion of the upsurge of shinjinrui (the new breed of men who refuse to follow traditional roles in the family and work place) fathers. A similar time frame of change in parental roles is found among the families interviewed in this study.

As will be taken up in the next section, changes in time spent with 'family' is not only seen within the nuclear family but also the extended family. Participants voiced concerns about the diminishing time that families had together. If families are spending less time together on a daily basis, mothers are increasingly involved with non-familial activities, and extended family members live far from one another - parents discussed the obvious question, 'who is teaching our children?'

Who's Teaching the Children?

Lack of parental mentoring and 'training' was noted as a common problem among young parents today. All participants, no matter their age, felt that young parents were not properly socializing their children because parents were too distracted with work and going out with friends. One woman explains the situation by stating that it is not what the parents say to children, but what they do and how they teach them that impacts on the child.

'Ya, they don't (need to) say anything. The parents have to show ... and tell. There are a lot of great and wonderful things in the world. ... For example, most times I try to see my parents, and say 'good morning', 'good night', 'thank you very much', or something like this... you have to say this, you have to say that (to show the kids). ... Parents spend a lot of money in these days, but I don't know if it means respect or not.' Ai

In Ai's statement, she makes a point that most participants expressed: parents are spending money on their children buying them toys or putting them in special cram schools, but not necessarily interacting and spending time with them. These actions are thought to have created at least two problems. The first, which quickly became apparent during the course of the interviews, is the decrease in the use of respectful language among children.

All young parents, but one, stated that they did not live in the same town as their own parents. Proximity of residence has an obvious effect on the amount of time spent between nuclear and extended families. Reference to a lack of respectful language used by the younger generation could be a reflection of the minimal exposure that children have to their grandparents and other extended family members. Because exposure is limited, it might be that children do not have enough socialization to speak formal Japanese properly. Cross-cultural research on Japanese child socialization points to this idea (Benedict, 1946; Goode, 1965; Ida, 1995; Kumagai, 1992).

Most parents commented on the fact that children now speak in vulgar forms of the language. Japanese is linguistically centred on different levels of respectful communication, which differs depending on the speaker's and listener's status: gender, age, and position in society. According to the parents interviewed, many children are no longer learning respectful language that was once the norm for speaking to people of a higher status. A juku teacher comments that:

'at the school, when I was a student in elementary, when I talked to my teacher, I always respected them. But my students don't speak with much respect.' Risa

The lack of respect that children appear to be showing towards adults was discussed by all four of the teachers interviewed. While talking with these women, they all appeared quite taken aback by this behaviour, concerned and perplexed. Ai, an owner of a small language school, commented on her father's teaching experiences over the years.

'My father really wanted to be an English teacher, then he became an English teacher finally. After 10 years he said I want to quit! I don't like the students, I don't like the students... He said that people had changed. They didn't respect, listen to the teacher ... but he said that children are changing.' Ai

The second problem thought to be created by the lack of mother-child and extend family interaction revolved around excessive amounts of time playing video games. Video games were thought to restrict a child's sociability, making them introverted. Many parents briefly discussed this point, though it was not an area that was focused on in the interviews. With the extreme violence and life-like animation in Japanese videogames, aggression was thought to be enhanced by these games, thus parents feared that such videos negatively influence children. One parent's comment summarizes what most parents had to say about video games:

'Video games, I don't like video games. I think that children are getting rough, and I think they're a bad influence' Yoko

This is a limited, though currently increasingly popular area in Japanese academia. The media frequently reports on this issue and has in fact become a trendy area of analysis. On a similar line, Mochizuki (1995) addresses television viewing among children and argues that TV characters have provided children with negative role models: "The television gives them plenty of opportunities to see the adult world in a less than admirable light, and it is much harder to convince them (the children) that they are doing anything especially wrong themselves" (1995:144).

If Japanese families are in fact spending more time together in front of the television, as parents in these interviews suggest, the impact that TV, video games and the alike have on children needs to become an important area of concern for family researchers. In this study, the use of disrespectful or inappropriate language and the withdrawal of children into videogames was seen as a repercussion of changing parenting behaviours. This is an issue that future research needs to examine.

A Romanticized View of Motherhood

A romanticized view of motherhood was also a predominant theme within the interviews. Similar to a fairytale or any other idealized story, romanticized motherhood does not represent reality, but a fictitious vision of what parenting should be like.

The mothers that were perceived as living within this 'false reality' were clearly identified by the respondents. One mother said:

'I've seen that kind of women before. There, look at this (motioning the glamorous way these mothers walk) ..they have a Chanel bag, they have this and that...and a child.' Ayaka
Another comments in regard to this type of mother:
'Young mothers are very together (gesturing clothing). Very active. - 'I have a good girl or good boy, look at me, I have children'.' Keiko

It appears that these women are trying to portray the role of the traditional mother, yet hold onto the life that they had become accustomed to prior to marriage or the birth of their child. This image reminds me of Saal's (1986) discussion on the dualism between the individual and society in times of social change. These interviews illustrate specific changes that are occurring within the Japanese family, among mothers in particular as they develop post-materialist values.

In Japan, the parishito has become an increasing trend among young adults. This adult, usually a woman, works full-time yet resides in the parental home without paying any living expenses. As a result of their financial freedom, many younger Japanese women have become accustomed to spending all of their salary on designer clothes, expensive outings, and frequent vacations. Kumagai (1996) refers to these women as they are commonly called: yotori aru seikatsuo, which is translated as women who have the strong desire to have a comfortable and leisurely lifestyle.

The romanticized view of motherhood also sees children as adding to the mother's fashionability: like an accessory. Parents expressed the absurdity of this point, contributing it to the lack of maturity that is associated with the yotori aru seikatsuo. It was felt that they are not thinking that:

'I must educate them, or do good things for them, or I must feed them. (Rather) young mothers now, not all, but many, are thinking that the baby girl or baby boy is like a doll.' Risa

This immaturity was thought to be rooted in the nation's wealth and the prosperity of the era that young mothers were themselves raised in. Unlike previous generations, in which the family was centred around the ie, or stem-family unit, these young parents have been partially socialized with an 'egocentric' ethic, rather than a family centred ethic, which placed them personally at the centre of the family. It seems that these young adults, with their non-traditional socialization combined with the progressive Westernisation of Japan have created distinct value changes in the family which have in turn created the yotori aru seikatsuo.

Another 'misguided' view of motherhood discussed by parents centres on the perceived busy life style that 'a family' must have. As discussed in the previous section, parents seem to be keeping their children's lives, as well as their own, quite active, which unfortunately leaves children without any free-time.

One last emphasis of the 'romanticized' mother is the 'friendship based family' unit. Fathers, and to a lesser extent mothers, were seen as becoming friends with their children. This change in 'power' between family members is a fundamental shift from the traditional authoritarian father to the modern 'pal Dad.' Most mothers recognized that this was a problematic change, for discipline is now left up to the mother. Many mothers, especially the empty-nesters, felt that this was not the woman's role, and one that would be in fact detrimental to the family unit, though more specifically to the mother-child relationship.

The influence of American culture on friendship based parenting was noted by the majority of respondents. Two parents in particular, who had lived overseas, strongly argued that this 'romanticized' vision of parenthood was a product of American TV, which had altered the parent-child relationship from one based on hierarchy to one based on friendship. This influence was felt to hamper the teaching and discipline of children; as an end result, spoiling them.

It appears that Japan is now experiencing a similar transition as was seen in the 1960's when family scholars in the West recognized that the family itself is not always functional, and at times quite dysfunctional. This 'ideal family' appears to be one factor that is clouding people's visions of what is 'typical' and 'real'. The problem is especially vivid in Japan where homogeneity is a core cultural value. Many respondents who had never been to America, or who did not have American friends, believed that family programs such as the Cosby Show and Growing Pains, were true representations of the roles and parenting tactics found in American families. Many found it surprising that Canadian families were experiencing similar problems as Japanese families, such as violence and bullying among children. One respondent stated that it wasn't until they lived abroad that they realized that Western families had struggles and arguments just like Japanese families. This may all seem bizarre, however the influence that the media and the entertainment industry have on individual perceptions is remarkable, especially when the value of Western culture is held at a premium (Bassani, 1998).


This paper has contributed in three fundamental ways to the development of parenting research in the Japanese family. First a contribution has been made to the knowledge base of the Japanese family itself. According to the parents who participated in this study, parenting in Japan is changing dramatically. Differences were detected between the roles and activities of mothers and fathers as well as between young and empty-nest respondents.

I have attempted to illustrate through the lives of the families interviewed, that parenting norms are not stable in Japan, but are dramatically. Often cross-cultural studies or research pertaining to Asian parenting tend to either underestimate the changes that have been occurring or neglect the discussion of change altogether (Fuller et al, 1986; Goode, 1965; Lebra, 1994; Ma & Smith, 1990).

Changing parental attitudes and behaviours presented in this article seem to be representative of the expanding post-materialist value shift within Japanese families and the nation at large. A clear finding of this research is the individualistic values that seem to be gaining increasing prevalence among Japanese parents, especially mothers. Mothers and fathers both have been somewhat freed of traditional roles that were once rigidly ascribed to each gender. These two groups are experiencing unique role transformations: one which draws the mother out of the home, labelling her 'selfish' or yotori aru seikatsuo and the other which draws the father into the home, labelling him shinjinrui. Although the transition of the father into the home and the mother out of the home has been identified in Western family research, Japan presents a special case, for the changes that have occurred within the nation are of a radical nature (Iwasawa, 2000; Kumagai, 1992, 1996; Retherford et al, 1996; Retherford et al, 2001). This makes the Japanese family a particularly interesting research topic, not to mention a much needed area of study due to the neglect that it has traditionally received within the sociological community.

Important cohort differences between young and empty-nest families were readily detected within the interviews. Not only did respondents illustrate that families had changed over time, as was seen retrospectively through their own family experiences, but definite differences were detected in the experiences and values of parenting between these groups. These differences are indicative of cohort disparities that Scarbrough (1995) discusses.

Due to the exploratory nature of this research, the findings that have been discussed are limited in their explanatory scope. Further work needs to be conducted in each of the three broad sections discussed in the preceding pages.

To a lesser extent, the product of changing parental behaviours has been marginally examined. Lack of traditional child socialization is thought to be contributing to an upsurge in children's deviant interpersonal skills, specifically a decrease in respectful language and the isolation of children in their video-games. A combination of the decreased time that children spend with mothers, extended family, their own nuclear family, as well as the concept of 'pal' relationships between parents and children is thought to have decreased the family's socialization of the child.

The second important contribution of this paper is its inductive methodology. Many quantitative researchers have identified, through a variable approach that Japanese society has been dramatically changing over the last two decades. Past empirical research surrounding parenting practices has been based on such methods, and some have concluded that parenting norms are only meagrely changing. By discussing parental norms and behaviours with Japanese families, it appears that major changes are in fact occurring - at least as far as the parents interviewed in this report are concerned. In addition, important gender and cohort trends that are not identified within quantitative research are discussed in this paper. Only by using a spectrum of research methods can a wealth of information collected in any area. The grounded theory approach allows for a richer understanding of parenting changes within the family by giving parents themselves the opportunity to share their experiences and beliefs. This method is all too infrequently used, though has much to add to the development of Japanese family studies. I do not however reject quantitative methods, for I propose that statistical analysis needs to be conducted on family time-use and parenting strategies, accounting specifically for gender, age, and regional variation within the nation.

Lastly, an important methodological note has been made in this article. It was quite interesting to find that parents were very open and frank about the problems that they see within their own families. Through this qualitative approach I was able to validate the role of the 'outsider' in Japanese research, as parents themselves contend that it was much easier talking with a foreigner than a native due to issues of privacy. As a result, on more than one occasion, parents commented that they did not feel intimidated or threatened the way they might if they were talking to a native who might "judge their attitudes and behaviours."

In general, there has been a tendency in the past for native Japanese scholars to argue that non-Japanese nationals cannot gain entry into the Japanese culture because the Japanese are stereotyped as being 'a closed culture'. My argument runs counter to this reasoning, for as an outsider, I feel that I was able to gain better access to the thoughts of Japanese parents because they were more likely to open up because I was a foreigner, an outsider, and therefore not a part of their culture.

The experiences and beliefs of Japanese parents presented in this paper tell an interesting story of the changes in parental norms and roles that are presently occurring. This research is by no means definitive, further empirical research needs to be conducted in this area to better understand the dynamics of the family, parents, and more specifically the changes surrounding Japanese children. The discussions developed in this article are based on merely an exploration of Japanese parenting, thus the explanations and discussions given are deemed tentative until further work is conducted. In the academic sphere, limited research exists that goes beyond statistically descriptive or quasi-historical accounts of Japanese parenting and more generally the family.

The understanding of changing parental values and behaviours is imperative if we wish to help the development of the Japanese family its children. Adequate programs aimed at helping children and their families can not be developed until changing parental and family roles are understood. Consequently government and privately funded research needs to be heightened so improve the well-being of these individuals. Further work in the area needs to address the issues presented in this article so to develop the field. The empirical examination of the Japanese family is an underdeveloped area within sociology, one which needs to be further examined and is thus wide open to academic exploration.


1Due to the sensitivity of the interview topic within the Japanese culture, I cannot disclose the place of work of the gatekeeper, though I can share that the individual is employed by an educational institute in Japan.

2By 'typical' parent, I mean one that belongs to a middle class nuclear family, as opposed to say a single parent family, extended family, or step parent family. Recent statistics from the Programme for International Student Assessments (2002) maintain that 85 percent of families in Japan fit into this nuclear family type, which I identify with being 'typical'.

3Numerous books have been written on this topic both within political science and history. One good example of this closed network system is the recent press that has been give to the realm of Japanese Protectionism.

4The author developed the research protocol at the University of Calgary, which was approved by the University Ethics Committee. Only interviews with a signed letter of consent are included in the present analysis.

5I make this claim on the basis of the participant's language ability as an ex-English as a second language teacher.

6 Note that bracketed words have been translated or inferred from the context of the passage.

7The kyoku mama is discussed throughout Shields' (1995) book, though Stevenson in Chapter 7 gives a good discussion on the kyoku mama and her role in the academic achievement of her children.


I am sincerely appreciative to all of the parents that took time to share their family experiences with me. Also, I would like to thank Dr. Anne Gauthier for all of her support and the dedication that she has provided me with throughout all of my research endeavours.


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