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Network Communication Brings Opportunity for Minority: Identity of Woman at Home

Akiko ORITA <ako@sfc.keio.ac.jp>
Shoko MIYAGAWA <miyagawa@sfc.wide.ad.jp>
Keio University

Makoto NIIMI <bignum@wide.ad.jp>
Matsushita Graphic Communication Systems, Inc.


In this paper, we discuss how network communication supports women, as a minority, to establish their identity in the cyberworld from the point of interpersonal communication. We interviewed and administered questionnaires to women in Japan, as one example of a minority, to examine how the characteristics of network communication abolish difficulties like prejudice and lost name.



Women in Japan as a minority group

Women in Japan still face strong prejudice: a woman is supposed to be at home as someone's wife or mother. The Japanese traditional social system has defined women as weak and inferior to men. This idea effects every situation in life. It's hard for female students to find a job because of the notion that women have less ability than men. Their job applications are often rejected when their sex is shown as female. Also the idea that women should quit their job when they get married or when they have a baby prevents women from obtaining responsible work (ref1).

Although the number of educated women has increased as much as men, women are often treated as subordinate to men and thus have less opportunity than men do. It's also still hard to be an independent person in real society. Especially, women as housekeepers are often supposed to be secondary to their spouse and they have little chance to express their own opinion in their own name. There are many more chances to use her spouse's name than her own name.

The traditional social system is too strong to escape from. Of course, the number of women in the population is the same as the number of men, and women are as important as men are. What makes women a minority is a kind of communication gap, such as prejudice, stereotype, and so on. That's the reason why we think of women in Japan as a minority.

Woman Internet users in Japan

Network communications such as e-mail or Netnews enable a woman at home to have her own identity and opportunity and to have her own opinion as an independent individual.

The number of woman Internet users has been increasing rapidly in recent years in Japan. FRI's online survey in 1998 shows that woman users have increased from 12.4% to 41.4% of new users over the past two years. As for women at home (housekeepers), the number of them has increased from 1.3% to 18.0%. Also 12.8% of housekeepers have personal Web pages (ref2).

The reasons why women start to use the Internet are as follows: (ref3)

  1. They are able to use their spouse's personal computer during the day.
  2. To start to work at home (SOHO [Small Office Home Office]).
  3. To be connected to society even at home.

Female Internet users tend to use e-mail more often than male users. 76.3% of woman users and 65.1% of male users use e-mail almost every day (ref4).

Difficulty in real life

Less opportunity

There are few chances to practice how to express one's opinion while in school in Japan. As this kind of skill is needed in the work field, such as in business negotiations, companies have classes for workers. The opportunity to have a job is deeply related to the chance to train how to express oneself (ref5). Woman workers are 40.7% of whole workers and 50.4% of women have their own job (ref6). But many women quit their jobs when they get married or pregnant, sometimes forced by the company to do so, thus companies don't tend to give responsible positions to women. It makes women subordinate even at the office.

Name lost

Most women change their surname when they get married. According to Japanese law, couples can choose either their husband's name or wife's name but 98% take the husband's name (ref1). Traditionally, Japanese marriage means the connection between family and family, not the individual relationship. The wife will be called "Yome," which stands for being absorbed into the husband's original family, not creating a new family.

Actually, there are some women who want to keep their maiden name even after marriage because they feel as if they will lose their identity by changing their name. But Japanese law does not allow for each spouse to keep his or her own name. They use their original name as their "called-name" only at the office, but only 35.7% of companies allow them to use their maiden name (ref6).

Many times even the new surname is omitted. Wives are usually called "Oku-san" (originally means housewife) and their first name will be just attached to their husband's full name. The representative of a family is always only the husband, not the wife, not the couple. The wife often writes things for her husband in her husband's name (ref7, ref8, ref9, ref10, ref11, ref12). The wife doesn't have her own ID card except for a passport or driver's license. On the other hand, students and company workers have their own ID cards as members of their organization. Thus, we can hardly find the wife's own name unless she uses her name in her work.


Women have been thought to be inferior to men and even women themselves have prejudice against a woman's ability and lifestyle. For example, female students evaluate an academic paper with a male's signature much better than the same paper with a female's signature. That's because of the idea that women have less ability than men do (ref12). This kind of prejudice often gives negative effects on motivation and accomplishment. If one's sex is proved to be a woman, their writings are sometimes treated as inferior, their job applications are sometimes rejected, and so on.

The effect of network communication

To examine the difficulties of women, and of what women think of network communication, we did interviews and presented questionnaires on the Web. From the questionnaire results and interviews with women at home, it is clear that most women think that the Internet is a useful tool to help overcome some of the difficulties in becoming independent, which they feel in society. It also shows that the elements that prevent women from being able to express themselves disappear in network communications.



We conducted interviews to ask women about the opportunity to express herself in her own name.

Ms. C (student->married->housekeeper->get job)
When I was a housewife, I had much less chance to talk than now. As I moved after getting married, the only person I could talk to was my husband. It's hard for me to find friends to talk with but, in the meantime, he had many chances to express his opinions because he was working for a company. I rarely had chances to express my opinions except to my husband, which made me be stressful. The tool I found is e-mail and BBS to have communication with others, to discuss, to express my opinions. E-mail is like a private letter. It helped me so much to be at home alone. I communicate with others who are in the same situation as me.
Ms. P (had job->married->housekeeper->get job again)
The opportunity to write or express my own opinion was obviously decreased when I quit my job to be a housewife. E-mail was my only tool to keep connected to society. That was too bad for me. I needed to be appreciated as an individual, so I started to work for a company again.
Ms. T.M. (housekeeper)
Even without e-mail, I have a chance to write a letter, but only a couple of times per year. E-mail brings much more opportunity to communicate with my friends. It's easier to write e-mail than private letters because e-mail does not take much time and it's rather like a conversation. It's a good tool to be able to connect with each other.
Ms. F (had job->married->housekeeper->get job again)
I was planning to continue my job but because of my husband's transfer, I quit my job and became a housewife. As a housewife, I was always treated as subordinate to husband.
For example, when I tried to open a new bank account, though I have my own money, they treated that money as my husband's with his name. And my opinion was often treated as not mine, but "My husband's wife's." The only place I was treated as an individual was on the Net, because I didn't show that I am someone's wife, I think.

Their chances to express themselves decreased because of changing circumstances such as their husband's transfer or leaving their job to become a housekeeper. They lost the opportunity to talk with others, and also they became subordinate to their husband. E-mail worked as a tool for expanding their world even at home and even far from their friends and for being appreciated as an individual. Thus, e-mail is useful to support those who have few chances to communicate with others and who live far away from their friends.


Questionnaire and interviews about use of wife's name (1)

We posted a questionnaire on the Web to find out about the use of the woman's name (n=953). Forty-nine percent of the women who responded are married, and 35% of them are housekeepers. The questions ask whose name they use to write or receive mail in daily life situations (both real-world and on the Internet). The results are as follows.

Both of them are private cases. In using e-mail (fig. 1, fig. 2), 96% are writing the wife's name (including the case with husband's name) and 91% are receiving e-mail with the wife's name. As the wife's name only, 93% are writing only the wife's name when sending e-mail, but the percent decreased to 83% when receiving e-mail. At the same time, only 2% are writing only the husband's name when sending e-mail, but the number increased to 8% when receiving e-mail.

In greetings with relatives (fig. 3, fig. 4), such as New Year's cards and seasonal gifts (Japanese custom as "O-chu-gen," "O-sei-bo"), 64% are writing the husband's name only when sending greetings, and the percent is the same when receiving. Around 30% are sending and receiving greetings using both names. Although it is the wife's job to send greetings, they write their husband's name as representative of the whole family because these kinds of greetings are between family and family rather than between individuals. The following interview shows the example of name usage of the wife.

Ms. N.I (married, has a job at home)
I am supposed to write my husband's name as a parent of my child at the nursery or the hospital because the head of my family is my husband. Though I am also a parent, I always attend nursery meetings as a substitute for my husband, and at meetings they check attendance by my husband's name.
When my grandmother passed away, my mother prepared an envelope for me but only my husband's name was on it. It was MY grandmother's funeral and my husband didn't attend! My mother said that the husband represents the whole family and I'm included in HIS family.
On the Net, I can always use my name. It is me who joins this relationship. No one forced me to use my husband's name.

This result shows that e-mail certainly works as a tool for individuals, it does not represent a whole family. Most married women can write and receive e-mail in their own name; there's no need to use the husband's name as a representative.

Questionnaire about wife's name use (2)

Three kinds of private relationships show the high ratio of the use of the wife's name. The most frequent communication is e-mail, as 76.3% of users use e-mail every day (ref4), compared with seasonal greetings and letters. Also, e-mail shows the highest ratio of the use of the wife's name.

The three factors of low ratio also show the gap between writing and receiving in the wife's name. Around 20% to 30% of them write their own names when sending greetings, but only 5% write their name in return. This kind of gap also appears with high ratio factors, but not so much.


Questionnaire about names on the Net

As of names on the Net (fig. 6), 72% of them are using their real name also on the Net. Their comments show the reason that they just communicate with known people. They also think that their name is always their name, even on the Net. Three percent of them are using their maiden name as a handle name and all of them said that they actually wanted to keep their own name so that they at least use this name on the Net. For them, their maiden name is their real name.

Twenty-five percent of them use their nickname. They are concerned about privacy and do not show their real name and any information about their real life. Twenty-two percent of them create a new name on the Net. Their comments say that they use a name as they like, no one is forced. Also they love their own name in the cyber world. Some of them tend to use a man's name to avoid receiving sexual e-mail.

To unknown participants, they use their handle name for privacy more than their real name. To a known participant, most of them use their real name (fig. 7).

Questionnaire and interview about attributes on the Net

There are gaps between "want to know" and "consider." They say that they are interested in attributes, but that makes little effect on communication itself. They consider just the context of e-mail and sometimes they cannot recognize what kind of person she or he is. Less than 40% of them are interested in their real name and occupation. We also interviewed the following (fig. 8):

Mr. M (male)
What is important on the Net for me is not an attribute of the person I talk with, but what personality s/he has on the Net. I am not interested in who s/he is in the real world, I just focus on the context s/he is expressing. Actually it's hard to know one's sex as we can easily pretend to be the opposite sex. And I am often mistaken as a woman. "Text" plays an important role in representing the author's personality. That's enough for me.
Ms. J.W (female)
It's difficult to guess my sex from my handle-name. I got some e-mail from someone who thought I was a male person. When I got into flame-war on the Net, I was certainly thought to be a man because my opinion was so aggressive. Also I'm often thought as male when I do not put my name on my writings and am told, " Though women always write emotionally, your writings are logical!"
But I wonder why they want to know real attributes even when communicating in the cyber world. I'm not interested in who you are in the real world, but the personality on the Internet because you already have an identity in this cyber world.
Ms. T.M (female)
I guess whether the writer is male or female by style and context, but in my experience I often made mistakes in judgment. The differences between a man and a woman are less than I expected.
Ms. F (female)
When I was finding a job after getting married, I was always asked "How your husband think of it?" "Why don't you be supported by your husband?" It is ME that want to work!
It's necessary to be independent economically when I express my opinion as one individual, otherwise I am always SOMEONE's wife.
E-mail brings a chance to express myself, but I don't want to show that I am married. I am afraid I will not be treated as an individual even on the Net.

Because the only thing we can guess the attribute from is text, we can easily pretend to be a different person from usual just by describing ourselves differently. Also, it's hard to know what kind of person we communicate with. Thus, the most important thing in communication is the context, which is the only factor we know about participants.

Prejudice and attributes

Prejudice is formed by wrong and non-related information. The more non-related information one gets, the less effect the main information will have. Even if the provided information is not pertinent to the main problem, one will consider it to think about the problem.

For example, when one consults about illness to Dr. A or Dr. B, the important attribute of both of them is whether they are good doctors or not. But if one knows the sex of the doctors, they will judge by prejudice on sex and the importance of information about their skill will be weak. This kind of case, called information dilution, often occurs in the real society (ref12). Thus the possibility to choose which attributes to show or to hide is effective for participants to concentrate on the context itself.

Discussion and conclusion

In network communication, because it is not face-to-face communication, the material available to judge one's attributes is the text. And as the results of the interviews show, it's difficult to know what s/he is exactly and one can pretend to be what one wants to be. We can select what attribute to show depending on the case and what attribute to hide to avoid prejudice. It means even if one has the attribute where one would be treated as a minority in the real society, one can hide it and show only attributes related to topics and joint communication. There is less difficulty for a minority individual to use one's own name and to express one's own opinion on the Net than in real society because of the characteristics of this kind of communication. As prejudice, the main factor of difficulty is formed by wrong information; a chance to communicate is necessary to avoid misunderstanding.

There needs to be a way to increase certification of identity to avoid criminals on the Net and to prepare for e-commerce. However, to certify an individual may provide needless information for communication that could cause prejudice. Our survey proved that keeping anonymity, like hiding attributes, is effective in solving communication problems and social problems such as a minority individual's identity. Thus both social and technical progress on the Internet should aim not only at identity certification but also anonymity.


  1. Marriage Ring
  2. Fujitsu Research Institute compiles results of Internet user survey
  3. den-no Tai
  4. The Comparison between Male and Female Internet Users in Japan
  5. Online magazine USAGIYA home page
  6. Hiroko Hara, Chika Fujiwara (1999): "Women's Conditions," Imidas1999, pp. 616-624:Shueisha
  7. Asahi Newspaper (March 9, 1996)
  8. Asahi Newspaper (November 12, 1993)
  9. Asahi Newspaper (November 24, 1993)
  10. Asahi Newspaper (January 10, 1994)
  11. Asahi Newspaper (June, 1996)
  12. Elliot Aronson (1992): "The Social Animal," W. H. Freeman and Company
  13. WOMAN'S ML
  14. Lis Tuttle (1986), "Encyclopedia of Feminism," Longman Group Ltd.
  15. Dale Spender (1990)," Man made Language"
  16. Sherry Turkle (1995), "Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet"
  17. http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/katakori/g/gosin.html
  18. Shoko Ide (1998), "Women and Language," Tokyo Women's Foundation p
  19. A. H. Buss (1991), "Personality and Interpersonal Communication"

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