Gender Socialization

Gender socialization refers to the process of becoming male or female; it is a mechanism through which social beings acquire and learn the norms of appropriate male and female behaviour. Our essay will now examine how the socialization process is carried out through societal structures in Japan, namely the state, work, education, family, traditional, and popular culture.


Traditionally, economic and social stability are the primary reasons for marriage among Japanese women. Surveys have shown that most mothers hope their daughters will become ‘happily married housewives’. The ideal wife is described as subservient, cheerful, charming, gentle, and retains a subtle naiveté2. She has an existence like water or air, remaining a constant in the man’s life without having too strong an impact like air. She is also often seen as a perpetual caretaker even after marriage3. The ideal husband is the breadwinner and is able to tell his wife his wishes without having to spell them out. These traits define the archetypal notions of the gender relationship in Japanese marriages.

The traditional gender role division in Japan originated from the Confucian ideology of women being good wives and wise mothers. This started in the Meiji period, where prominent officials of the state (mostly men) decreed that a woman’s proper role in imperial Japan was to be a manager of domestic affairs6. This ideology influenced societal institutions in the 1890s and subsequently constituted an official discourse.

Late 19th century laws hampered women’s full participation in the outside world, and strongly restricted their political participation7. Their domestic destiny8 was further reinforced as bearing and raising children to become obedient and loyal imperial subjects were seen as a woman’s contributions to the good of the nation. By keeping women in the home, they have lesser power and cannot compete with men in the economic and political realms. This ideology continued to influence state policies towards welfare, education, employment and reproduction till late 1980s after which feminists demanded greater autonomy from male control in public and domestic life.

The extensive restructuring of Japan after 1945 affected conceptions of womanhood as new constitutions and revised legal codes granted women unprecedented political, economic and civil rights. Nonetheless, the ideology of women as being good wife and wise mothers was influential till the late 1980s, as the Liberal Democratic Party continued to formulate policies which assumed that wife-hood and motherhood came first for women. Women should only work when it was of absolute necessity; even then, they could only engage in paid work that did not prevent fulfillment of domestic responsibilities. State employment policies (1960s-1986) such as tax incentives further discouraged married women from full-time entry into the workforce.

The economic nature of Japanese marriages is reflected through how men are content to be busy at work as their duty is seen to be to the company and not their families. Meanwhile, the women do not need their husbands constantly as their spouses’ durability as a breadwinner is more important.

The above traits sharply contrast against those of American families. The ideal American wife helps with her husband’s career and the couple does not consider leadership necessary in marriage; whereas in Japan, male leadership is essential. Most American husbands agreed that they should help with household chores while Japanese men are not that inclined to help. American children are disciplined by both parents, but Japanese children are primarily left in the charge of their mothers.

However, as the economic reality of the 1990s set in, men’s roles have changed to become more father-like as they begin to look to their homes and children as a source of satisfaction and strength.

Women today on the other hand, approach marriage very differently. Young city women are more critical and often demand that their husbands work hard and yet double up as family men. Increased education has made them aware of the rigid role division in marriage and hence, many choose to marry later. A survey showed that 75% of women married before 26 in 1970, but less than 45% did so in 1989. As women become financially more independent, they do not see the need to enter the financial transaction of marriage; therefore, they are less pressured to marry than older generations. A 1990 prime minister survey had also showed that 50% of respondents (women older than 20) felt that single-hood was acceptable22. In addition, divorce has become more prevalent today as financial independence makes it possible for a woman to leave an unhappy marriage.


Japanese folk ideology naturalizes attributes on the basis of gender – men are better in the public world (shakai) while women are better in the domestic sphere (katei). Thus, it is unsurprising that men traditionally define their masculinity in terms of their jobs, while employed women went into “early retirement”.

Yet this is an inaccurate generalization today as women are important for the economy and account for over 40 percent of the regular workforce, and for over 90 % of the temporary workforce26. While the masculine norm before was to achieve the salaryman ideal, alternate definitions of masculinity are increasingly coming to light.

Women: Hiring practices

The importance of women’s behaviour as subservient to the male is noticeable in company employment practices. Statistical data reinforces this notion; a high percentage of women are engaged in either clerical work or protective service, thus indicating a gendered preference in employee and employer selection as both companies and Japanese women believe in the ‘good wife, wise mother’ ideology.

While women are engaged in other forms of work, the currency of the GWWM notion still holds true for many as company practices are often in accordance with societal beliefs regarding women’s role. In many firms, it is common to expect young female employees to provide tea and maintain a pleasant manner towards everyone. Gender-based wage discrimination confirms the GWWM belief as the societal view that women’s employment is transient because she has to go into “early retirement” at the age of 27-3029 to fulfill her role as a mother30 is still prevalent today. Hence, women are frequently employed as clerical “OLs” (office ladies), since little training is required as compared to managerial positions.

These show that employers and the economy are still supportive of the belief that the role of women in society is to evolve to that of a wife and mother. However, there is an increasing trend towards later “early retirement”. Furthermore the growing ageing population may gradually put more pressures on the workforce, and in turn create a larger demand for female workers, thereby allowing them to champion for equal working rights.

Yet, one cannot generalize that all working women and their companies define femininity in terms of the GWWM notion. Nonetheless, there exist women engaged in other occupations, and some do not define their femininity in relation to the family.

Men: Salaryman ideal

“I like men who do that […willing to do overtime on Sundays as opposed to spending time with their families]: manly man! Otoko rashii otoko”

Traditionally, work is the embodiment of masculinity, and one who sacrificed time for the company was considered a manly man. This lies in the belief that the primary purpose of men was to fulfill his role as a taxpayer and worker; and thus, the salaryman was considered the masculine ideal.

However, one must not assume that masculinity for all men is defined as such. Even if we make allowances for the possibility that not all men are able to achieve this ideal, there is still a great deal of men engaged in other forms of work – for instance, the manufacturing industry that accounts for 29% of all males employed.

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Hence, it is important to draw back to the notion of ikigai (that which makes life worth living) and its relation to Japanese masculinity, since masculinity in Japan is frequently defined in the manner in which an activity can fulfil the ikigai.38 Thus, masculinity need not be the salaryman ideal, but rather, salaried work of any form since “men have been expected to devote themselves to their work to support their families”.39 Statistical data conforms to this as Japan has one of the longest working hours in the world (showing the importance of work) at least in terms of the manufacturing sector that is the largest employer in Japan40

There are contending notions of masculinity as a result of the economic depression as men find it harder to achieve job satisfaction with a lack of the three treasures.41 The ideal for many young men has also changed from that of an ikigai in work, to that of ikigai in self-fulfillment. Yet the ikigai for work still continues to be the de-facto one, largely because of the great number of hours spent at work by men. However one cannot deny the great impact that the recession has had upon the salaryman ideal and on ikigai being defined by work.


Gender socialization in Japan is en-cultured from the belief that men and women adopt culturally defined roles; as such, the issue of gender equality in education has long been a case of unsettled differences. Since the 1960s, the question of how girls and women are educated in Japan has not been of concern to the Japanese. This negligence or indifference can be traced in part to a presumption widely prevalent in Japan; that is, since the reforms of the education system following the end of World War II under the direction of the American occupation firmly established the principle of gender equality, there no longer exist any problems.

However, the lack of attention may more appropriately be attributed to the fact that most Japanese have not really thought it important or desirable to have women participate in society in the same capacities as men, whether under the prevalence of western influence or not. The persistence of gender differences despite the abolition of legal and structural barriers to educational access for women makes it necessary to examine the issue of gender equality not only in terms of educational access, but also in terms of actual outcomes.

It is to be noted that sexism and gender stereotyping at various levels of the education system function to perpetuate inequality. Firstly, gender biases permeate the textbooks of elementary and secondary schools in Japan. The ways in which male and female characters are depicted in these textbooks serve to further buttress existing ideas regarding gender roles. Secondly, sex differentiation in the formal curriculum resulted in females and males taking electives that they are assumed to be more attuned to “by nature”. What happened then was that most girls took home economics whilst most boys went into industrial arts, thus inevitably resulting in a deeper gash between both genders in Japan.

Thirdly, certain customary classroom practices and school rituals, which make up the “hidden curriculum”, exacerbate the problem of the great divide between the sexes and reinforce prevailing assumptions about males and females and their respective roles in society. One of such practices includes having separate registers for boys and girls in co-educational schools and consistently calling the boys’ roll first. Another example is that female students perform supporting roles against male students in student councils and club activities. Such sexually defined roles are in constituent with the view that the leader or group representative ought to be a male, and this can be seen on a larger scale where men clearly dominate top positions in politics and business.

Finally, there is evidence of gender-based tracking in schools and some public high schools practice gender discrimination in their admission procedures. There is a tendency for teachers and guidance counselors to “cool down” the aspirations of female students and steer them towards less competitive high schools and colleges, whilst encouraging their male counterparts to aim for leading institutions. This is an obvious characteristic of the predominant mindset of most Japanese – that females and males have specific culturally defined roles to subsume.

The great divide between “femininity” and “masculinity” is apparent in many aspects of Japanese life, and the emphasis on instilling what are viewed as behaviors appropriate to each sex is no less conspicuous. The same can be said of many other societies, particularly Asian ones, but in Japan, this standard is defined much more rigidly, and is more accepted and more strictly imposed. In accordance with the belief that the goal of women’s education is to produce good wives and wise mothers”, the majority of Japanese women are schooled with the assumption that they will eventually marry, have children and not take up careers of their own.

Thus, the cultivation of “ladylikeness” and the cultural-enrichment education that junior colleges provide are considered sufficient. As Japanese society is one where most women are schooled to be domesticated, this suggests that the society thrives not on the competency of its inhabitants male or female alike, but on the very antiquated thought of sexually defined roles.

Reading between the lines of domesticating women as part of women’s education in Japan, it becomes clear that there is, however inconspicuous, the desire to subjugate females under the preconception that women lack the necessary qualities of leadership, specifically toughness and professional competency. Old-fashioned as they may sound, notions such as “a man should be better educated than his wife”, “a girl who’s too brainy isn’t endearing to a guy” and “too much education will make a woman too proud and therefore unit to be a good wife” all reveal the fear that education will eventually liberate women.


While we are all born with a biological sex, we are not born with a cultural understanding of what it means to function as a “male” or a “female” in society. Socialization is a continual process which begins in early childhood but continues throughout the life-course in the home, school, workplace and community. These (direct/indirect) forms of socialization all contribute to shaping our notions of self, sexuality and gendered identity.

All of us are all born into a family43 in which we learn and unlearn what it means to carry a gendered identity. Thus, the family domain is fundamental in teaching the young culturally expected codes of role-behaviour.

In Japan, role-separation and social etiquette based on cultural codes of propriety are stressed at a young age. This includes performing gender over family meals as Japanese children are trained to obey the code of silence and make succinct conversations only with their fathers for it is traditionally considered rude to talk while eating.44 Boys who talk too much over family meals are reprimanded severely as talkativeness is closely associated to being effeminate.45
Sitting on the tatami mat with legs crossed or stretched out will always be considered an offence for any Japanese woman while males are praised if they conform to it.

Through processes of socialization, the child learns and internalises what is socially desirable and plays out their gendered roles accordingly. Consequently, social categories are reproduced and become dominant ways in which the Japanese understand the world around them.

Sons are exempted from domestic tasks while daughters are expected to take on femininity training concerning posture, issues of modesty, elegance in hosting and food preparation. Domestic skills (i.e. sewing) were regarded as ‘necessary’ for a woman to become self-equipped especially after marriage, and failure to do so will inevitably subject her to social criticisms, particularly by her in-laws.

Being a wife & mother

Most Japanese women consider their home and family the “centre of their identity as a woman” as a result of traditional role-separation49, and marriage for most is not solely for sexual satisfaction, but rather for emotional satisfaction (ikigai/reason for living) attained from the child. This is in part due to the work culture as the husband is frequently absent from home, and ikigai is further reinforced by the norm of “good husbands are healthy and absent” media rhetoric.

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For the Japanese, the ‘emotional urge’ for amae dependency is crucial. This ‘dependency’ is entirely necessary for babies and is encouraged to persist throughout adult life in Japan.52 A mother learns to take on a double-identity by always putting her child’s welfare before hers53 and is also an active participant in her child’s educational developmental process. The extent of her involvement especially during pre-school years is intense as some mothers sit by their child throughout their music lesson so as to guide their small fingers along the instruments.

Amae is also extended to the husband’s-child-like reliance on the wife’s services for his “around-the-body-care” pampering.54 Most Japanese women saw the devotion to home as the creative nurturance of children and not as service to men.55 The husband’s-child-like dependency can be attributed to the wife’s mother-like and nurturing role; and consequently, her mother-like nurturance becomes a source of continued intimacy for her husband who had previously depended on his mother for amae.

It is also important to recognise that the Japanese family structure emphasizes both sexual roles as mutually-dependent. To infer from the Japanese woman’s public status and hence stereotype all Japanese women as “weak, male-dominated and inferior” is reading only into part of the realities of Japanese sociality. Contrary to what European women would refer to as subordination, Japanese women have a different take on a total reliance on the husband’s salary as they assume the role of budgeting and spending it.

“Housewife” is not a dirty word in Japan, and Japanese men do not look down on woman’s role per se for he acknowledges that within the domestic domain, the wife is in charge and exercises dictatorial power over household affairs.

Looking beyond the notion of patriarchy, the husband’s child-like dependency gives the wife power once her services are regarded as indispensable. Thus, the role of a Japanese woman is more than that of a wife; she is also the target of dependence by all the family members.

Confucianism has had a great influence in Japan’s developmental history and on its people’s lives. Besides emphasizing a harmonious society, it also stresses a hierarchial societal structure which assumes subordinate obedience to superiors and men’s dominance over women and children. Males are taught to be strong and encouraged to have control over children and women, while Japanese women on the other hand, are taught to be reserved, subservient, obey their husbands in their marriages and act similarly to their sons in their old age.

The Japanese also embrace the traditional idea of a gender division of roles where a man provides financially for his family while a woman stays at home doing housework and caring for the children. Societal values and expectations perpetuate gender role stereotypes in a culture, thus mandating males to be “masculine” and females to be “feminine.

An examination of the wedding institution in Japan raises important questions about the ways this “invented tradition” preys on the culturally constructed gender-specific identities of men and women. A speech by a nakodo during the wedding reception stresses on interdependence between people as a sign of social maturity (in contrast to Western autonomy).

This creates a view of men and women as not fully able to function on their own; and such, they require a partner of the opposite sex to balance and complete their inadequacies. Yet, if a man goes too far in his accommodation of his wife, he is stigmatized by his cohorts as a aisaika or “wife lover.” It is thus seen that a Japanese husband faces a conflicting sense of loyalty between the home and his workplace.

In recent years, especially after the 1973 oil crisis and low economic growth, gender role stereotypes have been changing. Cultural values that place importance on differences in sex roles have diminished and more egalitarian gender roles are encouraged. Therefore, the differences between males and females seem to have lessened as both sexes possess a better balance of masculine and feminine traits.

There exists a discrepancy between gender stereotypes and gender role orientation in Japan69, and the concept of tatemae (who one is supposed to be) and honne (who one is) can be used to explain it to a certain extent. Tatemae refers to conventional morals created based on societal consensus, whereas honne is the individual motive and opinion behind tatemae (Nakane, 1970). The Japanese learn this double-structure through socialization process from an early age; in groups, relationships are structured in a vertical fashion such as parent-child, older-younger pupils, and teacher-pupil. The age factor is an essential part of these hierarchical relationships.

Vertical relationships are formed in colleges, universities and companies as they are the core of the social structure, and rule both public and private lives (Nakane, 1970). However, in a rigid hierarchy emphasizing harmony, there is not much room to exercise the stereotype ‘male’ characteristics such as assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and dominance. Instead, sympathy, understanding, politeness and sensitivity to the need of others are more functional as the vertical relationships contain an emotional component. Hence, Japanese men today have to learn and acquire the ideal level of masculine and feminine characteristics with which they can comfortably function in hierarchical relationships.

The industrial shift from agriculture to manufacturing and services has also produced a large number of salaried employees living in urban areas with nuclear families. Traditionally, women have been responsible for all things related to the family and home. Now, as men work longer hours, women have inevitably assumed more responsibilities. Out of necessity, women sometimes acquire certain ‘male’ traits facilitating increased decision-making at home.

Arts and Popular Culture

Gender depictions in the Arts carry significant messages about cultural norms and values, including that of gender relations. Nowhere in the world has embraced the culture of androgyny as fanantically and as positively as in Japan. Androgyny has been negatively associated with ‘queer’ individuals like Michael Jackson and Boy George in the entertainment industry of the West; wheras in Japan, the all male revue Kabuki, and the all-female revue Takarazuka, provide a popular form of theatre based on the commodity of men playing women’s roles (onnagata) and women playing men’s roles (otokoyaku).

Ironically, both theaters seek to impart appropriate behavior intended to be emulated by each gender. Majority of the audiences comprise of married middle-aged housewives, and the otokoyaku teaches the actions of males to provide a better understanding for females in their roles as wives, while Kabuki presents an image of the ideal female. Despite the obvious violation of gender lines, the theater does provide outlets for alternative gender expression in a strict society. 71 In fact, androgyny takes on a different meaning in Japan and is often used to nullify gender differences.

Thus, in Kabuki and Takarazuka, neither femininity nor masculinity is deemed the exclusive province of either female or male bodies. Perhaps, this also reflects Japanese attitudes toward individuality and individualism. The otokoyaku and onnagata are appreciated as exemplary females and males who succeed in negotiating between both genders without being constrained by either. However, one must note that individualism is viewed negatively and is equated with selfishness in Japan. Nevertheless, Takarazuka otokoyaku and Kabuki onnagata explain an acceptability of androgyny in the cultural realm of Japan by conveying strength and beauty through this “individuality”.

The prevalence and popularity of manga and anime in Japan suggest that they may indeed be reliable indicators of social values and norms74. Thus, one could use this aspect of Japanese popular culture as a lens through which an academic analysis of gender could be focused and understood.

It is first imperative to acknowledge that traditional gender expectations have been successfully socialized and internalized to a certain extent among the Japanese. Hence, they can relate to characters portrayed in manga and anime when gender stereotypes are predictably played out.

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Secondly, it is important to recognize that the state, family, and education system are top-down agents of socialization that often explicitly affirm gender expectations; on the contrary, popular culture is an indirect yet potentially powerful agent as it reinforces preexisting norms by constantly reminding and instructing audiences in performing gender.

Conversely, popular culture can also be a tool through which gender rules are inversed or blurred; in fact, the comedic effect of manga and anime is sometimes achieved through a mockery of gender norms. We will now analyze two popular examples, Crayon Shin-Chan and Ranma ½.

Crayon Shin-Chan

In Crayon, the main character Shin-Chan is a kindergarten-aged boy who lives with his mother Misae, a full-time homemaker and his father Hiroshi, a typical salaryman. While the traditionally ideal Japanese family is seemingly portrayed75, the characters frequently fail to fit into the conventional gender moulds. The portrayal of Shin-Chan is often contradictory as he is shown to be infant-like and yet sexually attracted to adult females.

His infant-like portrayal can be interpreted as a comic representation of the child-like dependency that Japanese men are socialized into having on their mothers and wives, but what is satiric here is that he uses this as a guise to hide his sexual intentions. Gender categories are clearly mocked through this manipulated misfit as gender traits the Japanese adult male is thought to possess are imposed onto a young boy.

Misae is depicted to be solely responsible in the task of socializing Shin-Chan whereas Hiroshi is often portrayed as an apathetic observer. This visibly critiques the marginal role that most Japanese men play in their families as they spend most of their time outside the home. The creators of Crayon go further in this critique of the traditional demarcation of gender-specific roles in Japan80 with an ironic portrayal of Misae as a controlling yet infective mother.

Although Misae aspires to be the perfect mother, her intense involvement paradoxically produces adverse results as Shin-Chan almost always embarrasses her in front of others. In frustration, Misae often strikes her fist on Shin-Chan’s head. However, the bruises on Shin-Chan’s head are comically exaggerated and never grievous. This is surely a parody of the power that Japanese women are thought to wield within the domestic sphere as the notion of the domestic matriarch is challenged. Despite her efforts, Misae ultimately has little control over her son83.

Ranma ½

Alternatively, gender categories in Ranma ½ are deliberately inversed; its main character Ranma is a teenage boy under a curse that transforms him into a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Ranma’s father had promised his wife to raise Ranma to be ‘a man among men’; and as a result, Ranma constantly hid from his mother as he feared that she would force him and his father to commit seppuku upon learning of his curse. The severity of seppuku seems grossly disproportionate and incredulous, but more importantly, it reveals the significance of the task accorded to Japanese parents as the family is seen to be primarily responsible in socializing children to become ideal Japanese men and women.

However, he was spared from seppuku when his mother realized it is only Ranma’s physical form that changes as he still retains his masculine mannerisms. More significantly, Ranma’s arranged marriage can be interpreted as a way through which marriage is depicted as a means for Ranma to become a ‘real man’. Through behaviors that define masculinity, gender norms are in turn reinforced.

Ironically, his fiancé Akane is tomboyish and sports short hair. However, she had tried to imitate her sister’s femininity by keeping her hair long. This attempt to perform gender through one’s physical appearance is surely indicative of the presence of socially defined gender rules. The fact that Akane is very bad at domestic chores also illuminates the taken-for-granted gender norm that women are expected to be competent at it. Nevertheless, she is very popular with boys, and this could reflect a partial rejection of conventional gender norms by the creators of Ranma.


The ease through which gender categories can be manipulated as shown by this paper undoubtedly reveals their fluidity and instability. However, it is significant to note the wide disparity between alternative representations and actual societal change as Japan is often erroneously understood through the media.

Alternatives cannot be interpreted as catalysts for social change; but rather, their popularity could reflect a fascination with the unfamiliar within a relatively gender-conservative Japanese society. Societal tolerance in Japan does not equate to approval nor reflect changes in attitudes; alternatives are usually accepted as fantasy and often ironically reinforce gender norms.


In sum, this paper has shown that traditional attitudes still influence gender roles in Japan today. Ideological change is definite, but nevertheless slow87. However, gendered attitudes across Japanese society are diverse and generalizations must be avoided. Lastly, one must recognize that feminist perspectives are inadequate in understanding gender issues in Japan. The perspective of the Japanese male must not be neglected as it is clear that gender stereotyping, constraints, and inequality affect both Japanese men and women.


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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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