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Japan: The Childless Society

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Reviewed by GAIL R. BENJAMIN


Japan in the 1990s has a very low birth rate, Japanese women seem to be postponing marriage until later and later ages, publications aimed at young mothers present an ideal of mothering that is difficult to attain in practice, and some mothers of young children and infants seem overwhelmed by the burdens and requirements of mothering. Jolivet’s argument in this book is that the low birth rate is explained by other phenomena.

Much of the evidence to support this view that Jolivet presents comes from scholarly and, even more, popular analyses of Japanese society currently part of the cultural landscape of Japan. Japanese TV, radio, popular press, and publications aimed at informed readers carry huge volumes of analysis of Japan to Japanese consumers. What she offers us, then, is a Japanese view of a Japanese problem, with commentary from an informed and sensitive outsider.

Jolivet uses letters from young mothers to advice columns, and calls to a young mothers’ hotline, to establish the loneliness and isolation of young mothers; their frustration at the loss of social contacts and meaningful work, as well as interaction with adults that motherhood often brings to women living away from their families, who are forced to quit work at the birth of a child. The jobs available to women before marriage and childbearing are the source of great frustrations to young women, who often feel their education and talents are ignored and underutilized. They are aware of the career frustrations that come in an employment system that hires well educated young women for limited jobs, “because they will only quit when they have children anyway,” then pressures them to stop work when they give birth, leaving them with less seniority and experience when they are ready to re-enter the workplace, and then expects they will leave again to take care of aging parents and in-laws. That women lament the loss of even such jobs as these is evidence of the frustrations in their alternative, motherhood.

Motherhood usually comes to Japanese women at the point when their husbands are subject to the greatest time demands of their own working lives. Even if fathers wanted to participate in the rearing of their children or the daily life of their household, and there is little evidence that they do, this is the period when family welfare requires long working hours on the part of the father. The dismal career prospects for women only reinforce this decision.

Japanese women who find themselves the mothers of young children are faced with a truly daunting job description, drawn partly from tradition, but even more from the advice and admonitions of childrearing experts. Their recommendations start with a rigorous prenatal regime for enhancing the health and intelligence of the fetus through proper diet and activities, including singing to the child, talking to it, up to and including speaking to the fetus in foreign languages to give it a head start in English or French.

After birth, the suggested daily regime means that mothers spend every waking and sleeping moment with the child, nursing it, preparing special food, being so attentive to its needs that the child never feels frustrated or deprived enough to cry. Perhaps most extreme, from an outsider’s point of view, is the strident tone of the rhetoric condemning the use of disposable diapers, said by these experts to be more uncomfortable than cloth diapers, so that using them undermines a child’s confidence in its mother’s love and care, encouraging the child to become inert, rebellious, naughty, and even having adverse impacts on the timing of toilet training and the development of IQ.

Jolivet also discusses the role of abortion in modern Japan, and its connection with the onerous nature of motherhood. Because of the commitment to small family size, and the use of the most unreliable methods of birth control, many married Japanese women find themselves having abortions. In spite of their commonness, abortions are stressful for the mothers and families involved; they are conceived of as the necessary murder of a living soul. Jolivet discusses the development of Buddhist rituals which both soothe and exploit the women who have abortions in modern Japan.

The author does a good job of vividly presenting the dilemma confronting young Japanese women as they try to formulate a life encompassing motherhood, self-fulfillment and social usefulness, as Japanese people perceive it. It does less well at placing Japanese women’s behavior in any comparative framework. The low Japanese birth rates are not the lowest in the world, surpassing those of Italy and Germany, for instance. Nor do all Japanese mothers buy into the intense ideal prescribed by the experts, nor do they all fail to find social contacts and family support through what has, since Westerners started observing Japanese society, been considered the hardest period of a woman’s life. Are infants harder to live with than mothers-in-law?