In this article, I explore what motivates Japanese women to pursue professional careers in today’s neoliberal economy and how they reconfigure notions of selfhood while doing so. I ask why and how one fourth of Japanese women stay on a career track, often against considerable odds, while the other three fourths drop out of the workforce. Employment trends indicate that more white-collar professional women are breaking through the “glass ceiling” and more women are now filling managerial posts. These trends have been supported by the recession, which has led to the liberalization of career paths that fit with women’s tendencies to engage in short-term and part-time work. Through snowball sampling, I carried out in-depth interviews with thirty-eight women in their forties for eighteen months (between 2007 and 2010), and I conducted follow-up interviews with a selected group of these women (between 2014 and 2018). The women in this group had been in their careers long enough to be able to look back on their professional and private experiences. As I show in this article, the forties appear to be a turning point, because this age represents their first opportunity to take the time to reflect on their careers and to redress the imbalance between their professional and private lives.


Japan, Career Women, Gender Inequality, Work–Life Balance, Life-Course Trajectories, Ethnography, Fieldwork, Participant Observation

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Anne Stefanie Aronsson obtained her doctor's degree in socio-cultural anthropology from Yale University, United States. She has authored several publications, including “Social Robots in Elderly Care: The Turn Toward Machines in Contemporary Japan,” in the special issue “Relations, Entanglements, and Enmeshments of Humans and Things: A Materiality Perspective” of the Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology, her monograph Career Women in Contemporary Japan: Pursuing Identities, Fashioning Lives. New York: Routledge Contemporary Japan Series, and “Genji and Faust: A Comparative Reading,” in The Comparatist: Journal of the SCLA (Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts), 39:252–274. Dr. Aronsson is a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich. Her current research focuses on elderly care in Japan and the use of robotic care devices, with a focus on social robots and emerging emotional technologies. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: annestefanie.aronsson@uzh.ch.


My research on Japanese career women would not have been possible without the constant support provided by family, professors, friends, colleagues, and sponsors as well as the generosity and patience of my Japanese informants. I am especially indebted to my advisor Professor William Wright Kelly and I want to thank him for the tireless guidance and constant encouragement he has provided me throughout the entire graduate school process. Professor Kelly’s commitment to and knowledge of anthropology have greatly influenced my intellectual development. In him I have found encouragement, enthusiasm, and creativity, and I greatly appreciate the trust he has placed in me as a scholar. I would also like to thank Helen Siu for their constant support, valuable comments, and their mentorship throughout graduate school. Furthermore, I am grateful to Glenda Roberts for her support while I was away from home conducting fieldwork in Japan and being affiliated to Waseda University. My deepest sense of gratitude goes to my family, especially my parents. You were always there for me, and I greatly appreciate your constant encouragement. Most importantly, I wish to thank my supportive husband, whose unwavering support I could always count on.

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