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.