Friday, November 14, 2008

What's Love Got to Do With It: Marrying for Money In Japan

Hannah Beech, in Time ASIA, writes that "Japan, under the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been notoriously slow in implementing policies like flexible hours for working mothers, enhanced day-care options and financial incentives for bearing more children."

At first I was wary of yet another article in which a Western author pointed fingers at the Eastern world. But Beech acknowledged early on that the problems Japanese women face are universal. And it's fair to mention that gender equality lags in the Japanese workplace.

Beech blames this gender equality gap for the country's very low birthrate, a problem that is expected to have adverse consequences on the Japanese economy as soon as 2010. Young Japanese women, expected by society to quit work once they have children, opt out of marriage and children altogether.

In an even more depressing article about how marriages occur in Japan, Kaoru Yamadera writes, "While women are looking for stability in their future husbands, men are seeking high incomes from their future wives."

Of course, Yamadera's observation is hardly news. Marriage has always been a romantic entanglement with an economic side (or an economic entanglement with a romantic side, depending on your point of view). In the years before housework was mechanized, a man owned his wife but he also owned the monetary value of her labor.

With the mechanization of housework but the rising costs of such technology, it makes sense that men and women will enter the workforce, and that they will marry partners with similar earning potential. (And by the way: working mothers are hardly news either. Among the poor and middle classes, women have always had to work to supplement family income, the whole world over. It's only recently that this system has become necessary even for the relatively elite.)

One of the factors that contributed to America's 1990s prosperity was, in large part, the immigration of educated men and women from countries like India, China and Japan. Like Yuka Tanimoto, the young Japanese woman in the article, many of these women felt that "business culture [in their native country] was not changing quickly enough for people like [them]."

Many of these immigrants succeeded in America because they relied on the dual income of two highly-educated parents to support a family.

I could cite the example of my own mother, who left a successful business career in India to immigrate to the United States with my father. People often ask immigrants why they would ever leave home. For her, the choice was simple: marry an American-based man and work, or marry an Indian-based one and quit. Almost all Indian in-laws of her time expected their daughters-in-law to quit work after marriage (or, more accurately: to quit working outside the home after marriage.) She came to the United States, has worked her entire life, and has been able to give her kids more options as a result.

The Asian gender gap (now narrowing in many places although not, apparently, Japan) has benefited the United States. I know many, many women who made the choice my mother did, and they have not only contributed millions to American GDP, they've also invented new products, new advertisements and life-saving drugs. They've paid for their children's Ivy League educations and international vacations and after-school classes. They've had to.

The dual-income family has also been part of the rise of the American middle class. When families moved away from the single-earner model, they found they could double or even triple their annual income overnight. Families in Japan, faced with a tough economic climate, will have to embrace this model or they'll miss out on the full potential of their economy.

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