Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Unstable Mothers:
Redefining Motherhood in Contemporary Japan

Megan McKinlay

  1. In Japanese society, the notion of motherhood has traditionally served a powerful and pervasive symbolic function which transcends the pragmatic aspects of the role. To become a mother is not simply to give birth, but to achieve ichininmae, to become a real woman. The function of 'mother' as symbol in Japanese society is more overt and more tangible than it is in the West, abounding in both the popular media and in government policy. This pervasive symbolic usage may be seen as a double-edged sword for women, in that while it extends the boundaries of their role as mother, it also has the effect of bringing ideologies of motherhood firmly into the public domain, rendering them more visible than perhaps they are in the West. Thus, the overt usage of 'mother' as a symbol in Japanese society makes these ideologies more readily accessible as a focus of feminist enquiry and analysis. This paper considers the role of literature in this process, with particular attention to the work of contemporary writer Tsushima Yûko, in which the themes of pregnancy and maternity.
  2. Contemporary Japanese constructions of the maternal owe a great deal to a redefinition of motherhood which took place in the Meiji period concomitant with the process of modernisation, and nation and empire building. Prior to this, women had been expected to bear children, but the task of caring for them generally fell to others, often members of the extended family network, or, in the case of middle-class mothers, nannies and maids. Niwa Akiko argues that, as a corollary, women, who, according to Article 19 of Onna Daigaku (Fukuzawa Yukichi's nineteenth century treatise on ethics and behaviour for women) were 'not fit to raise children', were considered inappropriate caretakers of the future heirs of the all-important family household, or ie.[1] This situation changed markedly in the Meiji period, as a new conception of mothers as nurturers and educators was actively promoted by government and scholars alike, partly in response to the increasing influence of Western ideologies. With the advent of the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5, the demands of heightened nationalism saw a further reassessment of women's roles as wives and mothers in terms of the interests of the state rather than as caretakers of the ie. It was at this time that the slogan 'Good wife, wise mother' [ryôsai kenbo] came into currency.
  3. As the term suggests, the notion of ryôsai kenbo saw a re-defining of women in terms of their roles as nurturers of children and overseers of the domestic arena. At the same time, the principle of 'rich country, strong military' [fukoku kyohei], which saw Japan determined to establish a nation-state comparable in strength to those of the West, emphasised the importance of the family unit within the social hierarchy. During this period, the emperor-based hierarchical and patriarchal social system was replicated at the family level, and motherhood was valorised within the context of a social hierarchy that had been constructed to support the state. The government ascribed the responsibility for its goals of prosperity and strength to the family, as an extension of itself, and within that system, to women as mothers, who would bear and raise children to support the state. Although the official ideologies of ryôsai kenbo and fukoku kyohei were somewhat tarnished after 1945 by their association with the pre-war imperialist state, the discourse on women and maternity associated with them continued to influence state policy and social ideology at least until the late 1980s.
  4. The state-ordained emphasis on motherhood which began in the Meiji period ultimately led to a reifying of 'maternal love', together with the notion that motherly love and devotion were vital to a child's development. The Taishô period of the 1920s saw a proliferation of magazines focusing on childcare and maternal responsibilities in this regard. It was around this time that the notion of a 'maternal instinct' or bosei honnô, came into currency.[2] On the basis of this instinct, women were understood to be biologically destined to nurture, and thus best suited to child-rearing and domestic life. Given their unique reproductive capacity, it was certainly inevitable that women became associated with the act of childbirth, and thus with the production of children for the state as circumstances demanded. However, the ideological reach of the 'maternal principle' extends far beyond the realm of actual child-bearing. 'Motherhood' in Japan, as in most other nations, has come to be seen constructed as something which transcends the purely biological, and it is the resultant coding of mothers as 'nurturers' that has the most profound impact on the lives of women. The emergence in the Meiji and Taish˘ periods of the notion of bosei honnô as something natural and immutable served to define woman as child-rearer as well as bearer, and this has been reinforced in subsequent years. As recently as 2000, it has been noted that Japanese women are still assessed on their motherhood roles, and most particularly their skills in nurturing and educating children, regardless of other roles they may have—such as participants in the paid workforce.[3]
  5. In this context, the issues for feminism are numerous, and the debate over motherhood has been fundamental to the feminist movement in Japan since its inception.[4] Contemporary Japanese women have experienced an ideology of maternity that holds notions such as maternal instinct and affection as innate and immutable, and in both cases, this has come under feminist scrutiny. The legacy of ryôsai kenbo inherited by contemporary feminists and women writers such as Tsushima Yûko has generated a prolific body of criticism. Since the 1970s, an emerging literature on maternal ambivalence and the realities of the mother-child relationship has initiated a critical inquiry into the assumptions and ideologies surrounding motherhood. A critique of these assumptions demands an inquiry into the nature of the maternal instinct itself, and the psychology of the mother-child relationship—a task that is common to feminism in Japan and the West.
  6. In order to eradicate the perceived 'maternalism' that coloured the first wave of Japanese feminism, in terms of its tendency to focus on improving womenĺs status as mothers, rather than interrogating their construction as such, second wave feminists of the late 1960s and 1970s emphasised that the maternal principle, what had come to be known as bosei, was a social construct. They sought to demonstrate that modern Japanese conceptions of womanhood as motherhood, and of bosei as something innate and instinctive to mothers, rather than being 'natural', were artefacts of contemporary society whose construction could be historically observed and interrogated. Their opposition to bosei as a principle did not take the form of a rejection of child-bearing or child-rearing. Rather it sought to render the hidden and naturalised functions of bosei visible, problematising the mother-child relationship and exposing the practical difficulties associated with child-bearing and rearing.
  7. Due to increased media attention, public awareness of issues associated with the mother-child relationship—such as child abuse, mother-child suicide and neglect—has risen in contemporary Japan. The mass media has tended to portray such incidents as part of a contemporary problem, and the mothers involved in them as 'deviators' from the maternal norm, vilifying them with value-laden phrases such as 'unfit mother' and 'demon or human?'.[5] The feminist response has been to query the assumptions inherent in such judgements, firstly pointing out that these are issues neither unique to Japan nor to contemporary society, and secondly by questioning the very nature of the maternal principle from which these mothers are deemed to have strayed. These mothers that society considers to be the perpetrators of deviant acts can be seen through the feminist lens as victims of the symbolically-laden role they are obliged to fulfil. Ôhinata writes that 'rather than judging that bosei has fallen on rocky ground, we need to ask whether bosei is such a firm, stable thing.'[6]
  8. This enquiry into the nature of bosei,[7] in an attempt to destabilise its symbolic meaning and mitigate the ramifications for women is a work-in-progress for Japanese feminism, and is reflected in the work of many contemporary women writers. Maternal love and the longing for an absent mother have been two important themes in Japanese literature, with what Rebecca Copeland describes as 'mother obsession' driving the narratives of postwar writers such as Tanizaki Jun'ichirô, Shiga Naoya, Natsume Sôseki, Kawabata Yasunari, Ôe Kenzaburô and Nakagami Kenji.[8] As a consequence, the topic of maternity has been long established as a focus of Japanese literary criticism.[9] The authors of such 'mother-obsessed' literature, however, are almost exclusively male, and contemporary women's writing on issues of maternity has reflected vastly different concerns.
  9. What Makoto Ueda calls the 'fateful conflict between womanhood and motherhood'—which he considers to have emerged from the postwar rise in individualistic thinking[10]—has seen many contemporary women writers interrogating the enduring myths of motherhood. For writers such as Ôba Minako, Takahashi Takako, Tomioka Taeko, Saegusa Kazuko and Kôno Taeko, this has meant the adoption of a hostile stance towards both children and motherhood itself. In what is an often-remarked-upon distinction between her work and those of her female contemporaries, Tsushima Yûko's interrogation of maternity has assumed a different form; one which accepts and at times embraces the processes of pregnancy and maternity, rejecting not motherhood itself but its institutionalisation and mythologisation.[11] In this characteristic way, Tsushima's writing contributes significantly to contemporary discourse on maternal instinct in Japan. By depicting in a non-judgemental fashion a variety of ways of being a mother—nurturing, aggressive, protective, destructive, loving, violent, selfless, selfish—she allows for a more complex and all-encompassing notion of what it is to be maternal, effectively undermining rigid notions of bosei which constrain and disempower women in the maternal role.
  10. I would now like to consider some aspects of Tsushima's discourse on motherhood as it operates in four of her texts: Woman Running in the Mountains, Child of Fortune, Hikari no Ryôbun [The Realm of Light] and, to a lesser extent, Moeru Kaze [Burning Wind].[12] In her novel Child of Fortune, which focuses on the imaginary pregnancy of its central protagonist, K˘ko, the mother-child relationship is central to the novel. Kôko's attitude to motherhood, as manifested in her changing relationship with her adolescent daughter Kayako and with her imaginary foetus, is ambiguous and unstable, serving to problematise, rather than reify, the notion of the mother-child relationship. Kôko appears to swing between apparently conflicting feelings of selfishness and selflessness where her children are concerned, and the determining factor is frequently posited as externally imposed ideals of motherhood. Her own mother remains in her memory as a 'staunch protector of her children',[13] who made many sacrifices in her role as mother, and who criticises Kôko as a young mother for refusing to breastfeed and make her own nappies.[14] Such acts of selflessness, it is implied, are essential for a mother. While these in themselves may be superficial acts, the implication is that their cheerful performance hinges upon the presence of something intangible within the mother, that which is known as bosei. The sociologist Muriel Jolivet has noted that the issues of breastfeeding and linen care are an integral part of what she describes as the 'oppressive decalogue' of commandments that are put forth by Japanese paediatricians as advice to worthy mothers.[15] In Kôko's case, although she does make sacrifices for her daughter, she views these not as altruistic acts, but as two-way transactions, wondering how Kayako expects to 'repay these sacrifices'.[16]
  11. Nonetheless, Kôko experiences feelings of guilt over her lack of selflessness, suggesting that she is 'robbing her daughter'.[17] After she starts going out with a new man, she experiences a dream in which she leaves Kayako with a stranger and goes on a journey with a boy, but is constantly gripped by anxiety over her daughter. Upon waking, she recognises in her dreaming self her own desire for freedom from the responsibility of parenting. Her description of this kind of mother as 'an ugly sight',[18] and her feelings of guilt at her chosen lifestyle reflect her own insecurities as a mother in a society where ambivalent or negative feelings towards one's children go largely unacknowledged, and are often vilified in the media when rendered visible.
  12. Social constructs of what constitute appropriate maternal behaviour and feelings have a profound effect upon how Kôko feels about herself in the maternal role. Kôko's fantasy of the coming child, of how she would be more nurturing even during pregnancy, not caring if 'she, the mother, were left an empty shell'[19] as long as the baby were born safely, appears to demonstrate a degree of commitment to a maternal image which is replete with self sacrifice and compassion. Her behaviour throughout the pregnancy, however, indicates her inability or unwillingness to live up to this ideal as she continues to drink, smoke and swallow painkillers with relative abandon, suggesting that while the maternal ideal may be persuasively romantic, it is, for her, a fundamentally unrealistic notion.
  13. The opening paragraphs of the novel The Realm of Light, in which a separated mother struggles to raise her young daughter alone, suggest that here too is a degree of conflict between the protagonist, watashi [I] thus not naming her, as mother and individual self.
    Figure 1. The Realm of Light
    Her stealing into the flat below, after her daughter is asleep, to enjoy a view different from that from the flat above,[20] the flat inhabited by her self-as-mother, suggests from the outset a woman whose inner life goes beyond her maternal role, and who actively seeks self-fulfilment outside this context. An image of the protagonist as a woman not content with merely being a mother is immediately established, and it is from this foundation that Tsushima begins to articulate a critique of prescribed motherhood, once again describing the tensions between the reality of motherhood, and the expectations of society as influenced by an idealised maternal image.

  14. So intensely subject to public scrutiny as a mother is The Realm of Light's watashi, that she herself constantly objectifies and assesses her own performance in this role. Her confidence as a mother is undermined by her ex-husband,[21] by her daughter's day care providers,[22] and by an elderly couple on whose roof her daughter drops various items.[23] Under this scrutiny, she frequently objectifies herself in the maternal role, finding herself wanting in relation to the perceived standards and expectations of others. After effectively driving her daughter away out of frustration at her constant crying, she casts herself as a selfish mother, and when she subsequently cannot locate her daughter, she imagines herself being punished because of her non-nurturing behaviour.[24] This underlying belief that acts of 'bad mothering' may be subject to punishment, is also reflected in her later dream in which her daughter dies after she is late picking her up.[25] An incident in which the son of another single mother causes a fire while she is out drinking is read by the protagonist as a kind of cautionary tale in which neglect of maternal responsibilities leads to disaster.[26]
  15. Watashi's critical appraisal of herself as a mother reflects the influence of a particular view of what constitutes genuine maternal affection and appropriate maternal behaviour, one which reflects the bosei espoused as a social ideal. Her reference to 'the shape of [my] own cruelty'[27] is reminiscent of images and terminology employed by the media in their depiction of 'bad' mothers. Although her conflicted attitude to her daughter may appear to be a functional and understandable response to her circumstances, she is apparently convinced that this way of being is not permitted in the good mother paradigm. Prevailing ideologies of motherhood dictate that her own 'selfish' feelings are not reconcilable with the maternal ideal.
  16. Through the conflicted character of watashi, the narrative questions enduring notions of maternal love as innate, immutable and endlessly self-sacrificing in nature. The ambivalence that often characterises Kôko's relationship with Kayako is, however, absent here; rather the protagonist's relationship with her daughter is one of extremes, a cycle of tenderness and aggression, of sacrifice and assertion of her independence. The protagonist is unable to reconcile her self as an individual with what she perceives to be the requirements of her maternal role, and effectively achieves a split between her role as a mother and as an independent woman. She is far from devoid of conventional maternal feeling, often demonstrating a strong desire to protect and nurture her daughter, and her rages invariably end with her soothing and caring for her.
  17. The narratives of both The Realm of Light and Child of Fortune suggest that the conflicted feelings of the protagonists, and the frequent friction between them and their children, are neither abnormal nor unusual, and not necessarily indicative of a lack of boseiai.
    Figure 2. Child of Fortune
    Scenes of ambivalence, frustration and rage are juxtaposed against scenes of tenderness and intimacy, which in isolation would appear as conventional representations of boseiai and the mother-child relationship. In this examination of maternal ambivalence and 'cruelty', Tsushima's texts reflect feminist moves occurring in both Japan and the West. Just as Kimura and Ôhinata argue for the disruption of the maternal ideal, with their rejection of the coding of all maternal cruelty as a perversion,[28] so Western feminists such as Adrienne Rich have affirmed the co-existence of love and anger within maternal psychology.[29] Rich points out that when anger which has been provoked by the conditions of motherhood is taken out on the child, that anger is usually accompanied by guilt, remorse and grief',[30] and it is this cycle which is so apparent in watashi's behaviour.

  18. The emotional conflict of these texts, however, is not apparent in Woman Running in the Mountains. While representations of motherhood in this text also function to problematise the notion of boseiai as inherent to women, and of the mother-child relationship as primary, treatment of these issues is more detached, and the protagonists do not experience the inner turmoil evident in the earlier two works. Whether Takiko is experiencing a sense of detachment from, or 'love welling up',[31] for Akira, the narrative remains non-emotive and non-judgmental and Takiko herself is neither self-critical nor congratulatory, with no sense of one response being privileged over another.
    Figure 3. Burning Wind
    In the novel Burning Wind, told from the perspective of an adolescent girl being raised by a single mother, the interaction between Ariko and her mother is detached and functional, characterised by an absence of expressed emotion. There is no mother-child unit here—Ariko's mother is not involved in her daily life, and the narrative presents Ariko as an independent decision-maker. Significantly, although mother and child sleep together as is often the Japanese custom, Ariko's mother always sleeps with her back to Ariko. The single fond interaction between them in the text is not reciprocal—Ariko's mother strokes her while reminiscing fondly about her childhood, while Ariko simply obliges her 'obediently', ignoring her until she falls asleep.[32]
    What Ariko begrudges is not the absence of a fond mother-child relationship, but rather the absence of a conventional family unit which would ensure she was not marginalised in her peer group. This serves to undermine the primacy of boseiai, emphasising the functional aspects of the mother's role and again de-romanticising the mother-child bond.
  19. Woman Running in the Mountains also undermines a rigid definition of boseiai in its rejection of the concept as something which is not only innate but also exclusive to mothers. Even as Takiko realises her growing attachment to Akira[33] and that she has come to consider his existence 'immeasurably important' to her,[34] she nevertheless does not ascribe her feelings to the fact of her being his birth mother. In rejection of the notion of boseiai as something inevitably generated when a woman physically bears and gives birth to a child, Takiko suggests that it is rather simply because she has spent time with Akira that she feels this way. She further claims that from Akira's perspective,
    Figure 4. Woman Running in the Mountains
    she is no more important to him than the carers at his daycare centre,[35] undermining the notion of the uniqueness of the mother-child relationship, and of mother's care being essential at all costs. The character of Kambayashi, a workmate with whom Takiko forms a friendship of sorts, also undermines the notion of 'boseiai' being exclusively and inevitably located in the mother. When his child was born with a disability, Kambayashi's wife, was unable to cope, and the 'maternal' role was effectively delegated to him as father. Takiko's description of Kambayashi's endless sacrifices for his son, juxtaposed with the belief that she is unable to do the same for her own son, clearly suggests that elements such as parental self-sacrifice and the affection which underlies it may be found in the paternal and not the maternal, as circumstance and individual personality dictate.[36]

  20. Interestingly, while this text posits a male in the nurturing role, it is careful to stipulate that this occurs only because of the mother's failure to fill this role herself, as a result of her inability to cope.[37] The narrative's sympathetic portrayal of Kambayashi as primary caregiver is somewhat undermined by its simultaneous admission that this role is his purely by default. While the narrative's portrayal of Kambayashi's situation may be read as participating in a feminist examination of bosei in that it depicts qualities of selfless nurturing as absent in the mother and present in the father, it does not ultimately challenge the conventional positioning of the mother as assumed primary caregiver.[38] For all her interrogation of motherhood and its ideological assumptions, Tsushima does not fundamentally question why women should continue to be posited as caregivers for their children. Indeed, her single mother protagonists are depicted as consciously choosing to raise their children singlehandedly without the father present. Consequently, these narratives focus on assumptions relating to how women should function as caregivers, without fundamentally questioning whether or not they should indeed be expected to do so. This approach which, rather than interrogating the assumptions inherent in the positing of women as child-carers, suggests strategies to mitigate the difficulties they experience, is reminiscent of the 'equality with protection' stance integral to some Japanese feminist approaches to the debate over motherhood. While this position has been a focus of Western feminist criticism for failing to address what it considers to be fundamental assumptions about the maternal role, as Ueno Chizuko has argued, this is an acceptable feminist position in Japan.[39]
  21. The assumption in Tsushima's texts of women as primary caregivers combines with her rejection of the conventional family unity to lead naturally into a discussion of the institution of single motherhood, a particularly salient issue for contemporary Japanese feminism. Single motherhood in Japan almost inevitably involves financial and physical hardship, perhaps more consistently than in the West, given that there is little provision for child support, and that even a divorced father usually does not continue to pay child support to the mother when she has custody of the children. Only ten to twenty percent of divorced mothers receive regular child support payments.[40] In addition, there are also issues of institutionalised discrimination against single mothers through the family register, and of access to daycare, given that the mythology surrounding the mother's role in child-rearing, and the resultant stigmatisation of working mothers in Japanese society, have functioned historically to restrict and problematise conditions of enrolment.[41]
  22. Given that so much of the emotional conflict, psychological turmoil and physical hardship of the protagonists in these texts appears to stem directly from their status as single mothers, it may seem that Tsushima is endorsing the institution of conventional motherhood. However, it is not so much the institution of single motherhood itself, but more accurately the marginalised status it is afforded that is the object of criticism. It is the social stigma that women take on through becoming single mothers, and the increasing criticism to which they are subjected for their 'transgression' from convention, which is at the root of the difficulties that Tsushima's protagonists experience. Associated issues of financial and other forms of practical hardship often themselves stem from social discrimination against single mothers, as seen in the suggestion in Woman Running in the Mountains that Takiko's family register, which records her son's illegitimacy, limits her employment prospects.
  23. The assumptions about motherhood which underlie such discrimination are consistently reinforced by the social gaze, and hence this takes on a central role in these narratives. Much of Tsushima's discourse on motherhood is a stinging critique of the influence of these rigid social perceptions, at the base of which lie popular concepts of bosei. Taken both as individual writings and as a collective, these five texts demonstrate persuasively that the social gaze in Japanese society is omnipresent, and that one's self-perception in the maternal role is almost entirely contingent upon how one responds to this omnipresence. In the Japanese context, this kind of gaze is perhaps best described by the term seken, the operation of which brings about a kind of self-monitoring or behaviour control operating through the awareness of being publicly observed.[42] Frank Johnson describes seken as 'a watchful, normative presence, the equivalent of 'what will the neighbours say?',[43] which refers to the ongoing process of being critically evaluated by others. Whereas this presence was once institutionalised in the form of local police and appointed neighbourhood leaders, its contemporary operations are less formalised but perhaps no less pervasive or influential.
  24. Across these texts, a significant apprehension towards appearances and social perception is apparent in both genders and across all age groups, showing the prevalence of concern with social reputation in Japanese society. Ariko in Burning Wind displays a preoccupation with appearances particularly as regards her unconventional family[44] and her response to this self-consciousness is extreme, manifesting itself in violence towards her classmates. When her classmate comments that 'single parent children have lots of problems', Ariko responds with a passionate verbal defence of her situation, followed by physical violence and threats designed to garner empathy.[45] As mentioned earlier, while Ariko does not appear to begrudge her lack of relationship with her mother, she does resent her mother's failure to fulfil the appropriate maternal social function. Whereas her classmates' mothers throw birthday parties for them with homemade foods, make sure they have clean hankies and generally ensure they conform to social expectations,[46] Ariko's mother plays no such role. While 'the mothers' make a candy house for the cultural festival, this collective does not include Ariko's mother, who 'has nothing to do with it'.[47] The mother Ariko desires is one who may be included in the group, the kind of mother her classmates have. She does, however, betray some understanding of the gulf between the mothers, with her explanation that her mother doesn't come to school like the others 'because she's busy'.[48] What Ariko does not explicitly articulate is that her mother is busy because she is a single mother who has to work long and late hours, and that perhaps this single mother status, more than her actual busy state, is what really distinguishes her. Through her acute awareness that her family is far from conventional, Ariko illustrates the influence of prevailing social norms of family and motherhood.
  25. The older generation in Woman Running in the Mountains is significantly affected by the social gaze as regards motherhood and conventional family structure. When Takiko's pregnancy becomes apparent, her mother urges her to have an abortion, and cannot understand why she would possibly choose to give birth given her circumstances.[49] Once the child is born, Takiko's mother is so embarrassed by the situation that she even refuses to allow her to put up posters for the daycare centre fête, given that this would not only inform the entire neighbourhood that her unwed daughter had a child, but also that the child had been placed in a daycare centre, positioning Takiko even further away from the good mother paradigm. Similarly, Takiko's father explains to his visiting friends that her husband is away, rather than divulge the real situation.
  26. Takiko's mother is influenced by the pervasive belief in Japanese society that a child's actions reflect directly upon the mother, even when the mother is no longer directly responsible for or involved in the child's life. Takiko's having become 'a sorrow'[50] to her mother through her illegitimate pregnancy demonstrates how the actions of the child may be perceived to reflect upon the mother. Takiko, however, considers that it is not only her mother who is to blame, but equally the gaze of others, stating that it was this, in the form of 'the neighbours' which 'had made Takiko a sorrow to her mother because her mother cared what they thought'.[51] Tsushima's use of inverted commas around 'the neighbours' here suggests an emphasis upon this group as an artificial collective, while the somewhat sarcastic 'gokinjo' (neighbourhood) of the original text[52] gently criticises the degree of power such a 'group' can hold over others in society. It is ironically indicative of the incongruities inherent in ideologies of motherhood that the response of Takiko's mother to her daughter's unconventional pregnancy, is to distance herself from her, thus effecting an erosion of their own mother-child bond. The suggestion here is that the social gaze is sufficiently influential as to erode what society itself likes to consider the most primary of all bonds.
  27. In Child of Fortune, the conflict between the social ideal of family and mother and its deviant version is represented metaphorically by the lives of K˘ko and her older sister Shôko. Kôko is presented throughout the novel as an individual constantly straddling the space between social imperatives and her sense of loyalty to a deeper concept of self. Kôko's marginalised status as a single mother is accentuated within the narrative by the juxtapositioning of her situation with that of her older sister. As an older sibling, her sister Shôko immediately represents authority on a broad superficial level and her lifestyle stands in constant comparison to Kôko's, using prevailing social norms as a referent. Kôko is certainly not unaffected by the social ideal of the family—she cannot but be constantly confronted by it in the form of her sister's household to which her daughter Kayako is increasingly attracted. Hers is the 'ordinary homely scene'[53] to which Kôko is herself sometimes drawn. She believes, or thinks she believes that only there can true happiness be found.
  28. Her actions, however, do not bear out a real belief in this as an appropriate situation for herself, as she consistently makes choices which move her increasingly further from the social ideal of what constitutes a family. Her continuing commitment to single motherhood, and the pursuit of her own lifestyle cannot but ultimately undermine these ideals of motherhood and the family. While her half-hearted attempt to 'talk some sense into herself'[54] when she first considers keeping the new baby is a rudimentary acknowledgment of the gaze of society and the harsh criticism she will be subjected to as a new mother under it, these concerns are steadily brushed aside and she resolves to keep the baby.
  29. It is evident that, while Kôko appears to espouse the basic tenets of the society within which she lives, her actions ultimately undermine them. As she worries about the increasing separation between herself and Kayako, she postulates the unborn child in daydreams as a binding force, envisioning them as a threesome. Apparent here is Kôko's reinterpretation of socially accepted norms; while it is natural to her that a family is constructed as a triangle, her triangle consists of two children and a mother, with no mention of a father.[55] Her assertion that it was only after separating from her husband that 'motherly feelings'[56] began to surface within her is ironic in that it is only after removing herself from the traditional family structure that she begins to experience those emotions which social norms tend to package within that structure. Kôko's ultimate rejection of the marriage her former lovers have cooked up for her as an apparently charitable gesture is further evidence of her ultimate desire for a non-conventional way of life. In this way, Kôko's apparent belief in the traditional family structure is undermined and the family she actually seeks is one which rejects all that convention demands.
  30. A similar process is observed at work in The Realm of Light. While watashi's invocation of images of the traditional happy family suggest an acceptance of the notion that single motherhood is at least partly to blame for her situation, the narrative effectively undermines her belief. The images of convention which she either reifies in contrast to her own life, or seeks to invoke in an apparent attempt to improve it, are ultimately depicted as fundamentally flawed suggesting that the ideal they represent is itself unrealistic. As in Child of Fortune, although watashi's attitudes appear to be strongly influenced by social perceptions of what constitutes a family and how a mother should behave, the narrative suggests the flawed nature of such ideals, and her actions themselves ultimately suggest a commitment to a less conventional way of being.
  31. In a society in which ideals of mothering are so prescribed, and social pressure to conform to them is so intense, the conscious choice of single motherhood is a courageous one. As Geraldine Harcourt writes in the introduction to her translation of Child of Fortune, Kôko's choice to continue with her pregnancy under these conditions in a society where abortion is readily available and relatively free of social stigma is not so much an anti-abortion statement as a refusal to yield to the pressures against single motherhood.[57] At a time when Kayako is preparing to leave her, and Kôko may begin to shed her role of single mother, she chooses instead to embrace it anew, at the relatively advanced age of thirty-six. Implicit in this is a legitimisation of a non-traditional view of what constitutes a family, and a rejection of the negative associations so often afforded single mothers and their children. Kôko's comparison of her determination to raise Kayako on her own without male assistance to that of stone-throwing protestors of her student days[58] is one of the few overtly political statements in Tsushima's narratives. Her assertion that to choose single motherhood is to perform an act of political protest is not only anti-establishment, but also unmistakably feminist in its rejection of the maternal ideal espoused by Japanese society.
  32. Many Japanese critics have pointed out that Tsushima's women are women who 'want to give birth',[59] and that her literature differs from that of many of her contemporaries in its affirmation of pregnancy and motherhood. Perhaps more important than the fact that these women choose to give birth, however, are the circumstances in which they elect to do so, which are consistently unconventional. And perhaps more significant than the fact that they choose to mother is the way in which they do so, often characterised by frustration, self-interest and anger. Rather than rejecting maternity itself, Tsushima questions the context in which it operates as a discourse, and what many critics consider a valorisation of motherhood functions equally as a critique of the assumptions which accompany it. If her work may be considered to constitute an endorsement of motherhood it is of a motherhood removed from the institution and the myth, which rejects rigid definitions and confinement to the narrow playing field of the conventional family.
  33. When judged in conventional terms, Tsushima's mothers are certainly unstable—emotionally, psychologically, financially and practically. However, what Tsushima's texts suggest is that the standards against which they are so judged are unreasonable and undesirable. In doing so, Tsushima's work participates in the call of contemporary feminism to reject the notion of motherhood as stable and homogenous. At the same time, it anticipates and reflects an emerging sociological trend in contemporary Japan. Over the same period that Tsushima was writing these novels, 'baby help lines' were beginning to appear in Japan, in response to the isolation and difficulties being experienced by young mothers. Tsushima's literary discourse on motherhood appeared as the Japanese government was barely beginning to acknowledge the existence of a widespread problem that required intervention. Ten years later, politicians began to speak gravely of the so-called '1.57' crisis,[60] and to formulate strategies to arrest the rapidly declining birthrate. This drop in the birthrate, together with findings emerging from contemporary studies, suggests that Japanese women are increasingly unwilling to accept the terms and conditions of motherhood. Admissions that they find motherhood to be at times tedious, exhausting and unfulfilling have begun to surface in the public arena, in the press and on television. Through its interrogation of the signifier 'mother' and its affirmation of non-traditional ways of mothering, Tsushima's literature both reflects and participates in this process, enabling the ongoing feminist task of destabilising received notions of 'motherhood'.


    [1] Akiko Niwa, 'The Formation of the Myth of Motherhood in Japan,' in U.S.-Japan Women's Journal English Language Supplement 4 (1993): 70-82, p. 72.

    [2] See Margaret Lock, 'Ideology, Female Midlife, and the Greying of Japan,' in Journal of Japanese Studies 19 (1993): 43-78, pp. 69-70 and Kimiyo Kanô, 'Bosei no tanjô to tennôsei,' in Bosei, ed. Teruko Inoue, Chizuko Ueno, Yumiko Ehara, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995, pp. 56-85.

    [3] Mina Roces and Louise Edwards, 'Contesting gender narratives, 1970-2000,' in Women in Asia: Tradition, modernity and globalisation, ed. Louise Edwards and Mina Roces, St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 2000, pp. 1-15, p. 8.

    [4] Indeed, the first and most well known debate among pre-war feminists was the Debate over the Protection and Support of Motherhood, which attempted to reconcile women's need for economic independence and equality with the particular demands of their role as mothers

    [5] Cited in Masami Ôhinata, 'Bosei gainen o meguru genjô to sono mondaiten,' in Bosei, ed. Teruko Inoue, Chizuko Ueno, Yumiko Ehara, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995, pp. 29-55, p. 33.

    [6] Ôhinata, 'Bosei gainen,' p. 37.

    [7] In order to draw a distinction, I use the terms bosei and boseiai throughout the text to refer to notions of maternal instinct and affection as they are specifically constructed in Japanese society, and use the English approximations when referring to a more general definition.

    [8] Rebecca Copeland, 'Mother Obsession and Womb Imagery,' in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 3 (1988): 131-50.

    [9] See, for example Eto Jun 'Seijuku to sôshitsu: 'haha' no hôkai, Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1966, Sukehiro Hirakawa and Takao Hagiwara (eds), Nihon no haha: hôkai to saisei, Tokyo: Shin'yôsha, 1997, and the work of Kin'ya Tsuruta, among others.

    [10] Makoto Ueda, 'Introduction' in The Mother of Dreams, ed. Makoto Ueda, Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1986, pp. 7-17, p. 14.

    [11] For discussion regarding the positioning of Tsushima's discourse on maternity in relation to other contemporary women writers, see Akiko Ogata, 'Hito. Bungaku,' in Tanpen Josei Bungaku Gendai, ed. Yasuko Imai et al, Tokyo: Ôfûsha, 1993, pp. 171-78, p. 176; Copeland, 'Motherhood as Institution,' in Japan Quarterly 39, 1 (1992): 101-10; Keiko Yonaha, Gendai Joryû Sakka Ron, Tokyo: Shinbisha, 1986, pp. 122-24; and Tadataka Kamiya, 'Katsuryoku to sono monogatarika: Tomioka Taeko to Tsushima Yûko,' in Kokubungaku: kaishaku to kyôzai no kinkyû, 12 (1980): 120-23.

    [12] Yûko Tsushima, Chôji, Tokyo: Kawade Shobô Shinsha, 1978, trans. Geraldine Harcourt, Child of Fortune, Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1983; Hikari no Ryôbun, Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1979; Moeru Kaze, Tokyo: Chûôkôronsha, 1980; Yama o Hashiru Onna, Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1980, trans. Geraldine Harcourt Woman Running in the Mountains, New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. Quotations from Child of Fortune and Woman Running in the Mountains are taken from Harcourt's translations, and page numbers cited refer to those editions unless otherwise stated. Quotations from Hikari no Ryôbun [The Realm of Light] and Moeru Kaze [Burning Wind] are my own, and page numbers refer to original Japanese editions. English titles are used throughout the text in all cases.

    [13] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 59.

    [14] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 147.

    [15] Muriel Jolivet, Japan: The Childless Society?, London: Routledge, 1997, p. 77.

    [16] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 34.

    [17] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 56.

    [18] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 69.

    [19] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 116.

    [20] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 9 (emphaisis added).

    [21] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, pp. 99, 179.

    [22] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 160.

    [23] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 136.

    [24] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 59.

    [25] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 113.

    [26] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 70.

    [27] Tsushima, Hikari no Ryôbun, p. 119.

    [28] Ôhinata, 'Bosei gainen,' pp. 33-41, and Sakae Kimura, 'Tozasareta Bosei,' in Bosei, pp. 191-214.

    [29] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1976, pp. 21-40.

    [30] Rozsika Parker, Mother Love/Mother Hate: The Power of Maternal Ambivalence, New York: BasicBooks, 1995, p. 219.

    [31] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 50.

    [32] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 120.

    [33] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 209.

    [34] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 211.

    [35] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, pp. 182-83.

    [36] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 262.

    [37] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 254.

    [38] For a discussion of reasons why Japanese men are not posited as caregivers in the context of a relationship breakdown, see Ueno Chizuko's article 'The Position of Japanese Women Reconsidered,' in Current Anthropology 28, 4, S75-S84.

    [39] Interview in Buckley, Broken Silence, p. 289.

    [40] Kittredge Cherry, Womansword, Tokyo: Kôdansha International, 1987, p. 57.

    [41] For a discussion of this issue, see Ôhinata, 'Bosei gainen,' 38 and Mariko Fujita, '"It's All Mother's Fault": Childcare and the Socialisation of Working Mothers in Japan,' in Journal of Japanese Studies 15, 1 (1989): 67-91.

    [42] Frank A. Johnson, Dependency and Japanese Socialisation: Psychoanalytic and Anthropological Investigations into Amae, New York: New York University Press, 1993, p. 88.

    [43] Johnson, Dependency and Japanese Socialisation, p. 88.

    [44] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 36.

    [45] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 27.

    [46] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 55.

    [47] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 78.

    [48] Tsushima, Burning Wind, p. 78.

    [49] Tsushima, Woman Running, p. 24.

    [50] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 6.

    [51] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 6 (emphasis added).

    [52] Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains, p. 9.

    [53] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 88.

    [54] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 36.

    [55] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, pp. 35-36.

    [56] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 8.

    [57] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. viii.

    [58] Tsushima, Child of Fortune, p. 141.

    [59] Sumiko Watanabe & Sadataka Muramatsu (eds), Gendai Josei Bungaku Jiten, Tokyo: Dôshuppan, 1990, p. 218.

    [60] The birth rate in Japan has been falling steadily since the 1970s. On average, the first postwar generation had four children, and the second, two. The trend is of concern to government planners, who predict labour shortages, fewer taxpayers to support a rapidly aging society, and fewer caregivers for the elderly.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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