publisher colophon

Productivity, Sexuality, and Ideologies of Menopausal Problems in Japan

Nancy R. Rosenberger

Japan has been presented in much of the literature as a homogenous society in which there is little variety or conflict. This homogeneity is said to have been reinforced in recent years by the widespread use of televi­sion, radio, and newspapers, and the commonality of education mate­rials. I believe that there is, in fact, variety and conflict within Japanese society. In this chapter, I discuss some of the variation in values that exists among middle-aged women and examine differences in their households and in their ideas and actions concerning menopausal symptoms.

My contention is that in Japan many ideas and actions related to the menopause vary in response to middle-aged women’s current problems with the household and their position in it. Thus, middle-aged women use ideas and actions around menopausal symptoms as one way of ma­nipulating their place (or lack of it) as productive people within the soci­ety, especially within the household.

Productivity is important to the Japanese, important in the sense that every person is expected, if possible, to be a participating member of a group (Smith 1983; Lebra 1976; Nakane 1970). It is not required that the person’s contribution achieve high levels of productivity in an indus­trial sense, but it is important that a Japanese person show the right atti­tude of support and participation in the group of main membership. Passive members of groups are accepted if those people are considered too young, too old, or in some way infirm. However, middle-aged women are not ordinarily granted the role of passive participant by themselves or others. Productivity is expected, but problems stem from how that productivity is expressed in various social contexts in contempo­rary Japan. 159

The assumption that ideas and actions in connection with menopause have some inherent relation to problems of productive group member­ship in Japan rests on the definition of the female gender primarily in social terms. Although there are individual interpretations and varia­tions, several commonly held ideas about women underlie the definition of a woman as a socially understood gender. “Woman” in Japan is defined first and foremost by her sexuality, which implies reproductive capabilities (manifested through menstruation), by reproduction of chil­dren, by reproduction of household members, by productive member­ship in her husband’s household, and by personality traits of gentleness, nurturance, and self-control (Rosenberger 1984b). The latter traits are thought to develop in their most ideal form through a woman’s experi­ence within a household—through raising children, nurturing a hus­band, and caring for parents-in-law. To the extent that she has done these things, a woman is regarded as mature in a womanly fashion.

The menopause marks a departure from sexuality (defined by men­struation) and the capability of reproduction. If the woman has repro­duced in her husband’s household, she maintains her womanly role as a mother (and perhaps mother-in-law), as a productive member of the household, and through her personality traits. Lebra states that Japanese women “never graduate from the maternal role” (1984, 260), but active service in relation to this role does decrease when children leave. If chil­dren have left the household, temporarily or permanently, it is the woman’s productive membership within the household that is left as the most convenient way of expressing her gender in “traditional” social terms. In addition, the woman may work outside the home, usually to make an economic contribution to household needs and in part for her own self-interest. It will be seen in the third part of this essay that Tokyo women show an increasing interest in productivity outside the household and are interpreting this as part of their personhood, quite in tune with their definition of contemporary gender roles.

In short, I am positing that as other qualities that define the female gender in social terms disappear in middle age, Japanese women tend to find their productive membership in the household or in society to be important. Menopausal symptoms in no way determine the form of pro­ductivity that the woman finds meaningful to express herself as a pro­ductive female person. However, a woman manipulates the ideas and actions that are attached to menopause to explain to herself and others the forms of productivity that she has chosen. Thus, the place of the 160household in the economy, the woman’s forms of productive member­ship within the household, and other areas of productivity available to her outside the household are important to understanding the various ways in which she will use (or refuse to use) menopausal symptoms to express herself in a way that is commensurate with her expected social roles. When viewed in this manner, it can be understood why meno­pausal symptoms, while not considered to be important to middle-aged women as a biological transition, can have importance on the social level.

A similar relationship between menopause and productive member­ship may occur in other societies in which, like Japan, there is no special ritual or public role for women after menopause. Women in such societies do not necessarily use ideas or actions about menopause as a means of dealing with their problems of social gender in middle age, but ideas and action around menopause are a potential way for middle-aged women to label and handle problems in connection with a definition of themselves as productive female persons in their households or in the larger society.

Many studies have explored the relationship of status to the meno­pausal experience; several researchers (Bart 1969; Flint 1979; Moaz et al. 1970; Brown 1982) have argued that the reporting of menopausal symp­toms is high in places where women’s status is low, whereas menopausal symptoms are fewer and less often reported in places where women’s sta­tus is high after menopause. Davis (1982) found that for her Newfound­land informants, high status is lifelong and does not change at meno­pause, and that people worry about the menopause and use it to emphasize the importance of their role, their hard work, and their stoic nature.

I have attempted in the following discussion to avoid generalization about the correlation of status and menopausal symptoms. However, my thesis is that Japanese women use the images connected with the meno­pausal sufferer in order to enhance their personal status as productive female persons, regardless of their actual status in the view of the larger society.

Neither am I concerned to show here which symptoms are identified with the menopause in Japan (see Lock 1986), nor what physical factors might be influencing menopausal symptoms (Beyene 1984). My interest is with whether symptoms experienced in middle age are emphasized by women in certain contexts, whether these middle-aged symptoms are identified as menopausal, and what this identification (or lack of it) can 161explain. The concern is with menopause as part of an ideology, if you will, that is used by women to adjust to or to manipulate (both con­sciously and unconsciously) their place in the social and economic specifi­cities of their lives as middle-aged women. In more general terms, this study examines how health and illness states connected with natural bodily transitions are used by the people identified with them to control or manipulate their positions in the socioeconomic situations in which they find themselves.

Despite the attempt to avoid a static analysis by discussing variety and conflict, even the three contexts presented below become three fixed models in the act of recording them. In each of the areas discussed women actually have many individual approaches to the menopause and its usefulness (or lack thereof) in relation to the problems of middle life. The generalities presented below are the dominant patterns that have emerged from the particular data of this researcher. Women’s ideas and actions regarding their productive membership in middle age (especially within the household) and the use of the menopause in relation to that productive membership is constantly in flux, even within the daily life of one woman. For example, in a group of well-educated working women, a woman may use menopause to define her position as a working person by denying any menopausal symptoms. The same woman, in a group of chatting neighbors on the street outside her home, may use menopausal symptoms to emphasize her dissatisfactions at home. In short, the reader is asked to bear in mind that the ideas presented here are frozen patterns in a process that is continually in flux in each locality and, indeed, for each person.

The term “household” is used here in a historically specific sense. In its so-called traditional form, the household in Japan was an economic, political, and ritual entity that had at its core a line of co-head married pairs, ideally related through a line of elder sons (Bachnik 1983; Brown 1966; Kitaoji 1971). Daughters could carry on the household if their hus­bands married into their line, but women never created new households without bringing in a husband. As Bachnik (1983) has noted, the con­tinuation of the household as an entity rather than the continuation of the line was most important.

I base my use of the term “household” on the above definition, which ideologically is still the ideal of the household in Japan. The household in contemporary Japan seldom rests on economic and political functions, but rather on its ideological or ritual functions (Brown 1966). The ideal 162of the household as an ongoing line of elder sons, co-residential or close in proximity, is still the cherished ideal of middle-aged women in the northeastern provincial city studied. It is questionable to what extent the household as an ideological entity is important for the Tokyo women who are presented in the study. From the point of view of many female infor­mants living in Tokyo, the care of the individual members of the nuclear family is of greater concern than is the ongoing idea of the household. The reader is cautioned that in Tokyo, and to a lesser extent in the pro­vincial city, co-residence of the continuing line is greatly reduced and care is offered increasingly on the basis of emotional attachment and kin­dred rather than on the basis of the household. Nevertheless, the ideal of the woman’s actions within the “traditional” household is the source of the definition of the woman’s appropriate actions in relation to her fam­ily members (of all generations) even among the well educated of Tokyo. In addition, Japanese women’s identities become increasingly linked with the continuation of the household as they age (Lebra 1984). For these reasons, the term “household” is used throughout this paper to express the framework in which actions of family-oriented productivity are accomplished.

The data on which this analysis rests were collected in Japan between 1980 and 1983. The first area of research was in a provincial city in Iwate prefecture, a prefecture in northeastern Honshu characterized as being “traditional” in customs and comparatively backward economically. My data were collected in two ways: in-depth interviews and questionnaires. Sixty women were interviewed in their homes or in a doctor’s office; 189 women responded to a questionnaire on menopause and other aspects of their life such as work and home relations. The second part of the research was done in Tokyo, where I interviewed 100 women who were coming into the hospital for a routine yearly checkup. They were healthy women who were interviewed about various aspects of their lives—their hobbies, work, family relations, as well as ideas and actions related to menopause—and responded to a questionnaire on attitudes toward menopause. The last part of the research was done in a small fishing-farming village in Iwate prefecture where 30 women were interviewed. These interviews mostly took place in the women’s homes; a few were conducted in a community center when being in the home would have constrained the conversation. Doctors in each of these research locations were interviewed on their views of menopause, the associated symptoms, causes, and cures. 163

The majority of women interviewed were in “middle age” (defined for the purpose of this study as forty to sixty years of age). A lesser num­ber of women in their thirties and sixties were interviewed for compari­son. The ages forty to sixty seem appropriate for the Japanese case because by the time most women are forty all of their children are in school (thirty-five is usually considered by Japanese women to be the cut­off age for giving birth), and by sixty, most women are grandmothers, their husbands are completely retired, and the effects of menopause are supposed to be finished. The age from sixty to seventy is sometimes referred to as “early old age.” Where “menopausal” is used as a label for middle-aged symptoms, the time period from forty to sixty is considered to be an appropriate age range for menopausal symptoms to appear. Thus, the term “menopausal” as it is used in parts of Japan includes long periods prior to and after cessation of menstruation in which the body is thought to be susceptible to the effects of changing hormones.

The Path of Blood

The first set of ideas and actions in relation to menopause is that con­veyed to the researcher by the women of the fishing-farming village in northeastern Japan. Even by rural Japanese standards, this village is somewhat unique in that it had been cut off from other towns except by foot or boat until approximately ten years prior to the interviews. Up to that point, most households in this village were responsible for their own subsistence, providing themselves with vegetables, soy sauce, miso, fish, rice, and so on. Trading for fish and rice went on between those house­holds that concentrated on fishing or farming, but many households both farmed and fished. The woman of the household was responsible for the growing and preservation of vegetables and the making of staples such as tofu, miso, and soy sauce. She helped prepare the fish that her husband brought in either to sell or for household consumption and helped with the rice (planting, weeding, and harvesting) to an extent determined by the husband’s involvement in fishing or charcoal making. In short, the economic role of the woman in the household was quite important and continued to be so as long as she was able to contribute.

The custom, among common folk since at least the Meiji period, of having the eldest son (eldest daughter if no son) and his family live with and carry on the household is still considered to be vital and is usually maintained in this village today. Thus, middle-aged women are busy 164supplying food for their growing families and helping to care for grand­children. Middle-aged women have often given birth in their forties and usually have four to six children rather than the prescribed two found in most of Japan. There are thus both younger children who have not yet left home and grandchildren living together in most village households. The woman’s roles as mother and grandmother therefore overlap, and her productive role in the household is never interrupted. As the middle-aged woman inherits the role of mother-in-law in directing the affairs of the household and makes use of the labor of her daughter-in-law, her power is increased.

The ideas and actions of these women toward menopause are classed here under the phrase “chi no michi,” literally, “path of blood.” This phrase originates in traditional medicine, where it refers to all womanly problems that have any connection with childbearing or menstruation. It is still used by village women over about fifty years of age, usually with reference to health problems thought to be associated with the female reproductive organs or cycle, and is understood by all. Its meaning describes well these women’s ideas about menopause. Colloquially, the “path of blood” represents the idea that menopausal distress results from passing through the functions unique to the female (menstruation, births, and menopause). As one informant said:

We women spend our whole lives being “threatened by blood” (chi ni odakasareru). I used to look at my mother suffering through meno­pause and think I’d never be like her. But here I am. It’s a path no woman can avoid.

The most threatening time along the “path of blood” is thought to be the postbirth period. It was described graphically by one informant:

It wasn’t like now when the nurses massage your uterus to get the blood out. After the baby was born, blood sometimes got left in there and got rotten like. It stays in there and causes problems later on in the menopausal years.

The appeal of the “path of blood” lies in the fact that the aches and pains attributed to menopause are associated by inference with the whole path of a woman’s reproductive life. Thus, discussion of aches attributed to the “path of blood” refers the listener back to the hard work and effort put into pregnancies, childbirths, and childrearing in the context of the household. In this case, menopause is not a stage of life in which 165children are gone and the woman is alone in the household; rather menopausal symptoms are interpreted as the product of years of hard work as the mother in a household and are linked with the need for help with that hard work in the future. Menopausal symptoms interpreted as the “path of blood” emphasize the village woman’s position in the household and her continuing sacrifice for the household upon which her authority depends.

In the following two conversations, we meet one village woman who claims she did have menopausal problems and another who claims she did not. In both cases the idea being stressed by the informant is her hard work and devotion within her household.

Mrs. Okuchi, the elder wife in a household including herself, her hus­band, her eldest son, his wife, and four grandchildren, dominated the conversation as her husband and daughter-in-law sat quietly in the circle around the wood-burning stove.

It’s those women in the cities who are rich with nothing to do who get menopausal problems. Women who work outside of the home get menopausal symptoms—like my daughter-in-law here. You know, young people want a lot of material comforts. If you get out in the fields and move your body, women don’t have much trouble with the path of blood.

(Did you have much difficulty around menopause?)

Well, I did. My period ended soon after the birth of my seventh child. He was born when I was forty, and I got very sick the summer I was forty-two. I had a fever and was down in bed for three months.

(Why would your menopause have been so difficult?)

I guess it was because I worked so hard and had so many babies. We were poor and I could never rest after the births, except for the first one. I just kept going. There was no one else to tend the vegetables because my husband was off taking care of the charcoal making in the mountains, and most of my family had died in the tidal wave.

Ten years after my last child, my son’s first child was born, so I was busy being a grandmother. No, around here we can’t stop to worry about the path of blood.

Mrs. Okuchi’s original emphasis on the idea that people who work in the fields do not get menopausal problems can be understood through 166the high value that is placed on endurance without complaint and con­tinual productivity for women of this village. When brought up in a gen­eral context, menopausal aches are treated with disdain because they rep­resent the idea that a woman gives in to her individual problems, thus ignoring the needs of the family group. However, when admitted to on a personal level, as above, menopausal problems are immediately asso­ciated with the sacrifices that the woman has made for the household and the family. In either situation (denying or admitting to menopausal symptoms), the woman’s response emphasizes the fulfillment of her duty as central household worker and mother.

Mrs. Muto is fifty-eight and runs a small inn with the help of her daughter-in-law. We talked over tea in her parlor.

Some women get the path of blood, but not me. I just didn’t think about it. Some have it even in their late thirties, but I had none. I was too busy working and I had to keep going. Until five years ago, I had to walk several miles and carry our store-bought supplies on my back. Until just recently, we grew all of the vegetables we ate. I was responsi­ble for that because my husband was off on a boat for six months a year to New Zealand. I still make our bean curd and soy sauce. I have no time for the path of blood.

In short, women of this fishing-farming village preferred to portray themselves as immune to menopausal problems and emphasized instead their domestic and reproductive labor for the household. If they did admit to problems that they thought had been connected with the menopause, it was done in the framework of the “path of blood,” the natural way of things for a woman who had given so much for her house­hold.

These ideas around menopause are best understood through the eco­nomic vitality of the household in village subsistence and the centrality of the woman to household production. The definition of women as socially accepted females and as productive people stems simultaneously from their reproductive and domestic labor within the household. Women’s explanations of menopausal symptoms and their preference for denying menopausal symptoms can be traced to their central roles in households with continuing economic and social importance.

Village women in their late twenties and early thirties added an inter­esting perspective to the way their mothers-in-law dealt with menopausal symptoms. They agreed that women of the older generation were strong 167both in body and spirit, so that they could put up with whatever aches they had. They added, however, that their mothers-in-law were quite loquacious about their menopausal problems when they wanted to con­vince a household member to do something for them or to act in a cer­tain manner. Thus, if her menopausal symptoms could help to motivate a child to do well in a test for “your sick grandmother who’s taken care of you and your papa,” the grandmother would reveal her menopausal problems without shame or embarrassment. In one case the mother-in-law’s menopausal symptoms were the deciding factor in convincing the elder son and his wife to move into the main house from the smaller house next door. Using sickness as a means of motivating action in others is not new in the literature about Japan (see Caudill 1962; Ohnuki-Tier­ney 1984). These particular uses of menopause fit well into the idea that menopause can be used in this village to bring the middle-aged woman into an ever more emotional and obligatory relationship with the mem­bers of her household at a time when her declining reproductive and sex­ual powers could threaten her status within the household.

Problems of the Menopausal Years

In the provincial city, menopausal distress is referred to as kōnenki shō­gai, “problems of the menopausal years.” While the “path of blood” carries the idea that female suffering occurs along a continuum, the phrase “problems of the menopausal years” carries the idea that meno­pausal distress happens within a confined period of time. The nenki of kōnenki means “period of time” or “stage.” The kō carries several mean­ings: it has the meaning of “again” and in combination with other char­acters conveys the idea of change. Kō also refers to the time from sunset to sunrise, divided into segments as for the night watch; accordingly, it is used in verb form to mean “growing late” (fukeru) or in combination, “getting deep into the night” (fukeyuku). Thus, kōnenki could be translated as the “darkening years,” with the image of the woman pro­gressing into night at menopause. The image of night complements the image of the sun used to represent menstruation in young women in Japan.1

Shōgai, the second part of the phrase used to mean “menopausal problems,” is used in the medical world to refer to certain kinds of dam­age or disability, but it can also mean “hurdles,” as in a horse race. Although this is not the meaning that biomedical doctors intend, it is 168not irrelevant to the ideas surrounding “problems of the menopausal years.” When Japanese talk of passing through this period, they say that a woman has to “ride over” (norikoeru) the “problems of the meno­pausal years.” A doctor writes about “menopausal problems” in a popu­lar health magazine:

For a woman, the end of menses must be shocking. Her functions as a woman are ended and she leaves her youth, beauty and feminine attractiveness behind … the decline of her body is rapid with loosening of skin … decline of sex life … and weakening of memory … In the home she is freed from child care, but she tastes the feelings of loneliness and loss of her role as mother. She can no longer get fulfillment from her household duties. Besides that, she worries about her husband’s retirement and his relations with other women. (Kawashima 1978, 230–231)

“The menopausal years” (kōnenki) demarcates a period between the years of “maturity” or “young motherhood” (seijukuki) and the “years of old age” (rōnenki). Most contemporary Japanese women do not pro­ceed from motherhood into grandmotherhood as Mrs. Okuchi of the fishing village did, with only ten years between her last child and her first grandchild. The usual gap between children and grandchildren today is between twenty and thirty years, as the average number of chil­dren has decreased and children marry later than did the present middle-aged generation.2 The grandparent is likely to live separately from her grandchildren until she needs care herself. The average age of meno­pause in Japan is estimated to be ten years later than it was at the end of World War II, so that in 1979 the average age of menopause was fifty-two years of age.3 Thus, for fifteen to twenty years before menopause, the woman is rarely busy with child care. It is during this period from the very late thirties to the late fifties that symptoms of menopausal distress are thought to occur.

The women interviewed in the provincial city had mixed feelings. They felt the obligation to continue “protecting the house” (katei o mamoru, which includes all their duties toward the physical house, the social household, and household members) as they were brought up to do, yet they felt dissatisfied with their unproductive days in the house­hold. Many of the informants used menopausal problems as a means of mediating these conflicting feelings, as we shall see below.

In the provincial city, the household is no longer economically impor­tant in a subsistence sense. Economically, it exists for the feeding, 169sheltering, and nurturance of family members, including sometimes elders. Accordingly, the woman’s work in the household is no longer vital for subsistence but only in service to the family’s personal needs. It is considered appropriate for subsistence support to come from the man’s salary earned outside of the home. (This, of course, does not apply to commercial households that run small shops or traditional craft busi­nesses.) When children are small the woman’s productive contribution is not doubted, but as children grow and leave, and if grandparents are liv­ing separately,4 the middle-aged woman herself doubts her productive contribution to the household. Thus, the problem confronting these women in a socioeconomic sense is that their presence in the household is to some extent superfluous in middle age. Work outside the home is pos­sible, but difficult, first, because jobs for women over forty are few in number and poor in quality in this provincial city, and second, because taking jobs feels socially risky. As one of my informants said: “I don’t want to go out and wash dishes or clean for someone else. Anyway, if anything would go wrong within the home, it would get blamed on me, the wife. It always does.”

Informants’ roles in their households continue to be important to them as ways of defining themselves as women and as productive human beings. Some informants cling to their roles as women, mothers, and household co-heads. They have hopes that their children will return to the household, or at least live nearby, and that their meaningful activi­ties within the context of the household and household members will increase.

The middle-aged female informants in this town imparted the idea that the aches and pains they feel in their forties and fifties are largely connected with the menopause, unless other specific medical reasons for these are found. According to the questionnaire, shoulder ache is the most prevalent (21 percent) physical symptom, while dizziness and headache (both 11 percent) are second most prevalent. Almost three-quarters of the women (72 percent) think that menopause is an event that affects a woman both physically and emotionally. Over half (61 per­cent) feel that they do have emotional symptoms. Among these, irrita­bility (iraira) is most prevalent (30.5 percent) and a feeling of having no desire to do anything (yaruki ga nai) is second (22 percent).5

The questionnaire revealed, however, that a high percentage of women (83 percent) feel that “a woman can control her menopausal problems through mental strength.” In conversation this is reflected in 170the frequently heard statement, “A woman’s menopausal problems depend on her ki strength.” Japanese think that all people have ki, an energy that is personal and yet shared with the universe. In a person the energy is both physical and emotional, but in the contemporary collo­quial sense, ki refers more often to emotional energy. If not controlled, ki is an impulsive force that follows one’s emotions. If controlled, ki is a source of emotional power which is thought to have a strengthening effect for the body and mind; it is the basis of the spiritual energy (seishin) used in traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony or the martial arts. In short, women are remarking that if a woman has spiritual energy, or strength of ki, to support her body, she will be able to control or overcome her menopausal problems (Rosenberger 1984b).

In the provincial city, three-quarters of the women (76 percent) feel that “Women who are working outside the home have an easier time at menopause.” Even though this statement makes “common sense” to informants, women who are not working add in a personal vein that they feel it is better for them to stay home and take care of themselves rather than strain themselves by going to work every day. A few women quit work because of menopausal symptoms, but most working women are satisfied that their work activity does help to prevent menopausal symp­toms. Those at home believe that going to work would weaken their gen­eral physical and emotional strength so that they might not even be able to perform their basic household tasks. Informants who do not work express the general feelings that they believe are connected with the menopause in terms of their household duties. “I don’t even have the will to face making the beds or do the laundry or cook the fish. I just want to go out shopping or talk with my friends. I don’t even want to do the things I have to do!”

Women whose activities are mainly limited to the household use menopausal problems to account for the feelings of dissatisfaction with their low level of meaningful activities in the household. They feel dis­satisfied, but still want to maintain their central roles in the household and image of devotion to it. They blame their dissatisfaction with the lack of productivity within the household on menopausal symptoms. In short, one way of using menopausal symptoms among informants in the provincial city is as a means of maintaining the woman’s necessity to stay at home and of underlining the impossibility of getting a job or engag­ing in activities outside the home. Excerpts from conversations with sev­eral informants illustrate this point.

The first informant is a woman who has never worked outside the 171home. Unable to have children, she and her husband, an hourly wage worker in a local plant, adopted a relative’s child after years of trying. She considers herself “lucky” that her husband and mother-in-law did not force a divorce on her.

Menopause started for me back in my late thirties. My [adopted] daughter was in junior high school then and I didn’t have as much responsibility for her anymore. I got to worrying and thoughts would go round and round in my head. I had headaches and I was so irrita­ble. That was the psychological part of my menopause. You know, they say people who stay in the house too much get menopausal prob­lems. My friends told me I should get out of the house, but I am too weak to hold a job and I have no skills anyway. I started taking tea les­sons and being with that group cheered me up. Later, in my forties, I had some of the physical symptoms of menopause.

This woman uses menopausal symptoms as a means of explaining her conflicts with her diminished role in the household and her treatment of menopausal symptoms as a means of explaining her need to get out of the house. As long as these are menopausal problems, her feelings and actions do not represent any rejection of her central role in the house­hold.

I was introduced to this woman by her neighbor, Mrs. Sato, a fifty-year-old woman who had been a key informant over several years. Mrs. Sato, quoted below, was raised in the provincial city but met her hus­band while teaching school in a country village, where she lived for almost ten years. Her husband is a teacher. At the time of the interviews, Mrs. Sato was teaching one day a week.

This is the second year of my menopausal problems. They started early for me at forty-seven. I had a bad spell the other day when I was sup­posed to go with you and my husband out to his home in the country.

(How do you feel when you have a spell?)

I get into a condition that I just can’t express. My shoulders get very stiff, my head hurts, and when I stand, I get dizzy and a bit nauseous. I can’t eat, and it does no good to sit or stand. It lasts for a half a day or more and then it just gets better.

(Can you tell when the spells are going to come? Do they have a pat­tern?) 172

I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think that they happen when people are coming to visit. My sister-in-law was supposed to come see me sev­eral times recently. The first time I got menopausal problems very badly and had to tell her not to come. When she was to come again, I thought that if I told myself that it was psychological I could overcome my symptoms. But the same thing happened. The symptoms were so bad that I had to cancel the visit. It happened again when two friends were coming to visit and when I was planning to go to a class reunion. Menopausal problems use one’s feelings. I feel that I can handle the physical symptoms, but the emotional part—that’s frightening, because you’re not in control.

My family urges me to go to the doctor, but I tell them that I can fig­ure it out for myself. I understand that the symptoms are menopausal and nobody can cure them anyway. They’re natural and will run their course. I just lie here at the kotatsu (low warming table). At least I can push the button on the rice cooker for my family’s dinner.

During another visit Mrs. Sato said:

I had another really bad spell three weeks ago. I asked the doctor if he didn’t think it was menopause, and he said “Well, we’ll leave it at that.” I think it must be menopause.

Some people tell me that I worry too much about my sons and that’s why I get all these menopausal symptoms. My older son has taken a job in Tokyo, but, of course, we hope that he will marry a local girl and come back. I have to be looking for a girl for him to marry soon—before he finds one down there who wouldn’t want to live up here. My other son is still in university. I do flower arranging, and we had a trip planned for a night at a hot springs. I think I won’t go because my son is taking his exams then. I can’t do much for him, but I can at least be here when he comes home.

Sometimes I wish that I had some special accomplishment in life. Maybe that’s why I have these menopausal symptoms. My friend who is a professor doesn’t have any. On the TV the other day, there was a report on the accomplishments of some students who got the same scholarship that I got when in junior college. I wished that I had accomplished something like that. Now I have these menopausal problems, and I suppose I never will accomplish anything. I’ll get bet­ter, but never quite the same. 173

A year later:

I thought I was an old woman (obaasan), but my period came again the other week. Just when I was down in Tokyo visiting my eldest son, I had one of my attacks in a hotel. I wonder when this will end.

Mrs. Sato’s symptoms may be real enough, and they may indeed be associated with the hormonal changes at menopause, but these questions are not the subject of this study. Of interest here is that Mrs. Sato uses her menopausal symptoms as a rationale for staying close to home and not accomplishing anything more of an individual nature. She takes the responsibilities of her household (such as being there for her son’s exams and getting a wife for her elder son) quite seriously. As long as she is able to fulfill those responsibilities, the most basic of which is pressing the button on the rice cooker, she feels that she is maintaining her position as a productive member in the household and, in turn, is helping to main­tain the household as an active entity. Although her husband says she is “no longer a woman” since the onset of menopause, she is intent on keeping her position as mother and household co-head as a means of maintaining her womanhood as defined by her domestic and productive labor within the household. Although she says that her husband does not plan to live with their elder son, she hopes that the elder son and his future family will be quite near. Mrs. Sato feels some guilt that she is not “accomplishing” things, but maintenance of her role in the household is most important. In sum, menopausal symptoms mediate between Mrs. Sato’s desire to maintain her importance as wife and mother in the household and her realization that she is not using her time for individ­ual accomplishments as some women are.

Another provincial city informant who has never worked outside the home feels that she has had menopausal symptoms off and on for ten years.

I never know when these menopausal symptoms will strike, so I can’t really plan anything. I have a license for teaching flower arranging, but I never know if I will be well enough to teach. I never can plan to do anything with my friends either.

I take hormone shots from the doctor when it gets really bad, because I feel that they help me to keep up my body strength so that other things don’t go wrong. I have to be able at least to cook for my hus­band and son, who is in university. 174

This woman’s condition slowly improved over several years. In the last conversation with her, she was quite elated for two reasons: her son had gotten a job locally rather than in Tokyo and her new house with “a kitchen big enough for me and my daughter-in-law” was ready to move into. She has decided she no longer needs hormone shots and is intent on solving any remaining problems through the use of East Asian medi­cine, which she considers to be less effective but more gentle.

For this informant, menopausal problems have filled the years when her family has dispersed (she has two older daughters as well) and her responsibilities have been few. They allow her to maintain her close rela­tionship with her household not only through her fulfillment of minimal duties, but through her need of household members’ sympathy. Al­though she cannot be assured that, in contemporary Japan, her future daughter-in-law will want to live with her, it is through the possibility of having her household members under one roof that she forsees an end to her menopausal symptoms.

In the provincial city, then, there is a use of menopausal symptoms to mediate or rationalize the conflict that many women feel between the importance of maintaining their position in the household and their lack of productivity in that position. This is not to say that all women in the provincial city suffer inordinately from menopausal symptoms, but vague middle-aged symptoms are attributed to menopause. It is through the association of menopausal symptoms, womanhood, and the woman’s role in the household that menopausal symptoms can be said to shore up the household and the middle-aged woman’s role in it, both of which have declined in economic importance. In addition, women use meno­pausal symptoms as a way of mediating, though not really solving, their conflict in giving up individual accomplishments to maintain their cen­tral household role. Indeed, for themselves, their womanhood is less threatened by remaining part of the household and by emphasizing the menopausal (thus, female) nature of their middle-aged symptoms.

A few female informants in the provincial city do not use their meno­pausal symptoms in this way or, in fact, acknowledge menopausal symp­toms. One informant, for example, who had come to the provincial city from Tokyo about ten years before, feels that she has overcome her menopausal aches by throwing herself into various hobbies. Another highly educated informant feels that she has overcome the palpitations and nervousness she attributes to the menopause by getting back into her personal research and finally into a job. Another woman, because she 175is divorced from an alcoholic husband and her job in insurance sales depends on a high level of productivity, has overcome her menopausal symptoms through hormone shots, which she feels to be quick and effec­tive. It is apparent that the three informants discussed here have special attributes: one is an immigrant from Tokyo, another is highly educated, and another is divorced. These informants fit more closely with the ideas and actions about menopause described in the next section.

Refusing the Menopausal Label

In Tokyo, women are in households that, like those in the provincial city, are not economically important for subsistence but function only to ser­vice family and personal needs. In contrast to the provincial informants, among the majority of the Tokyo informants, the household as an ideo­logical unit, in which ritual toward ancestors is practiced and in which the co-residence or proximity of parents and elder son’s family is stressed, is not of vital importance. Care of the grandparental generation is still a concern, but is done on a more individual, emotional basis: The daugh­ter may care for her own parents, although she is officially in her hus­band’s household, or the son’s mother may be taken in when in special need of care. People consider themselves as members of a nuclear family first; their official membership of a household is of less importance.

The middle-aged women interviewed in Tokyo have for the most part completed high school and are married to men who work as salaried workers or professionals. Their orientation could be characterized as more individualistic in relation to their households than the provincial women interviewed. The Tokyo women phrase their problems in middle age not in terms of the decline of the household, but in terms of the dif­ficulty of extracting themselves from family responsibilities or of getting satisfying jobs or activities. Their continuing productive role in the household is not as important to them as is their “role in society.” In middle age these women are attracted by a “life of their own,” apart from husbands and children. They want to work, have hobbies outside the home, and talk or engage in activities with friends. As a Tokyo woman in her mid-forties said: “Women can’t be one-body-one-mind with their husbands anymore. They have to find their ‘own world’ (jibun no sekai). That’s the only way to avoid sinking into the problems of mid­dle age.”

Tokyo offers a wider variety of hobbies and jobs than is available in the 176northeastern provincial city discussed above. There are many community centers where women can learn hobbies such as traditional folk dancing, flower arranging, and ink painting, or more “modern” arts such as jazz dance, oil painting, and paper flower making. In the ink-painting class in which I participated, some women were serious about learning the art, entering their paintings in competitions and even becoming teachers. Other women were there to have a good time with their friends. In both cases, these women in their forties and fifties were attempting to get out of the household and identify themselves as women participating in a nondomestic societal group. Although some were more productive than others, all were participating members of a productive group, something that is evaluated highly in Japanese society. From their own points of view, the women were happy with their involvement in hobbies, giving reasons such as “I can get out of the house and meet with friends,” “This gives me enjoyment in my life,” and “I am accomplishing something as an individual.” They stressed individual enjoyment and accomplishment rather than the productivity of the group. Accordingly, their household roles were maintained to the extent necessary, but not overemphasized.

Japanese women of middle-income families (such as those I inter­viewed) are increasingly taking employment,6 and their jobs are becom­ing part of the basis for their identity. Middle-aged women who have jobs often speak of them as their ikigai (meaning in life), especially if those jobs are not absolutely essential for survival but are for their per­sonal satisfaction, to fulfill their need to feel productive and be part of a group outside of the household. Women of middle-income families, in particular, and slightly over half of all women workers are part-time workers.7 Such hourly, temporary employment is not highly profitable, and part of the money earned usually helps to pay for children’s educa­tion fees or house loans.8 However, part of the money earned is pocket money for the woman to buy makeup and clothes or to enjoy a coffee with friends. As one Tokyo woman of forty-five said with a pleased gig­gle: “My neighbors say they hardly recognize me now as I go off down the street to work—with nice clothes on and my face made up. They say I look ten years younger!”

For the Tokyo informants, jobs and hobbies give alternatives to the productivity—and sexuality—defined by their household roles. Al­though their productivity is not high as a group of workers and acts to support the mainly male, full-time work force, working informants say that they feel they are contributing to society. More than productivity, 177women emphasize the rewards for themselves as individuals. These rewards are not measured as much in monetary terms as in terms of a feeling of enjoyment and independence or self-confidence. Informants also feel that their jobs, and to some extent their hobbies, give them the opportunity to make themselves appealing as women again. They remain faithful to their husbands and their household chores, but being out in society allows them to feel the eyes of others evaluating them as women who are still appealing to look at and who are “useful to society.” In short, they feel they are beating the image of the dull, middle-aged housewife sitting at home suffering from menopausal symptoms.

The Tokyo informants do not feel that their continued role in the household is necessary to maintain their worth as women, nor do they invest highly in the continuation of the household as an ideological entity. As in the provincial city, the menopausal label is associated with those women whose lives center mainly on the household; three-quarters of the respondents agreed that “menopausal problems will be light for those who work outside of the home.”9 Thus, Tokyo women avoid the menopausal label in order to separate themselves from their household roles and the image of the weakening, aging woman with little produc­tivity or sexuality. They attain a sense of productivity by being part of an extradomestic, productive group and by feeling individual self-confi­dence. They enhance their sexuality in their own eyes through wearing makeup and fashionable clothes, engaging in independent actions out­side the household such as going to coffee houses or night spots with friends, and enjoying repartee with men—actions that provincial city women would avoid. Fashionable urban magazines urge women to enjoy their sexuality with husbands or lovers: “The menopausal years are the peak of the woman’s sex urge” (Okifuji 1982). Tokyo women argue that the presence or absence of menstruation and reproductive capability has nothing to do with sexual attractiveness (despite instances of husbands who mourn the end of menstruation as the fading of the sexual appeal of their wives). By partially detaching themselves from their responsibilities in the household, by engaging in activities “in society,” and by avoiding the menopausal label, these modaan (modern) middle-aged women emphasize both their usefulness as people and their womanhood, inde­pendent of their household roles.

When Tokyo informants have physical or psychological complaints, they try to deemphasize menopause as the cause of their problems because of the image of nonproductivity and loss of sexuality that the 178label “menopausal problems” (kōnenki shōgai) carries (Rosenberger 1984a, chap. 11). Only one-third of Tokyo informants agreed with a statement that “It is natural that in the menopausal years women suffer physical symptoms.” They preferred to label their physical problems as “aging phenomena.” However, three-quarters agreed that “It is natural that in the menopausal period women suffer irritability and psychologi­cal instability.” Thus, these women emphasize the emotional nature of their problems during middle age. They hesitate to call them “meno­pausal problems,” and prefer instead to label them as “neuroses” or “syndromes.”

Mrs. Tsuda, a fifty-year-old woman I interviewed at a Tokyo checkup clinic, was in the midst of the dilemma of how to extract herself from her responsibilities to her family and get back to her job. She is a profes­sional woman who has already rejected “menopausal” as a label for her difficulties. But her words show her indecision about how to account for and solve her problems outside of that label.

I’ve never really had menopausal problems. My period has been fin­ished for about one year now. I didn’t worry much about it when it was irregular; I thought it was to be expected so I didn’t go to the doc­tor. After that, I had some psychological problems, not because of menopause, but because of my age. My ability to be patient went down and I’ve gotten selfish. I got sick of housework; I call it a “housewife syndrome.”

(What do you think caused your psychological problems?)

Ever since university I’ve been in radio announcing. I quit for awhile because I kept having miscarriages and the doctor said there was too much stress. You have to work odd hours. But now that the children are older—they’re sixteen and twenty-five—I want to be freer to do my work as I please. But my son, the 25-year-old, still lives with us even though he has a job. When he got a job, I strongly suggested to him that he move out, but he’s still there. It’s convenient for him because he likes to spend his money on concerts. Of course, I still have to do his laundry and make his meals. I get so irritated.

This Tokyo woman prefers to label her “psychological problems” as “housewife syndrome” rather than as “menopausal problems.” She brushes off talk of menopause with a short account of menses irregularity 179and cessation “just as was to be expected.” At the beginning of the inter­view Mrs. Tsuda did not want to blame her problems on her family members. Her first reaction was to blame the problem on her own psychological inadequacies and label them as a syndrome or neurosis. Later in the conversation, Mrs. Tsuda admitted to what she thinks is the one real cause of her “psychological problems”: her son’s not moving out even though he has a job. Her husband does not urge the son to move out. She thinks that her household responsibilities are taking time from her career just when she should be getting free of her housewifely chores.

Mrs. Tsuda is unwilling to disguise her problems as menopausal prob­lems, but she is hesitant to do anything about the causes of her dissatis­faction, although she has formed a group of working women friends that get together to talk about their problems. She has not yet gone to a psy­chiatrist or counselor for help, but feels relieved to talk to a doctor (an internist at the hospital where we met), who agrees that her problem is a type of neurosis.

Japanese women like Mrs. Tsuda are differentiating their domestic problems from their “menopausal problems.” By explaining their prob­lems as neuroses or syndromes, they accept a large degree of personal responsibility and try to solve their problems through their own actions without demanding change from family members.

A popular book published in 1982 outlines the woman’s adult life in terms of a series of syndromes. The author, a woman, writes, “It’s easy to overlook the ‘empty-nest syndrome’ or the ‘husband-hating syndrome’ because such syndromes occur at the same time of life as menopausal problems” (Fukuda 1982, 142). She urges her readers to take action that will change their domestic situations. “Rebel against your husband. Don’t help. Play hookey from your housework. Sleep late on Sundays” (Fukuda 1982, 143). The content of her advice addresses one of the main problems of those middle-aged Japanese women with an orientation toward their own individual accomplishments. And yet by her consistent use of the suffix for syndrome (shō), the author poses women’s problems as though they are medical problems.

The Tokyo woman of fifty quoted below described her unique set of problems. In interview, she refused to write her problems off as meno­pausal symptoms, but at the same time she voiced her confusion as to how to handle them: Should she deal with them as part of a neurosis or use them as motivation for divorce? 180

I’ve just turned fifty. These turning points are so difficult. At forty I was tired of taking care of a small child while I worked. But now things are worse. My period is irregular and I’ve got more worries.

(What kind of worries?)

My joints ache and my period keeps stopping. That’s menopausal problems, I know. I did Chinese exercises and got my period going again. But then it stopped again because of a shocking event in my life. After that I couldn’t sleep for forty days. I wanted to get out and wander around, it was so bad. I really felt like I wanted to die. I don’t think that’s menopausal distress. I think it has to do with my psycho­logical worries. It’s a kind of neurosis.

(Do you still work?)

No. I continued until about three years ago, but it was too hard to commute. You see, about six years ago, my husband built a house a couple of hours out of Tokyo. He built it with our money without even asking me. He insisted we all move out there, even though I prefer the city where I was raised.

(Cant you go back to work?)

Well, to tell you the truth, when my son was in ninth grade—three years ago—he got into some trouble. I had always been the kind to let him do as he likes, so his father blamed it on me. He wants me to stay home now for our son. But our son is already separated from us even though he lives with us. If only I could work, it would be all right. But my husband gives me no understanding. I wonder if I’m going crazy when I can’t sleep and forget to turn off the gas. Then I feel anxious about my health because I’m not having my period.

(And then you have to worry whether you’re pregnant or not, I suppose.)

On, no, there’s no worry about that. We’ve had no sexual relations for six years, ever since I found out about the house. I can’t trust him any­more.

Mrs. Sakai illustrates the confusion of an educated, work-oriented, middle-aged woman in the early 1980s. Her resistance to labeling all her symptoms as “menopausal problems” is directly related to her sharp dis­agreement 181 with her husband’s ideas that the household should be her central concern and that she should be responsible for her son (who will carry on the household).

She realizes that some of her symptoms are the result of her dissatisfac­tion with her life. Although she calls her psychological symptoms a neu­rosis, she really believes that her mental state is caused by her husband’s actions and attitude. She tries to distract herself by meeting with her friends, hiking in the mountains, and doing calligraphy, but she wants to work and thus have the possibility of economic independence, however unstable. Unable to separate from her husband, she refuses to have a sex­ual relationship as a sign of her dissatisfaction.

An increasing number of women in the menopausal years are getting divorced.10 The reason is not only that husbands think women in the menopausal years are aging and losing their sexual attractiveness. Women want to “try their wings” (tonde iru onna) without husbands looking on. A sign of women’s increasing bid for change in the house­hold is men’s increasing discomfort with the household. Newspapers, books, and magazines are focusing on men’s uncertainty with their lives. Japanese women themselves sometimes comment that men are even more pitiful than women.11 As one woman put it: “We have it bad. But men have it worse. We at least have time to think about having a fulfilled life. Men just have to go to work everyday and do what they’re told. They’re not allowed to stop because then the money stops. They’re the ones that are getting ‘menopausal problems’ now, not the women!”


The decline of the economic and ideological importance of the Japanese household interweaves with the ways menopausal problems are used by middle-aged Japanese women. The reason for this intertwining is that the place of Japanese women in the household as wife, mother, subsis­tence laborer, and domestic nurturer has been and to some extent is an important part of the definition of the female gender. Middle-aged women use ideas and actions about menopausal problems to control their image in relation to the household.

In the farming-fishing community, where the household is still eco­nomically important, women use menopausal problems to emphasize their devotion as mother and worker to the household regardless of 182whether they are disowning or claiming menopausal problems for them­selves. In the provincial city, where the household is still ideologically but no longer economically important, many women use menopausal prob­lems as a way of mediating their conflict between wanting to maintain the integrity of the household and their roles in it and wanting to find some individual expression outside of it. In Tokyo many educated women use a denial of menopause to emphasize their independence from the household. They see themselves as “people in society” and pro­mote their definition of women through their sexual attractiveness, self-fulfillment, and independence.

The progression of this chapter shows that Japanese women are break­ing away from the traditional ideology of the household and women’s identity with the household in middle age. This is not to say that women’s reproductive and domestic labor has become irrelevant in Japan; indeed, within the context of the gender relations upon which economic production depends in Japan, women’s labor within the home is essential, especially because of the long hours worked by Japanese sala­ried men and the emphasis on achievement through tests for children. The “free time” (hima) that middle-aged women experience between their late thirties (when their children are in school) and their mid-fifties (when their husbands retire) is only relative and comes at a time when women are discriminated against for jobs of higher skill and higher pay.12 The break from traditional household ideology is not manifested in an increase of women’s status and productivity in the extradomestic world, although it is manifested in an increase in the number of women working.

What is significant in women’s shift away from identity with the household and toward a stronger identity with society outside the house­hold is that women of middle age are striving to express and enjoy their individuality. The middle-class women interviewed in Tokyo are not so concerned with proving their maturity through complete devotion to an extradomestic productive group as they are with indulging their individ­ual tastes. Women fulfill the minimum necessary tasks at home and they usually follow the appropriate channels of work or hobbies outside the household, but extradomestic tasks are done with a relish, for enjoy­ment, and often for the purpose of having a sense of individual “worth in life.”

I would suggest that middle-aged women who are breaking away from the traditional ideology of the household constitute a group that is in the 183forefront of a new definition of the individual in Japan. They are flirting with individualism and democracy as it was defined by the Japanese after World War II: “do-as-you-like-ism.” Young people also fit this descrip­tion, but the case of middle-aged women is more startling because they are supposed to be “mature” and in control of their individual spirits that lead them to indulgence. Although middle-aged women are not openly advocating their own ideas about more personal freedom, their actions and attitudes are a subtle challenge to the notion of adult matu­rity as controlled self-discipline. They are asking if the definition of maturity must be confined to the devotion of self to the tasks of the group, if the definition of maturity can include the expression of indi­vidual will with friends and in the informal practice of individual inter­ests.

Middle-aged women are the main group of mature adults in Japan that have the free time to “indulge” themselves in such questions. Although middle-aged males often make fun of their wives as “always playing” (at hobbies or jobs), these wives are slowly giving new legiti­macy to the idea that work and hobbies can be enjoyed because they are pleasurable and because they give personal meaning. A woman in her late thirties looking for a job said, “Women can’t be like men, who will do any job for the money. For we women, a little money is important for a feeling of independence, but if we don’t find meaning in the job, we don’t do it.” These middle-aged women are not the nonconformists or emotional purists (Lebra 1976, 161) revered by Japanese for their self-restraint. They are mature adults, in control of their ki, and who are unabashedly interested in investing themselves in friendships and activi­ties that center around their enjoyment as individuals.

This ideology of enjoyment and accomplishment for self causes con­sternation among provincial city women. It is they who are defending and rationalizing their need to devote themselves to their traditional household roles while Tokyo women are feeling little or no need to defend their extradomestic actions. A provincial city woman in her mid-thirties showed the increasing difficulty of her traditional role as a daughter-in-law in her husband’s household.

My parents-in-law expect me to do everything for them without as much as a thank-you. I even had to say I was coming to confer about my daughter’s English lessons to come here and talk this afternoon. I get so jealous of my friends who are now getting free of household 184duties and starting to take jobs or do hobbies. Sometimes I think I should get divorced.

This woman’s thoughts of divorce were quickly squelched by her older neighbor, at whose house we were talking, but the younger woman’s words are an indication of the changing attitude among the next genera­tion of middle-aged provincial city women. They will not cling to the household and its responsibilities as the nexus of their womanhood and activity, as their elders have. Thus, the variation among middle-aged women found in Japan of the early 1980s reflected in this study will decrease in the future as more women refuse the menopausal label asso­ciated with a traditional household orientation.

Women such as Mrs. Sakai, the Tokyo woman quoted in the previous section, are beginning to view, and be encouraged to understand, their problems of interrelationships within the household in a more straight­forward manner, rather than disguising them as medical problems such as menopausal symptoms or neuroses. Middle-aged women in the larger cities are increasingly unwilling to constrain their lives to the social struc­ture of the household because it has little meaning for them as an ideo­logical entity. Lebra (1984, 295) argues that Japanese women live their lives according to the constraints of the social structure, and indeed mid­dle-aged women in the fishing-farming village and the provincial city still live according to the constraints of the household and sometimes try to preserve these constraints even when they are falling away. However, the tendency in the larger cities is toward an increasing unwillingness for women past the childbearing years (over thirty-five) to constrain them­selves to the needs of the household and its members. Even in the pro­vincial city the idea of achieving individual fulfillment and enjoyment in the midst of mature female adulthood is rarely any longer labeled “self­ish” (wagamama). As a provincial woman in her early forties said, “Chil­dren are not a life theme. I want to find a theme for myself, for my own life.”

Japanese adult men, too, will be influenced by the changing ideas about adult maturity. Even now, men are said to have “menopausal problems” if they suffer from physical or psychological symptoms that are thought to stem from too much stress from the work situation. They are urged by doctors, wives, and journalists to relax with their friends and their hobbies (Jidai 1981). Individual enjoyment is being urged upon mature middle-aged men at the “peak of their working life” (hatarakizakari). The conflict between status and individual enjoyment 185is greater for middle-aged Japanese men than Japanese women, although the conflict may decrease as postwar babies reach middle age.13

In part these ideas of a decrease in middle-aged status and an increase in individual enjoyment for men as well as the increased employment for middle-aged women (defined as individual enjoyment) are necessary ideological corollaries to the needs of the Japanese economy. Large com­panies are overflowing with high-status middle managers (Nihon Keizai Shimbunsha 1984) and promotion is difficult; the majority of middle-aged men will not find high status through their jobs, and individual enjoyment is an alternative to the failing Japanese promise. A large group of part-time laborers who can be laid off is now necessary to the Japanese economy, and middle-aged women, who find flexibility in hours and ease in quitting to their liking, are a favored group of workers for opportunistic hiring and firing.

Conflict will come, both at home and at work, if large numbers of women begin to demand full-time, secure employment with promo­tions. My prediction is that this will not happen soon because of the con­tinuing high value put on male status, motherhood, and the education of the children. Women of middle age and most younger women are not seriously challenging the differences in gender status between men and women; they are only claiming their rights to use their free time as inde­pendent individuals.


1. Records show that in the 1800s and early 1900s, the girl’s first menstruation was celebrated by distributing red rice to neighbors and friends, as well as by eat­ing red rice at a family party. The red of the rice corresponded to the sun. Such celebrations were reported by middle-aged informants raised in the country. In the early 1980s a television advertisement for tampons in Japan showed a high school student buying her tampons and then bowing to the sun on the old-style Japanese flag.

2. In 1981 the average age at marriage for men and women was 25.3 years of age. The majority of women are now marrying between 20 and 24 years of age. Because the average age for having a first child is between 24 and 25 now and was between 22 and 23 for the middle-aged generation, mothers are usually in their late forties before their daughters bear children. The majority of men marry between 25 and 29, so that the children of the first male son (the “inner” grand­children, who by law belong to the same household as the grandparents) are usually not born until the grandmother is into her fifties.
    The birth rate has decreased from 36 births per 1,000 population in 1920, to 26 in 1939, to 17–18 in 1955; it steadied at 18 births per 1,000 population in the 1861970s (Suzuki and Ishikawa 1974, 9). In 1978 the birth rate was 14.9 births per 1,000 people and in 1982 it was the lowest in history, 12.9 per 1,000 (Asahi Shimbun, Jan.1, 1983).

3. Average age of menstrual cessation (Hirano, Tsukada, Honda 1979, 14):

Year Age
1964 48.4
1971 49.8
1979 52.0

4. The percentage of people over sixty-five living in three-generation house­holds has decreased from 54.4 percent in 1975 to 50.1 percent in 1980, to 48.9 percent in 1982 (Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 3, 1983). Some women who do not live with their sons or daughters but live nearby care for the grandchildren if the daughter or daughter-in-law has a job.

5. In the questionnaire survey conducted in the provincial city, respondents were asked to list any physical and emotional symptoms that they associated with the menopause. A list of symptoms was not given. All respondents were between the ages of thirty and sixty. Three-quarters of the 189 respondents were attenders of a community-sponsored exercise class. The remaining quarter were women whom the researcher met through an introduction from doctors and from key female informants.

6. Middle-income families are defined by their husband’s income: between 3.88 million yen ($15,520) and 5.01 million yen ($20,040). From 1981 to 1983 employment of wives of middle income families rose from 37.9 percent to 45.1 percent. The rise was “attributed … to an increase in the number of women working part time” (Japan Times, Oct. 16, 1983).

7. Slightly over half of all women workers are part-time workers. Part-time workers sometimes work forty hours a week, but they are not official members of the company and are paid hourly wages. They may be laid off at the will of the company; lay-offs were increasing in the early 1980s with the increased use of robot automation (Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 13, 1983), as well as the sluggish econ­omy. About one-third of women workers work at family businesses or farms.

8. About half of women workers say that they work to “make money to keep the household going (especially for housing loans and children’s education).” The second and third most frequent reasons for working are “because it’s the household’s business” and “because I have free time.” About 20 percent of women say they work for reasons such as “work is my meaning in life (ikigai)” or “I want to develop my self” (Nihon Rōmu Kenkyūkai 1984, 183–184).

9. The Tokyo questionnaire survey asked for a positive to negative response (1–4) on various ideas about menopause and menopausal symptoms. Although some questions were the same as in the provincial city questionnaire, the format was different. Respondents were one hundred women who were interviewed as they came into a yearly checkup clinic in a mid-sized Tokyo hospital. 187

10. There is a new peak in divorce statistics for people in their late forties and early fifties. Many of these divorces are being initiated by women. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 22.2 percent of the wives who got divorced in 1981 were over forty, and 30.9 percent of the husbands who got divorced in 1981 were over forty. In 1982 the divorce rate in Japan was 1.40 couples per 1,000 population. (It was 5.3 for the U.S. in 1982.) Of the couples divorced, the percentage that had been together for at least ten years before divorce was 35 percent in 1981, and 38.6 percent in 1982 (Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 1, 1983). Women who get divorced in Japan rarely get remarried.

11. In a recent survey of men’s and women’s feelings about the nuclear family, men showed greater dissatisfaction than women. More than wives, husbands felt their feelings did not fit with the rest of the family, that they did not have a place to be when at home, and that they could not rest at home.

12. Many jobs, even for supermarket chain checkout girls (such as in Kinoku­niya), are given only to women under thirty-five, and even then good looks is part of the hiring policy. Young women are also discriminated against for promo­tion and encouraged to quit by their late twenties, although 60 percent of large companies now have the policy that women can be employed and promoted as lifetime employees. Women who are teachers can reenter the system only as part-time teachers (who are rare) once they have quit. Nurses can get jobs after raising children, but only at the smaller, less well paying hospitals.

13. A book put out by the Japan Economic Newspaper called Nihon no midoru (Japan’s middle management) reports that middle managers in their thirties prefer to spend their after-hours with colleagues of the same age. They are less bent on achieving status, especially through involvement with the verti­cal hierarchy of the company at a time when they feel they deserve their individ­ual enjoyment.


Bachnik, J. 1983. Recruitment and strategies for household succession. Man 18:160–182.

Bart, Pauline. 1969. Why women’s status changes in middle age. Sociological Symposium 3:1–18.

Beyene, Y. 1984. Cultural significance and physiological manifestation of meno­pause. MS.

Brown, J. 1982. Cross-cultural perspectives on middle-aged women. Current Anthropology 23:143–148.

Brown, K. 1966. Dōzoku and the ideology of descent in rural Japan. American Anthropologist 68:1129–1151.

Caudill, W. 1962. Patterns of emotion in modern Japan. In Japanese culture, ed. R. J. Smith and R. K. Beardsley. Chicago: Aldine.

Davis, D. L. 1982. Blood and nerves. Social and Economic Studies No. 28. 188Memorial University of Newfoundland Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Flint, M. 1979. Transcultural influences in peri-menopause. In Psychosomatics in peri-menopause, ed. I. Haspels, A. H. Musaph, and H. Heymann. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Fukuda, K. 1982. Ryōsai Kenbo o osou “Shufushōkōgun” no fukimi na ryūkō (The strange popularity of the “Housewife Syndrome” which attacks the Good Wife and Wise Mother). Shūkan Asahi 310:141–143.

Hirano, M., I. Tsukada, and H. Honda. 1979. Sanfujinka shikkan no kisō chishiki (Basic knowledge of gynecological complaints). Tokyo: Medical Research Center.

Jidai. 1981. Natsu ni zokuhatsu suru otoko no “kōnenki shōgai” okuriya suru (Getting rid of men’s menopausal problems that originate in summer). 9:87–91.

Kawashima, K. 1978. Josei no karadahaha to musume no tame ni (Women’s bodies—for mothers and daughters). Tokyo: Shinko Koeki Isho Shup­pankyoku.

Kitaoji, H. 1971. Structure of the Japanese family. American Anthropologist 73:1036–1057.

Lebra, T. 1976. Japanese patterns of behavior. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

——. 1984. Japanese women. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Lock, M. 1986 Ambiguities of aging. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 10:23–46.

Madoka, Y. 1982. Shufushōkōgun (The housewife syndrome). Tokyo: Bunda Shuppankyoku.

Moaz, B., et al. 1970. Female attitudes to menopause. Social Psychiatry 1:35–40.

Nakane, C. 1970. Japanese society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of Califor­nia Press.

Nihon Keizai Shimbunsha. 1984. Nihon no midoru (Japan’s middle manage­ment). Tokyo.

Nihon Rōmu Kenkyūkai. 1984. Rōmu nenkan (Labor yearbook). Tokyo.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. 1984. Illness and culture in contemporary Japan. Cam­bridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Okifuji, N. 1982. Onna wa rōgō hitori de kurasō (Women, let’s live our old age alone). Fujin Koron 1:192–199.

Rosenberger, N. R. 1984a. Middle-aged Japanese women and the meaning of the menopausal transition. Ph.D. diss. University of Michigan.

——. 1984b. The uncontrolled ki. Paper presented at the annual Association for Asian Studies meeting, Mar. 23–25, Washington, D.C.

Suzuki, M., and H. Ishikawa. 1974. Kōnenki shōgai (Climacteric disturbance). Tokyo: Igaku Shoin.

Smith, R. J. 1983. Japanese Society. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.