Gender division disadvantages Japanese children of single-parent families
Photo: np&djjewell. Creative Commons. 

Japanese children of single-parent families disadvantaged academically by strong gender division of parental roles

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | September 2017 

Children from single-parent households in Japan do worse academically, even when controlling for the parents’ own level of education.

A Japanese study showing lower academic performance of 11- to 12-year-olds in single-parent families, compared to two-parent families, recommends better enforcement of child support payments by nonresident parents. The study also recommends better employment opportunities for mothers after childbirth, to counteract the strong division of gender roles between mothers and fathers in Japan, a division that puts parents and their children at a disadvantage if they separate.

Children from single-parent households in Japan do worse academically, even when controlling for the parents’ own level of education. In single-mother households, just over half of the disadvantage was explained by fewer economic resources, far more than in the case of fathers. In single-father households, the father’s lack of involvement in parenting activities explained about one-third of the difference, far more than in the case of mothers. This demonstrates a sharp contrast in how single-parent status influences academic achievement, depending on the gender of the parent.

The number of single-parent families in Japan has increased (from 1.02 million in 1988 to 1.46 million in 2011), though at 12.3%of all families, the overall prevalence of single-parent families is low compared to other developed countries (e.g. 25.8% in the USA, 21.5% in the UK).

Research has long established that single parenthood is linked to children’s poorer performance in school. This study sheds new light on what might explain this link in the Japanese context—in particular, the highly unequal gender division of roles between mothers and fathers in that country. A high proportion of women in Japan quit their jobs after childbirth, and there is a strong belief in intensive motherhood. Meanwhile, men are strongly acculturated to working long hours.

The researcher, Professor Yuko Nonoyama-Tarumi of Musashi University, examined data on language and math performance collected in 2013 by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology. The data covered both children’s academic performance of children, and as a subset, a survey of parents. The study encompassed 14,383 children from 391 schools. The parents survey response rate was 85%.

The survey asked whether the child was living with just one parent, a close but not exact measure of single parenthood. Only 2.54% of the children living with one parent were living with their fathers. This reflects the fact that in Japan, nearly 80% of divorces result in full custody for the mother. The author acknowledges that the small percentage of single fathers in the sample results in large standard errors throughout the analyses.

To distinguish the situations of single mothers and single fathers in the context of a sharp division of labor, two measures of relative disadvantage were used: household income and parental involvement with the child (discussion of school, grades, the future, friends, news, troubles; monitoring of homework; encouraging study; limiting game time; participating in school events; and volunteering at school).

The average household income for two-parent families was 6.38 million yen. Single-mother households earned on average just 53% of that (even though single mothers typically worked), and single-father households 83%. Nonoyama-Tarumi notes that the single mothers’ income disadvantage was likely underestimated because the study’s measure of family structure didn’t distinguish between couples who had separated permanently and couples temporarily living apart because of job transfers.

Unlike single fathers, single mothers don’t communicate less with their children than in two-parent families; but, like fathers, they monitor their children less at home and participate less in school activities, presumably because of the restrictions of working hours.

Coresidence with grandparents did not buffer the negative association between single parenthood and children’s educational achievement.


Yuko Nonoyama-Tarumi (2017), Educational achievement of children from single-mother and single-father families: the case of Japan, Journal of Marriage and Family, 79.4

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