Okozukai vs. hesokuri: An alternate view of home economics

July 5th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Imitation of wife: Some homemakers keep a lid on it

Late last month the media covered the results of an annual survey carried out by Shinsei Financial Co. that attempts to get a handle on the state of family finances. According to the one thousand respondents, the average amount of okozukai that wives give their salaryman husbands has declined for the fourth year in a row to ¥36,500 a month. It’s also the first time in seven years the monthly allowance dropped below ¥40,000. It’s now the lowest it’s been since 1982. For comparison’s sake, the highest amount recorded by the survey was ¥76,000 in 1990, just before the so-called bubble burst.

Okozukai is usually translated as “pocket money” or “allowance,” but the main point is that it is money “given” to someone by another person who, implicitly, controls it. In Japan, traditionally, the wife handles the finances even if the husband is the sole breadwinner. Consequently, it’s a fairly easy statistic to track and does a good job of illuminating the financial situation of the middle class. The husband spends his okozukai on himself, often on after-hours drinking with colleagues, and according to various analyses of the survey it seems that families are saving money by having the husbands spend less on lunch and said drinking. This trend explains the explosion of low-priced izakaya (drinking establishment) chains in recent years.

The survey also indicates that the custom of wife-controlled finances is changing in accordance with demographic shifts. Now, only about half of all Japanese household finances are controlled by the wife alone. In about 30 percent of the households, the finances are shared by a couple since both work full-time. This means that each spouse has his/her own bank account and, in most cases, they divide certain expenses between them, with one handling the house payments, the other the utilities, etc. And in the remaining 20 percent of homes the finances are controlled by the male householder, which tends to be the dominant situation in the West. However, there’s one important difference that the media never mentions with regard to household finances probably because it never occurs to Japanese reporters. In the West, regardless of who nominally controls the pocketbook, property is often held jointly by a married couple, meaning that bank accounts and property titles have two names. In Japan there is no such thing as a joint account.

This situation is partly the reason for the flipside of okozukai: hesokuri-gane, which means “money hidden in the navel,” and usually shortened to just hesokuri. Westerners might call it “pin money.” It is cash that housewives regularly stash away without telling their husbands. In the popular imagination it has two very different purposes. On the more noble side it is money that wives — keepers of the purse — maintain for emergencies or old age. On the less noble side it is a fund they maintain for themselves, to go out for lunch with their girlfriends or to buy something for themselves since stereotypically Japanese husbands rarely purchase gifts for their wives. A survey carried out by Yomiuri Online last year found that the amounts of hesokuri saved by respondents varied from ¥1.5 million to ¥40 million. In most cases the fund was accumulated after the wedding, but a few women confessed to having saved money on their own before getting married and not telling their husbands about it. “My husband has a tendency to get into debt,” one woman who had been married 20 years said in the comments section. “So I save money just in case I have to run away from him.”

For the simple reason that hesokuri is, by definition, “secret” (in another 2010 survey by the life insurer Sonpo Japan DIY, 45 percent of wives said they have money their husbands don’t know about) it can be seen as a corrective to family laws that favor husbands. As mentioned above, the Civil Code forbids joint bank accounts, and so housewives without incomes of their own usually have to draw household expenses from their husband’s account. And while titles to property can include both names of a married couple, the party who is not responsible for the loan–usually the wife–must explain where the money she is contributing to the property comes from. Many foreigners are baffled by Japanese divorces in that a woman who seeks a split usually comes away with nothing, even after decades of marriage. That’s because the idea of joint property is, in a legal sense, non-existent. If the husband is the one making the money, that money always belongs to him, so technically hesokuri is illegal since it could be interpreted as a form of stealing. However, the Civil Code also stipulates that there is no such thing as theft within a family unit. The paradox is instructive, if a bit confusing.

There are loopholes, though they only muddy the waters further. A man can give his wife a one-time, tax-free gift of up to ¥20 million, but it can only be in the form of property where the wife will make her principal residence, or in the form of cash that will be used to purchase a property that will be her permanent residence. The main reason for this odd condition is to offset inheritance laws, which stipulate that a wife receives half of her late husband’s estate, with the other half divided among their children. This law has always caused problems because in cases where the husband did not leave enough behind and the children want cash instead of half the family house, the wife may have to sell her half to pay them off (so much for family unity). The ¥20 million loophole gives the wife a larger share of the house even before the husband dies, so the portion that goes to the kids is much smaller, thus guaranteeing her a roof over her head. But there’s another loophole that says a husband can give his wife (or any member of his family) a gift of ¥1.1 million a year with no strings attached. This seems to be an arbitrary amount, designed to match the ¥900,000-a-year limit that married women can earn without paying any taxes. The whole point is to somehow keep the Japanese nuclear family — which has only been a “norm” since the 1960s — in tact, a scheme that’s already failed. By 2030 the bulk of households will be single-person.

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4 Responses

  1. “As mentioned above, the Civil Code forbids joint bank accounts, . . .”

    Is this a new law? My wife and I had/have a joint bank account(s) in Japan. Is there an exception for “mixed marriages”?

  2. Husbands and wives can have access to their spouses’ accounts (you can have a “cash card” made in your own name that allows you to take money out of your spouse’s account), and there have been programs in the past, like UFJ’s “one wallet” account, that made such transactions easier. However, as far as we know there is no such thing as a joint account in Japan, meaning a savings account with two names on it. The Civil Code does not allow for joint property, so such an account would have to work through some sort of loophole to be possible. A lot of mixed couples set up joint accounts with foreign banks, but it seems they would have to set it up overseas, not in Japan.

    Are you sure your accounts had two names on them and were with Japanese banks? If so, we’d be very interested in knowing more since a lot of Japanese couples would very much like to have joint accounts. It’s a common query at marriage and financial websites, especially from wives who are very afraid that if their husbands die suddenly the husbands’ money would be lost to them.

  3. This is a fascinating post, which cleared up a few mysteries for me. You wouldn’t believe the number of older Japanese men I know who literally do not know how to use cash cards or access their bank accounts, even when the bank accounts are in their names (and the money in the accounts is obviously earned by them, and them alone). I’ve heard that traditionally the handling of money was regarded as dirty work, which is why it is regarded as women’s work even in this day and age.

    Housewives in Japan may seem to hold the purse strings, but in actual fact, as you point out, they have very little financial autonomy. Please answer me this hypothetical question. If I was married to a man who was my sole support, and if he suddenly dropped dead, would I be entitled to access his bank account with a cash card the day after his death? I’ve heard that this is illegal, which may be one explanation for the hesokuri phenomenom.

  4. Yes, technically it would be illegal, though nothing would probably come of it unless someone (i.e., a creditor or another family member entitled to a piece of the dead man’s estate) made a point of pointing it out to the bank.

    As a sort of ironic contrast, think of that bureaucrat who just got caught for insider trading. It’s obvious to everyone that through his job he knew that particular stock was going to go up a lot, but his defense is that the purchase was made in his wife’s name. Such an explanation would never hold up in court overseas because what belongs to the husband belongs to the wife and vice versa: that’s the whole principle of joint property. But in Japan, it could be used as a defense, since the wife hypothetically has no “inside” information and her property isn’t shared with her husband, who does have inside information.

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