Tokyo (WeNews\WFS) – Emlyn was a carefree young woman till she realised 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."
By Suvendrini Kakuch
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."
According to the 2003 national survey of single mothers and other households conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were 1.2 million single mothers in the country. This constitutes an increase of 28 per cent since the last survey conducted in 1998 – the number of households headed by single mothers then was 954,000. Among these, 79.9 per cent were divorcees, 12.0 per cent widows and 5.8 per cent were never-married mothers.
But while the number of single moms has been on the rise, bringing up a child alone has its challenges, brought on largely due to difficulties in finding appropriate employment. That’s because barriers for single mothers in the Japanese job market are many. According to Terue Shinkaawa, a social commentator and divorced mother of two, single mothers are doomed to a life of financial hardship as Japan's male-dominated workplace frowns on women having children. Emlyn confirms this, saying that 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," she recalls. In the end, though, she was compelled to find another source of steady income.
Money is definitely hard to come by for these single crusaders. Sample this: The 2002 figures, as per the Single Mothers Forum, a support group, reveal that about 60 per cent of single mothers earn less than three million yen annually - about $25,000. And 41 per cent earn even less - salaries below two 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 raise 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 website run by the Single Mothers Forum.
But despite the tears and tough times, 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, 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 do not register 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 website 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, “Marriage is too stifling."