Terue Shinkaawa

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–Emlyn was a carefree young woman five years ago when she realized she was pregnant.

"My boyfriend was married to someone else and he just freaked out when I told him the news," recalls the 29-year-old single mother. "He begged me to have an abortion, but I decided not to do that and split from him when I had my son."

Emlyn belongs to a growing group of women in Japan who have opted to raise their children alone in a country where deep-rooted social norms revere marriage and the family.

"Life is tough but I have no regrets," insists Emlyn. She describes herself as an independent woman who doesn’t care a hoot about what others think of her. She says she is very happy with her busy life balancing a job as a free-lance printing designer and looking after her son, Takkun.

"I am simply glad to be a single mother" says Emlyn, who asked that her last name not be used. "I am confident I can raise my son successfully by myself."

Statistics released by the Japanese government last year indicate that the number of households headed by single mothers grew to 954,000 in 1998–a 25 percent increase from the 709,000 in 1993. But while the number of single moms is increasing, Japanese legislators are introducing laws to make it more difficult for women to raise children on their own.

New Bills Would Make Single Parenthood Harder

In a bid to reduce social security costs and shrink Japan’s public assistance expenditures, the Japanese Diet has started to reduce welfare allowances and is including in its reform package a new bill that will stop providing full child-rearing allowances after a child reaches 5 years old.

The proposed system stipulates that child-support allowances will be reduced gradually after a child turns 5, but ensures that the assistance will not dip lower than 50 percent of the full allowance. Current law allows unwed mothers government-funded child-support until a child turns 18.

Terue Shinkaawa, a social commentator and divorced mother of two, is bitterly critical of the new law. "It’s almost impossible for women to financially support their children by themselves in Japan," says Shinkaawa. "With less state help, the situation will turn critical and force women to marry in order to survive."

Single mothers are also fighting against a law that allows the state to reject assistance to their children after the fathers have officially acknowledged the children in a family register that ensures the child’s inheritance but does not guarantee child support from the father while he is alive.

In a February ruling viewed by women’s advocates as a milestone for equal rights in the country, a Supreme Court judge ruled that a lower court’s decision to stop payments to an unwed mother was unconstitutional.

Says Fumiko Kanazumi, a lawyer specializing in women’s issues: "Judges and lawyers are mostly men with a man’s point of view. For them a woman who wants a divorce is defying her husband, which is why it is almost impossible to claim child support from fathers after a divorce."

"The current situation illustrates how men are controlling Japanese society," she adds.

Single Mothers Face Hardship in Workplace, Too

Single mothers face more barriers in the Japanese job market. Shinkaawa, the social commentator, says that single mothers are doomed to a life of financial hardship as Japan’s male-dominated work place frowns on women having children.

Emlyn confirms this, saying she lost her full-time job when the company found out she was pregnant.

"I hid my pregnancy for several months, rushing to the toilet to throw-up during my morning sickness, rather than ask for paid leave," Emlyn says.

About 60 percent of single mothers earn less than 3 million yen annually–about $25,000, according to the Single Mothers Forum, a support group. And 41 percent earn even less–salaries below 2 million yen or $15,000 annually, a figure that is well below the average income of male salaried workers.

Most of them are forced to work part-time in order to rear their children and are dependent on state allowances.

"Tears fill my eyes when I think of my child waiting alone in our apartment till I manage to rush home after being forced to work late," writes a single mother on a Web site run by the Single Mothers Forum.

Japanese Society and Laws Discourage Marriage

Despite these challenges, even women in good relationships are choosing not to marry, or deciding not to officially register their marriages.

"There are more women out there who want to be able to lead their own lives without depending on husbands or lovers," says Mizuho Fukushima, a popular lawmaker with the Democratic Party who also had a daughter without registering her marriage in order to keep her maiden name. In Japan, a married couple is required to register as married under the man or woman’s name, so some women are not registering their marriage to avoid losing their maiden names. Others cite the desire not to take on the role of "wife" and all that implies.

Comments posted on the Single Mothers Forum Web site illustrate a deep aversion among young women towards tying the knot.

The current system of marriage, writes a 36-year-old divorcee, discriminates against love and children because it forces men and women to look for a companion who will be a parent first and a spouse second.

Indeed, Emlyn recalls how her mother and father wept when she told them the news that she was going to have a child.

"They kept saying children must have fathers and that my life would be a nightmare without a man’s financial support. They told me repeatedly that I was stupidly imitating Western women," she says.

Midori, another single mother of a 10-year-old son, says she refused to accept her boyfriend’s marriage proposal a year after their child was born because she felt she would lose her freedom.

"While his proposal was tempting as I would not have to work so hard, I said no, because I didn’t want to become a wife," she says.

Midori, 35, still sees the man once a month when he comes to see his son. "I like the relationship as it is. Marriage is too stifling," she says.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a writer in Tokyo.



For more information:

Yokohama Women’s Forum,
a newsletter on woman-related legislation:

Women’s Online Media
"Making Japan a Country of Comfortable Living:
A Proposal From Single Mothers":