Anne-Stine Johnsbråten’s photo-book Good Wife, Wise Mother borrows its title from the Japanese expression ryōsai-kenbo, a modern interpretation of the role of woman forged during the Meiji period (1868-1912). (See Shizuko, Koyama and Sylvain, Gabriel A. «The ‘Good Wife and Wise Mother’ Ideology in Post-World War I Japan». U.S. -Japan Women’s Journal, 1994).
During the Meiji Restoration, Japan opened to the West with the purpose of fostering industrialization and technological development. This would pave the way to the Japanese economic growth after WWI, mobilising labourers from agriculture and enlarging the white-collar workforce. Japan’s economic miracle encouraged a gender division of labour that was substantially different from pre-industrialised-based economies in which men and women share the same agrarian chores. Silvia Federici makes a similar point when arguing that until the 17th century in Europe, men and women both worked in the fields and women’s «domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men» (see Federici, Silvia. «Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation», Brooklyn: Autonomedia,). A new gender division of labour was conceived when «women’s unwaged labour and reproductive labour» were subjugated to the reproduction of the workforce. In Japan, white-collar workers would earn enough money to support wives and family thus women were relegated to reproductive labour (e.g., rearing children, domestic chores). In this respect, Japan’s economic growth generated an uneven gender distribution in the labour market.
Throughout the 20th century, Japan continued to witness economic growth until the 1990s after the burst of the economic bubble. This might have forced Japanese women to enter the labour market however the modern ideal of «good wife, wise mother» continues to persist in Japanese society. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, in 2020 Japan ranked 121 out of 153 countries; and the gender wage gap in Japan is the third-largest in the OECD area (https://www.oecd.org/policy-briefs/japan-improving-the-labour-market-outcomes-of-women.pdf). Female employment has risen dramatically since 2012 but this has not affected the number of hours worked by women since most of the female employment is non-regular and part-time; this is in turn incentivised by the Japanese tax and social security system. Traditional gender roles make it difficult for women to combine a career and a family also because of the prevailing culture of working long hours. However, the Japanese population is expected to decline by 25% until 2050 and Japan has been experiencing labour shortages since 2011 – therefore women in the future would be further required to participate in the labour market.
Traditional gender roles make it difficult for women to combine a career and a family
100 Japanese women
Anne-Stine Johnsbråten is a documentary photographer living in Oslo. The images for Good Wife, Wise Mother were shot between 2011 and 2016. With this project, Johnsbråten won the first prize in the category of Documentary Abroad in the Norwegian Picture of the Year 2016 contest. Her debut book portrays around 100 Japanese women, young and old, from different generations and diverse social and professional backgrounds and regions, including Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, and Hiroshima. According to Johnsbråten, when traveling to Japan she «was excited to hear what the women were going to say about work and gender equality. [She] wondered how they viewed their freedom in a gender perspective. How they [would] see the future.»
Good Wife, Wise Mother provides an exclusive insight into the different roles Japanese women play in society. The photographs disclose the underlying social structures that prevent women from combining a career and a family but also portray strong progressive individuals willing to challenge traditional gender roles. Johnsbråten conducted brief questionnaire interviews with the women photographed and these were then turned into captions accompanying the photographs thus revealing information not only about the individuals depicted but also about Japanese society as a whole.
Mai Yan and Manami «Mana» Sawa
In the book we meet Mai Yano, a 21 years old woman, studying economics and living with her parents. Four years later, Mai is marrying Ken Yoshida in a traditional ceremony. The wedding pictures evidence the way Japanese culture combines the traditional with the modern as well as expose the life span of the project. In a caption, we learn for instance that the Japanese legal system requires the use of a single surname and couples often choose the husband’s family name. Information as such helps us, readers, to further interpret these images. In another picture we see Mai and Ken living together, the caption reads that Mai is finding it hard to keep up with her domestic tasks and her competitive job although Ken is helping more with house chores. Mai, just like her mother Chie, is expected to perform most of them. Despite Ken’s willingness, traditional gender role expectations persist in Japanese society. Achieving a balance between a successful career and a family might not challenge de facto traditional gender roles but women’s economic independence is a stepping-stone towards gender equality.
We also meet Manami «Mana» Sawa, a 28 years old woman who manages her own dance company Tokyo Party Time and dances in nightclubs. In a caption, we read that her husband, also Japanese, has no problem with her profession but four years later we find Manami divorced, still managing her company but performing less. She has now a British boyfriend and hopes to raise a family in Tokyo, or better in London. Manami is an independent woman and through her profession, she defies traditional gender roles however her desire for raising a family is not far from the «good wife, wise mother» slogan.
Good Wife, Wise Mother illustrates the social conditions that produce traditional gender roles within Japanese society. Yet the book also portrays strong female individuals that despite their contradictions are willing to challenge these very roles. The book offers then a unique insight into Japanese culture, revealing its sharp contrasts through the point of view of Japanese women.
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