How to be a good housewife in Japan

How to be a good housewife in Japan

If you can cook well, you will have a successful married life; that's the lesson one Japanese housewife is keen to impart at her private cooking school in Tokyo
Miyoko Isamura
Isomura snaps a photo of the seven dishes prepared by her Chinese cooking class.

Gordon Ramsay, she is not. Cooking instructor Miyoko Isamura is a sweet Tokyo grandmother, always smiling and encouraging her students to gambatte (“try your best”).

Her Joy Cook and Culture Studio is an adjunct to her home, decorated with family photos. And her students are not budding Top Chefs, but shufu: Japanese housewives in their late 20s to late 30s. 

There’s a class for young brides, and another for impressing dinner party guests. When we arrive for the Chinese home cooking lesson, Isomura has the ingredients primly sorted in trays for her five students.

We learn how to pinch shumai and make fresh mango pudding, both of which are healthier and tastier than the dim sum versions.

The egg rolls have a Japanese twist: one type contains harusame (spring noodles), soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms; the other has prawn, shiso and cheese.

After completing seven dishes, the women sit down together to share the feast. Isomura’s timid granddaughter and burly cat Tomo poke their heads in to say hi.

Everyone helps with the cleanup and goes home with leftovers, copies of the recipes and big smiles.

Isomura DishesCooking instructor Isomura lays out ingredients for her students, who cook them into a traditional Japanese feast.

Housewife culture

Her lessons hint at Japan’s cultural expectations for housewives, particularly the importance of cooking for the family. Author Wendy Tokunaga interviewed stay-at-home women for her upcoming book, “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband.”

She learns that among shufu, cooking skills are a measure of status and means of attaining self-esteem.

“What would neighbors and acquaintances say if a housewife’s skills were slipshod?” asks Tokunaga. “So making the best bento for her child or having dinner ready nightly for her husband is key.”

Forget about asking your spouse or kids to pitch in. According to Tokunaga, Japanese wives still assume the sole responsibility for household duties, including cooking. “Women usually learn these skills from an early age from their own mothers, but an ojou-san (elite young lady) might take more formal cooking lessons in preparation for marriage.”

As for becoming a housewife -- for many Japanese, there isn’t much choice in the matter.

Tokunaga explains, “Women are expected to quit their jobs when they marry and, if not then, certainly when they become pregnant. In general, men work outside the home and women work inside.”

The gaijin housewife

“Shufuinjapan” is a 30-year-old New Zealander who married a Japanese man and blogs about her experiences as a gaijin housewife in Japan.

She agrees “there is a constant stream of pressure from all angles for women to become mothers, which by default means being housewives, unless they are lucky enough to have access to childcare and an understanding employer.”

In her view, Japanese companies are not sympathetic to women who wish to balance work and home life.

Moreover, the PTA (Parent Teach Association) forces mothers into volunteer positions that take up as many hours as a full-time job. All this “leaves them no choice but to quit their jobs and focus on becoming the Super Shufu,” she says.

“Shufuinjapan” is an anomaly: she works part-time and refuses to spend more than 30 minutes behind the stove.

She believes housewife expectations are slowly changing because of the recession. “For one thing, many families can no longer survive on just the salary of the husband.”

As CNN reported, today’s shufu are pinching pennies and some have gone back to work.

“Unfortunately in Japan, most of the jobs that await a woman returning to the workforce are badly paid or menial,” laments Shufuinjapan.

Some housewives have broken the chains and have built empires. Harumi Kurihara is a cookbook and TV superstar, but insists she never stopped being a housewife.

Miyoko Isamura, joyfully running cooking classes from home while her husband works, is further proof that Japanese housewives can still attain the best of both worlds.

Address: Joy Cook and Culture Studio, 3-25-19 Meguro, Tokyo, Tel: +03 3712 7750, Website: Joy Cook and Culture Studio Nearest station: Gakugei-Daigaku on the Tokyo Toyoko line. Cost: ¥5,500 per class. Bring an apron, pen/paper, and a box to carry food home. Lessons are in Japanese, although Isamura knows some English.

Recipe: kinpira gobo rice

Fluffy burdock carrot riceFluffy burdock carrot rice, before and after a student rolls it into onigiri.

Here’s an easy recipe taught at Isamura’s cooking school for housewives. Popular with children, this dish is packed with vegetables and can be shaped into portable onigiri (rice balls).

  • Steam about 4 bowls of Japanese short grain rice in a rice cooker.
  • Wash and peel 2 gobo (burdock roots), 1 medium carrot and 4 shiitake mushrooms. Cut the vegetables into small, matchstick-sized pieces. Soak the gobo in water for a few minutes, then drain and dry with a paper towel.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil in a wok or saucepan over medium heat. Gently sautée the vegetables. Add 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 tablespoons soy sauce and 1/2 cup of water. Reduce to low heat and simmer gently until softened.
  • Add the mixture to the cooked rice. Stir and serve warm.
  • If desired, mold the rice into onigiri. Place 2 or 3 large spoonfuls in your hands and shape it into a triangle with rounded edges.