Essay My Mother Sacrifice During Japan

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After The Bomb

Survivors of the Atomic Blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki share their stories

Photographs by HARUKA SAKAGUCHI | Introduction By LILY ROTHMAN

When the nuclear age began, there was no mistaking it. The decision by the United States to drop the world’s first atomic weapons on two Japanese cities—Hiroshima first, on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later—was that rare historical moment that requires little hindsight to gain its significance. World War II would end, and the Cold War soon begin. New frontiers of science were opening, along with new and frightening moral questions. As TIME noted in the week following the bombings, the men aboard the Enola Gay could only summon two words: “My God!”

But, even as world leaders and ordinary citizens alike immediately began struggling to process the metaphorical aftershocks, one specific set of people had to face something else. For the survivors of those ruined cities, the coming of the bomb was a personal event before it was a global one. Amid the death and destruction, some combination of luck or destiny or smarts saved them—and therefore saved the voices that can still tell the world what it looks like when human beings find new and terrible ways to destroy one another.

Today, photographer Haruka Sakaguchi is seeking out those individuals, asking them to give a testimony about what they lived through and to write a message to future generations. As the anniversaries of the bombings approach once again, here is a selection of that work.

Yasujiro Tanaka
age: 75 / location: nagasaki / DISTANCE from hypocenter: 3.4 km


“You are only given One life, So cherish this moment Cherish this day, Be kind to others, Be kind to yourself”


“I was three years old at the time of the bombing. I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once.

Then, pitch darkness.

I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told. When my uncle finally found me and pulled my tiny three year old body out from under the debris, I was unconscious. My face was misshapen. He was certain that I was dead.

Thankfully, I survived. But since that day, mysterious scabs began to form all over my body. I lost hearing in my left ear, probably due to the air blast. More than a decade after the bombing, my mother began to notice glass shards growing out of her skin – debris from the day of the bombing, presumably. My younger sister suffers from chronic muscle cramps to this day, on top of kidney issues that has her on dialysis three times a week. ‘What did I do to the Americans?’ she would often say, ‘Why did they do this to me?’

I have seen a lot of pain in my long years, but truthfully, I have lived a good life. As a firsthand witness to this atrocity, my only desire is to live a full life, hopefully in a world where people are kind to each other, and to themselves.”

Sachiko Matsuo
83 / Nagasaki / 1.3 km


“Peace is our number one priority.”


“American B-29 bombers dropped leaflets all over the city, warning us that Nagasaki would ‘fall to ashes’ on August 8. The leaflets were confiscated immediately by the kenpei (Imperial Japanese Army). My father somehow got a hold of one, and believed what it said. He built us a little barrack up along the Iwayasan (a local mountain) to hide out in.

We went up there on the 7th, the 8th. The trail up to the barrack was rugged and steep. With several children and seniors in tow, it was a demanding trek. On the morning of the 9th, my mother and aunt opted for staying in the house. “Go back up to the barrack,” my father demanded. “The US is a day behind, remember?” When they opposed, he got very upset and stormed out to go to work.

We changed our minds and decided to hide out in the barrack, for one more day. That was a defining moment for us. At 11:02am that morning, the atomic bomb was dropped. Our family – those of us at the barrack, at least – survived the bomb.

We were later able to reunite with my father. However, he soon came down with diarrhea and a high fever. His hair began to fall out and dark spots formed on his skin. My father passed away – suffering greatly – on August 28.

If it weren’t for my father, we may have suffered severe burns like Aunt Otoku, or gone missing like Atsushi, or been lodged under the house and slowly burned to death. Fifty years later, I had a dream about my father for the first time since his death. He was wearing a kimono and smiling, ever so slightly. Although we did not exchange words, I knew at that moment that he was safe in heaven.”

Takato Michishita
78 / Nagasaki / 4.7 km


“Dear young people who have never experienced war,

‘Wars begin covertly. If you sense it coming, it may be too late.’

Within the Japanese Constitution you will find Article 9, the international peace clause. For the past 72 years, we have not maimed or been maimed by a single human being in the context of war. We have flourished as a peaceful nation.

Japan is the only nation that has experienced a nuclear attack. We must assert, with far more urgency, that nuclear weapons cannot coexist with mankind.

The current administration is slowly leading our nation to war, I’m afraid. At the ripe age of 78,
I have taken it upon myself to speak out against nuclear proliferation. Now is not the time to stand idly by.

Average citizens are the primary victims of war, always. Dear young people who have never experienced the horrors of war – I fear that some of you may be taking this hard-earned peace for granted.

I pray for world peace. Furthermore, I pray that not a single Japanese citizen falls victim to the clutches of war, ever again. I pray, with all of my heart.


“‘Don’t go to school today,’ my mother said. ‘Why?’ my sister asked.

‘Just don’t.’

Air raid alarms went off regularly back then. On August 9, however, there were no air raid alarms. It was an unusually quiet summer morning, with clear blue skies as far as the eye can see. It was on this peculiar day that my mother insisted that my older sister skip school. She said she had a ‘bad feeling.’ This had never happened before.

My sister begrudgingly stayed home, while my mother and I, aged 6, went grocery shopping. Every- one was out on their verandas, enjoying the absence of piercing warning signals. Suddenly, an old man yelled ‘Plane!’ Everyone scurried into their homemade bomb shelters. My mother and I escaped into a nearby shop. As the ground began to rumble, she quickly tore off the tatami flooring, tucked me under it and hovered over me on all fours.

Everything turned white. We were too stunned to move, for about 10 minutes. When we finally crawled out from under the tatami mat, there was glass everywhere, and tiny bits of dust and debris floating in the air. The once clear blue sky had turned into an inky shade of purple and grey. We rushed home and found my sister – she was shell-shocked, but fine.

Later, we discovered that the bomb was dropped a few meters away from my sister’s school. Every person at her school died. My mother singlehandedly saved both me and my sister that day.”

Shigeko Matsumoto
77 / Nagasaki / 800 m


“I pray that every human being finds peace. Matsumoto Shigeko”


“There were no air raid alarms on the morning of August 9, 1945. We had been hiding out in the local bomb shelter for several days, but one by one, people started to head home. My siblings and I played in front of the bomb shelter entrance, waiting to be picked up by our grandfather.

Then, at 11:02am, the sky turned bright white. My siblings and I were knocked off our feet and violently slammed back into the bomb shelter. We had no idea what had happened.

As we sat there shell-shocked and confused, heavily injured burn victims came stumbling into the bomb shelter en masse. Their skin had peeled off their bodies and faces and hung limply down on the ground, in ribbons. Their hair was burnt down to a few measly centimeters from the scalp. Many of the victims collapsed as soon as they reached the bomb shelter entrance, forming a massive pile of contorted bodies. The stench and heat were unbearable.

My siblings and I were trapped in there for three days.

Finally, my grandfather found us and we made our way back to our home. I will never forget the hellscape that awaited us. Half burnt bodies lay stiff on the ground, eye balls gleaming from their sockets. Cattle lay dead along the side of the road, their abdomens grotesquely large and swollen. Thousands of bodies bopped up and down the river, bloated and purplish from soak- ing up the water. ‘Wait! Wait!’ I pleaded, as my grandfather treaded a couple paces ahead of me. I was terrified of being left behind.”

Yoshiro Yamawaki
83 / Nagasaki / 2.2 km


“‘The atom bomb killed victims three times,’ a college professor once said. Indeed, the nuclear blast has three components – heat, pressure wave, and radiation – and was unprecedented in its ability to kill en masse.

The bomb, which detonated 500m above ground level, created a bolide 200-250m in diameter and implicated tens of thousands of homes and families underneath. The pressure wave created a draft up to 70m/sec – twice that of a typhoon – which instantly destroyed homes 2km in radius from the hypo- center. The radiation continues to affect survivors to this day, who struggle with cancer and other debilitating diseases.

I was 11 years old when the bomb was dropped, 2km from where I lived. In recent years, I have been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and have undergone surgery in 2008 and 2010. The atomic bomb has also implicated our children and grandchildren.

One can understand the horrors of nuclear warfare by visiting the atomic bomb museums in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, listening to first-hand accounts of hi- bakusha survivors, and reading archival documents from that period.

Nuclear weapons should, under no circumstances, be used against humans. However, nuclear powers such as the US and Russia own stockpiles of well over 15,000 nuclear weapons. Not only that, technological advances have given way to a new kind of bomb that can deliver a blast over 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bombing.

Weapons of this capacity must be abolished from the earth. However, in our current political climate we struggle to come to a consensus, and have yet to implement a ban on nuclear weapons. This is largely because nuclear powers are boycotting the agreement.

I have resigned to the fact that nuclear weapons will not be abolished during the lifetime of us first generation hibakusha survivors. I pray that younger generations will come together to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.


“One incident I will never forget is cremating my father. My brothers and I gently laid his blackened, swollen body atop a burnt beam in front of the factory where we found him dead and set him alight. His ankles jutted out awkwardly as the rest of his body was engulfed in flames.

When we returned the next morning to collect his ashes, we discovered that his body had been partially cremated. Only his wrists, ankles, and part of his gut were burnt properly. The rest of his body lay raw and decomposed. I could not bear to see my father like this. ‘We have to leave him here,’ I urged my brothers. Finally, my oldest brother gave in, suggesting that we take a piece of his skull – based on a common practice in Japanese funerals in which family members pass around a tiny piece of the skull with chopsticks after cremation – and leave him be.

As soon as our chopsticks touched the surface, however, the skull cracked open like plaster and his half cremated brain spilled out. My brothers and I screamed and ran away, leaving our father behind. We abandoned him, in the worst state possible.”

Emiko Okada
80 / hiroshima / 2.8 km


“War is one of two things: either you kill, or get killed.

Many children are victimized by poverty, malnutrition, and discrimination to this day.

I once encountered an infant who died of hypothermia. In its mouth was a small pebble.

Children are our greatest blessing.

I believe that grownups are responsible for war. Emiko Okada”


“Hiroshima is known as a ‘city of yakuza.’ Why do you think that is? Thousands of children were orphaned on August 6, 1945. Without parents, these young children had to fend for themselves. They stole to get by. They were taken in by the wrong adults. They were later bought and sold by said adults. Orphans who grew up in Hiroshima harbor a special hatred for grownups.

I was eight when the bomb dropped. My older sister was 12. She left early that morning to work on a tatemono sokai (building demolition) site and never came home. My parents searched for her for months and months. They never found her remains. My parents refused to send an obituary notice until the day that they died, in hopes that she was healthy and alive somewhere, somehow.

I too was affected by the radiation and vomited profusely after the bomb attack.
My hair fell out, my gums bled, and I was too ill to attend school. My grandmother lamented the suffering of her children and grandchildren and prayed. “How cruel, how so very cruel, if only it weren’t for the pika-don (phonetic name for the atomic bomb)…” This was a stock phrase of hers until the day that she died.

The war was caused by the selfish misdeeds of adults. Many children fell victim because of it. Alas, this is still the case today. Us adults must do everything we can to protect the lives and dignity of our children. Children are our greatest blessing.”

Masakatsu Obata
99 / nagasaki / 1.5 km


“I often think that humans go into war to satisfy their greed.
If we rid ourselves of greed and help each other instead, I believe that we will be able to coexist without war. I hope to live on with everyone else, informed by this logic.

This is just a thought of mine – each person has differing thoughts and ideologies, which is what makes things challenging.”


“I was working at the Mitsubishi factory on the morning of August 9. An alert warning went off. ‘I wonder if there will be another air raid today,’ a coworker pondered. Just then, the alert warning turned into an air raid warning.

I decided to stay inside the factory. The air raid warning eventually subsided. It must have been around 11. I started to look forward to the baked potato that I had brought for lunch that day, when suddenly, I was surrounded by a blinding light. I immediately dropped on my stomach. The slated roof and walls of the factory crumbled and fell on top of my bare back. ‘I’m going to die,’ I thought. I longed for my wife and daughter, who was only several months old.

I rose to my feet some moments later. The roof had been completely blown off our building. I peered up at the sky. The walls were also destroyed – as were the houses that surrounded the factory – revealing a dead open space. The factory motor had stopped running. It was eerily quiet. I immediately headed to a nearby air raid shelter.

There, I encountered a coworker who had been exposed to the bomb outside of the factory. His face and body were swollen, about one and a half times the size. His skin was melted off, exposing his raw flesh. He was helping out a group of young students at the air raid shelter.

‘Do I look alright?’ he asked me. I didn’t have the heart to answer. ‘You look quite swollen,’ were the only words I could muster. The coworker died three days later, or so I’ve heard.”

Kumiko Arakawa
92 / nagasaki / 2.9 km


Ms. Arakawa has very little recollection of how she survived the bombing after August 9, having lost both of her parents and four siblings to the atomic bomb attack. When asked to write a message for future generations, she replied, “Nani
mo omoitsukanai (I can’t think of anything).”


“I was 20 years old when the bomb was dropped. I lived in Sakamotomachi – 500m from the hypocenter – with my parents and eight siblings. As the war situation intensified, my three youngest sisters were sent off to the outskirts and my younger brother headed to Saga to serve in the military.

I worked at the prefectural office. As of April of 1945, our branch temporarily relocated to a local school campus 2.9km away from the hypocenter because our main office was beside a wood building (author’s note: flammable in case of an air strike). On the morning of August 9, several friends and I went up to the rooftop to look out over the city after a brief air raid. As I peered up, I saw something long and thin fall from the sky. At that moment, the sky turned bright and my friends and I ducked into a nearby stairwell.

After a while, when the commotion subsided, we headed to the park for safety. Upon hearing that Sakamotoma- chi was inaccessible due to fires, I decided to stay with a friend in Oura. As I headed back home the next day, an acquaintance informed me that my parents were at an air raid shelter nearby. I headed over and found both of them suffering severe burns. They died, two days later.

My older sister was killed by the initial blast, at home. My two younger sisters were injured heavily and died within a day of the bombing. My other sister was found dead at the foyer of our house. There are countless tombstones all over Nagasaki with a name inscription but no ikotsu (cremated bone remains). I take solace in the fact that all six members of my family have ikotsu and rest together peacefully.

At age 20, I was suddenly required to support my surviving family members. I have no recollection of how I put my younger sisters through school, who we relied on, how we survived. Some people have asked me what I saw on my way home the day after the bombing, on August 10 – ‘surely you saw many dead bodies,’ they would say – but I don’t recall seeing a single corpse. It sounds strange, I’m sure – but it is the truth.

I am now 92 years old. I pray everyday that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren spend their entire lives knowing only peace.”

Fujio Torikoshi
86 / hiroshima / 2 KM


“Life is a curious treasure.”


“On the morning of August 6, I was preparing to go to the hospital with my mother. I had been diagnosed with kakke (vitamin deficiency) a few days earlier and had taken the day off school to get a medical exam. As my mother and I were eating breakfast, I heard the deep rumble of engines overhead. Our ears were trained back then; I knew it was a B-29 immediately. I stepped out into the field out front but saw no planes.

Bewildered, I glanced to the northeast. I saw a black dot in the sky. Suddenly, it ‘burst’ into a ball of blinding light that filled my surroundings. A gust of hot wind hit my face; I instantly closed my eyes and knelt down to the ground. As I tried to gain footing, another gust of wind lifted me up and I hit something hard. I do not remember what happened after that.

When I finally came to, I was passed out in front of a bouka suisou (stone water container used to extinguish fires back then). Suddenly, I felt an intense burning sensation on my face and arms, and tried to dunk my body into the bouka suisou. The water made it worse. I heard my mother’s voice in the distance. ‘Fujio! Fujio!’ I clung to her desperately as she scooped me up in her arms. ‘It burns, mama! It burns!’

I drifted in and out of consciousness for the next few days. My face swelled up so badly that I could not open my eyes. I was treated briefly at an air raid shelter and later at a hospital in Hatsukaichi, and was eventually brought home wrapped in bandages all over my body. I was unconscious for the next few days, fighting a high fever. I finally woke up to a stream of light filtering in through the bandages over my eyes and my mother sitting beside me, playing a lullaby on her harmonica.

I was told that I had until about age 20 to live. Yet here I am seven decades later, aged 86. All I want to do is forget, but the prominent keloid scar on my neck is a daily reminder of the atomic bomb. We cannot continue to sacrifice precious lives to warfare. All I can do is pray – earnestly, relentlessly – for world peace.”

Inosuke Hayasaki
86 / nagasaki / 1.1 km


“I am very thankful for the opportunity to meet with you and speak with you about world peace and the implications of the atom bomb.

I, Hayasaki, have been deeply indebted to the Heiwasuishinkyokai for arranging this meeting, amongst many other things. You have traveled far from the US – how long and arduous your journey must have been. Seventy two years have passed since the bombing – alas, young people of this generation have forgotten the tragedies of war and many pay no mind to the Peace Bell of Nagasaki. Perhaps this is for the better, an indication that the current generation revels in peace. Still, whenever I see people of my own generation join their hands before the Peace Bell, my thoughts go out to them.

May the citizens of Nagasaki never forget the day when 74,000 people were instantaneously turned into dust. Currently, it seems Americans have a stronger desire for peace than us Japanese. During the war, we were told that the greatest honor was to die for our country and be laid to rest at the Yasukuni Shrine.

We were told that we should not cry but rejoice when family members died in the war effort. We could not utter a single word of defiance to these cruel and merciless demands; we had no freedoms. In addition, the entire country was starving – not a single treat or needle to be seen at the department store. A young child may beg his mother for a snack but she could do nothing – can you imagine how tormenting that is to a mother?


“The injured were sprawled out over the railroad tracks, scorched and black. When I walked by, they moaned in agony. ‘Water… water…’

I heard a man in passing announce that giving water to the burn victims would kill them. I was torn. I knew that these people had hours, if not minutes, to live. These burn victims – they were no longer of this world.

‘Water… water…’

I decided to look for a water source. Luckily, I found a futon nearby engulfed in flames. I tore a piece of it off, dipped it in the rice paddy nearby, and wrang it over the burn victims’ mouths. There were about 40 of them. I went back and forth, from the rice paddy to the railroad tracks. They drank the muddy water eagerly. Among them was my dear friend Yamada. ‘Yama- da! Yamada!’ I exclaimed, giddy to see a familiar face. I placed my hand on his chest. His skin slid right off, exposing his flesh. I was mortified. ‘Water…’ he murmured. I wrang the water over his mouth. Five minutes later, he was dead.

In fact, most of the people I tended to were dead.

I cannot help but think that I killed those burn victims. What if I hadn’t given them water? Would many of them have lived? I think about this everyday.”

We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for the countless lives that

were lost due to the bombing, and the many survivors who have lived in pain and struggle since. We cannot shatter this momentum of peace – it is priceless. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died under the insurmountable greed of the Japanese military elite class. We cannot forget those young soldiers who silently longed for their parents, yearned for their wives and children as they passed away amidst the chaos of war. American soldiers have faced similar hardships. We must cherish peace, even if it leaves us poor. The smile pales when peace is taken from us. Wars of today no longer yield winners and losers – we all become losers, as our habitats become inhabitable. We must remember that our happiness today is built upon the hopes and dreams of those that passed before us.

Japan is a phenomenal country – however, we must be cognizant of the fact that we waged war on the US, and received aid from them afterwards. We must be cognizant of the pain that we inflicted upon our neighbors during the war. Fa- vors and good deeds are often forgotten, but trauma and misdeeds are passed on from one generation to the other – such is the way the world works. The ability to live in peace is a country’s most prized commodity. I pray that Japan continues to be a shining example of peace and harmony. I pray that this message resonates with young people all over the globe. Please excuse my handwriting.

Ryouga Suwa
84 / hiroshima / entered the affected area after the bombing and was exposed to radiation


“Within the Buddhist vernacular, there is a bird called the gumyouchou. This bird has one body and two heads. Even if two entities have differing ideologies or philosophies, their lives are bound together by a single form – this is a Buddhist principle manifested in the form of a bird.

It would be ideal if we could all cultivate in us the ability to dignify each other instead of getting upset over our differences.”


“I am the 16th generation chief priest of Johoji Temple in Otemachi. The original Johoji Temple was within 500m of the hypocenter. It was instantly destroyed, along with the 1300 households that used to make up the area that is now called Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. My parents remain missing to this day and my sister Reiko was pronounced dead.

I, on the other hand, was evacuated in Miyoshi-shi, 50km away from the hypocenter. I am what you would call a genbaku-koji (atomic bomb orphan). I was 12 years old at the time. When I returned to Hiroshima on September 16 – one month and 10 days after the bomb attack – what remained of the property was a cluster of overturned tombstones from the temple cemetery. Hiroshima was a flat wasteland. I remember feeling shocked that I could make out the Setonai Islands in the distance, which used to be inhibited by buildings.

In 1951, the temple was relocated to its current address. The new Johoji was rebuilt by the hands of our supporters and thrived along with the eventual revival of Hiroshima City. We practice an anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons philosophy here and have partnered with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park every year to coordinate lectures and events and pursue hibaku building restoration projects.”

Haruka Sakaguchi is a photographer based in New york City

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is time‘s Deputy Director of Photography

Lily Rothman is time‘s History and Archives Editor

Key words: Japan, marriage, family, childrearing, parenting, mother


Chihiro is an articulate, outgoing Japanese woman who enjoys taking on leadership roles. A mother of two young children, she frequently volunteers to organize PTA events at her children's elementary school, is enrolled in a variety of enrichment activities, and has a part-time job. Yet, in several wide-ranging interviews with my research team, she revealed her deep ambivalence about the role of mother. Describing herself as lacking the temperament and "qualifications" to be a good mother, she admitted that her life as a stay-at-home mother was not fulfilling her intellectual or emotional needs: "Well I think I'm longing for a stimulation that I'm not getting from life now. I want to see the outside world. I feel like there are so many things that I can learn, like going to school, studying, getting a job." But, she believed, the opportunity to engage deeply in a professional career has passed forever. Although her undergraduate teachers had encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree, she chose not to do so, a decision she had come to regret: "So I wonder if I would be leading another life if I had done that. It might be more fun, you know...I think I made a mistake."

Chihiro is just one of many highly educated young women in Japan who are asking questions about the role of wife and mother. Indeed, many are deciding to postpone marriage and childrearing for as long as possible, if not entirely. Over the past 60 years, the birth rate in Japan has dropped from 4.5 to 1.3 and Japan has become one of the least fertile and fastest aging countries in the world. By 2055, economists project that one in four Japanese citizens will be 75 years or older (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2003). This drop will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects on the economy of Japan, and the government is rightly concerned about the future of the country.

Why are so many Japanese women postponing or opting out of family life? While many industrialized countries are experiencing similarly reduced birth rates, the Japanese phenomenon is particularly surprising due to the strong identification that women have had with the role of mother over the past half century. And they have not yet been able to break into the workforce in anywhere near the numbers attained by their counterparts in Western countries. Without attractive alternatives to becoming a mother, it is all the more striking that many are eschewing this role.

Politicians and pundits have developed many theories to explain what is going on, but the surprising fact is that little is known about Japanese women's own perceptions on these issues. In spite of Japanese officials' deep concern about the declining birth rate, they have paid little attention to the viewpoint of the women who are to make these important decisions. And as psychologist Keiko Kashiwagi (1998) has noted, most academic researchers have viewed Japanese women as an "environment" for producing children rather than as individuals whose own beliefs and feelings should be considered apart from their skill in producing high-achieving children.

To address these information gaps, I began a program of research in 2000 to learn how Japanese women perceived the role of mother and to understand more about their daily life experiences. Data from opinion polls and surveys administered at that time suggested that compared to their counterparts in the West and in other Asian countries, Japanese women tend to view child rearing as a difficult job with relatively few emotional rewards. And many Japanese mothers characterized themselves as doing a poor job at parenting and described feeling plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. What is it like for those women who go through daily life perceiving that they are failing at the one role deemed by many to be of utmost importance for women? And - on a more optimistic note -- what are the factors that contribute to the happiness of women who have achieved a degree of satisfaction with their lives? These were the questions that captivated me when I began this research project.


Listening to Women's Voices

In the summer of 2000, three Japanese doctoral students and I interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women. We kept in contact with the women over the next three years, and administered two additional surveys, one when their children were in first grade, and one when they were in second grade.

When we started the project, the average age of the women was 36 years old. All of them had at least one child in the last year of preschool. Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. About 60 percent of the mothers had pursued education after high school, including specialized vocational training, junior college, or university.

From these 116 women, we selected 16 mothers in Osaka to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of them had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. Within each educational group, we chose some women who demonstrated high parenting efficacy on the survey (i.e., who felt confident in teaching, disciplining and interacting with their children), and some who demonstrated low-efficacy beliefs. We conducted four in-depth interviews with each of the 16 mothers between 2000 and 2003.

The most recent product drawing from this data set is a book (Women and Family in Contemporary Japan) published in 2010. In writing this book, I wanted first and foremost to pay attention to the women's own individual experiences. I also wanted to set Japanese women's lives in a more general historical context, focusing particularly on the role of government policies and corporate actions in shaping the opportunities and barriers that women have faced in the modern period. And I was interested in how cultural norms and values - some persistent and some changing -- have interacted with these institutional actors to set the parameters of women's experience.

In this essay, I report some findings from the book, focusing on three factors that characterized the women who felt successful in the role of mother and satisfied with their lives: reasonable standards regarding their own parenting accomplishments, adequate emotional support from their husbands, and opportunity for meaningful employment.


Becoming "My Kind of Mother"

In contemporary Japanese society, mothers are often given very specific advice about how to engage in certain parenting activities. For example, a parenting magazine may offer detailed guidelines about how to enter a playground with one's child in a way that will gain acceptance from other mothers and their children. Although a woman can derive comfort from the idea of conforming to a clear blueprint, the danger is that she will come to believe that any deviation from the blueprint will have disastrous consequences for herself or her children. Indeed, reliance on "how-to" manuals has been linked in Japan to "manual syndrome," in which these guides, with their blend of "performance perfectionism, a curriculum of conformity, and high demands," ultimately erode rather than build confidence as intended (White, 1995, p. 271).

The cultural practice of following an established blueprint is linked to a second practice, that of hansei, or reflecting deeply on one's performance in order to identify and correct weaknesses. As our research team delved into women's thoughts about being a mother, we began to see that some mothers seemed tormented by endless speculation on what they were doing wrong, while others seemed to be able to engage in hansei without becoming overly self-critical and paralyzed with self-doubt.

Miyuki, a mother of three children, provides a good example of someone who was thoughtful but avoided excessive worrying about whether or not she was doing everything well: "I didn't really have the mental energy to think about not being confident. I was just concentrating on being my kind of mother because that's good enough." Miyuki thought that if she avoided comparing herself to others, she would feel more confident: "I think there are many kinds of mothers. I think it's pointless to say that this kind of mother is good or that kind is good. I think that I am myself and I've never thought about imitating other mothers."

Yasuko, another mother of three, believed that it was desirable (and inevitable) for mothers to engage in constructive self-questioning: "There's no such thing as doing something perfectly, so you will question yourself as to whether or not you're raising your children in the right way." However, she believed that mothers could evaluate their actions in a way that did not lead to emotional anxiety and behavioral instability. In our study, women like Miyuki and Yasuko who could forgive themselves for their imperfections were able to make room for an idiosyncratic approach to child rearing that was attuned to their own personal needs and those of their children. These women seemed to have happier and more satisfying lives.


Supportive Husbands: A Rare and Valuable Commodity

While parents - and mothers in particular - receive a lot of criticism in many societies, Japanese women seem to be subjected to an extraordinary degree of excoriation by politicians, media pundits, educators, and physicians. Certainly, it is worth considering whether this critical treatment is one factor contributing to women's discouragement about family life and disinclination to engage in child rearing. Many Japanese people accept the idea that negative evaluation by others can lead one to heightened effort and improved performance; this cultural model may be associated with the notion of "mutual polishing" in the Zen Buddhist tradition (Hori, 1996). In contrast, within Western psychological theory, the assumption is that other people's positive rather than negative judgments give rise to positive self-evaluation, which in turn motivates an individual to persist and do well (Bandura, 1997).

Our research team examined the support and criticism that the participating mothers received from various quarters. We found that husbands were the most crucial actors in this respect. Contrary to the stereotype of Japanese men as unimportant or peripheral family members, the behavior of the husbands in our study - as perceived by their wives -- was strongly related to the women's emotional well-being and sense of child-rearing efficacy. Most of the women did not expect their husbands to participate extensively in housework, but they wanted them to be actively involved with their children. The women also wanted their husbands to provide emotional support, mostly by listening carefully and sympathetically to their worries. To a lesser extent, they expected to benefit from their husbands' suggestions and advice.

Our interview data revealed that many wives felt quite frustrated and angry with their husbands, but there were a few women who were happy with the partnership they had created in their married lives. In general, these couples seem to be pushing toward some new ideas about marriage, moving away from an exclusive focus on economic stability and child rearing and moving toward a goal of emotional interdependence characterized by frequent and intimate communication.

Asako is one of these happily married women. She described herself as an atypical Japanese woman because she was very athletic and committed to the game of soccer. However, she had been fortunate to meet a man who shared her passion for soccer, and their mutual love of sports became a foundation of their marriage. In addition to supporting her involvement in soccer at a semi-professional level, Asako's husband participated actively and willingly in the rearing of their young son, Kaito. Asako jokingly told us that sometimes felt lonely on the weekends "because he takes our son with him wherever he goes!" Attuned to his son's interests and capabilities, Asako's husband tried to find activities that he would enjoy. For example, at a point when Kaito was interested in trains, the pair took train rides around the city for fun, and Kaito learned to identify numbers and characters by reading the train schedules and deciphering the signs posted at each station.

Asako felt more confident than most women about her child-rearing skills, in part because she and her husband discussed how to deal with problems and used teamwork to provide effective discipline. For example, her husband would avoid taking sides when Asako was scolding Kaito so that afterwards he could seek comfort from his father.

In summary, the women we interviewed were not expecting their husbands to spend much time on housework or childrearing. Their low expectations are borne out by survey results comparing Japanese men to men in Western and Asian countries. For example, according to a recent report, men living in Tokyo were reportedly less involved in housework and childcare than were fathers in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei (Benesse, 2006a, 2006b). But they were hoping for their husbands to be involved, communicative, and emotionally supportive. We found little evidence that women were satisfied with a silent, undemonstrative partner.


Staying in the Workplace

The story of women's employment in Japan makes it difficult to feature a positive story without at least prefacing it with some remarks about the challenges. The story of Miyuki illustrates the difficulties that women face in combining work and family life.

When Miyuki was a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a preschool teacher. Over the next ten years, thanks to her hard work and her parents' economic sacrifice, she was able to attend a junior college and receive a teaching certificate. She obtained a job as a teacher and plunged into her work with enthusiasm and dedication. Yet, two short years later, she became engaged and found herself confronted with the prospect of combining career and family life. Her parents believed that she should quit her job, telling her, "You are clumsy. We do not think you can handle both housework and your job." Her fiancée agreed with this assessment, remarking, "New computers can do so many things simultaneously, right? But old ones can handle only one thing at a tie. You are an old computer." Regretfully but convinced that her family members were correct, Miyuki gave up the job. When the youngest of her three children entered elementary school, Miyuki went back on the job market, but learned that the preschools in her area were only employing younger women fresh out of college. She eventually gave up the search for a teaching position and took a part-time job as a cashier at a convenience store.

Miyuki's story is one that is familiar across Japan. In spite of being highly educated, fewer Japanese women remain employed after they have children than do women in other countries, and most who leave the workforce do not return to jobs with comparable status. Japanese corporate policies - including a demand for continuous service and exclusive allegiance from workers - have made it difficult for women to move in and out of full-time work. The failure of the government and corporations to develop family friendly workplace has contributed to a striking drop in women's interest in full-time employment over the last decade, even as their educational attainment continues to rise.

Most of the women in our sample wanted to work at least part-time in order to supplement the family income; in particular they saw their own employment as making it possible to enroll their children in supplementary classes and lessons. Some enjoyed the feeling of independence that came with earning a paycheck, particularly because they no longer had to ask their husbands about personal purchases for themselves or their children. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of working, according to these women, was that it gave them the opportunity to interact with other people and see a bit of the outside world.

Although most women in our study had, like Miyuki, quit their jobs around the time they became engaged, a few were able to overcome these social norms and stay on the job, mostly through sheer force of will. For example, Masayo told us that she had received no encouragement from her parents to pursue an education beyond high school. Her father was a "traditional man" who "said that women need no education" and her mother expected her to "be feminine, help with the housework, and find a husband." Masayo's parents discouraged her from studying hard in high school and would literally turn off the lights when she was trying to do her homework in the evenings.

However, Masayo described herself as an ambitious girl who was determined to pursue her education: "I was a rebel. I had a strong will to go to the university... I felt like, why do I have to lose to men?" She was able to go to college when her father died unexpectedly and she became eligible for tuition assistance from the government. She eventually received a bachelor's degree and teaching certification and took a job as an elementary school teacher.

Although her husband wanted her to quit when they married, she resorted to the indirect strategy of procrastination:

I did not want to resign. Well, I did think about quitting, but I decided to wait to do so until after getting pregnant. Then, after we had a kid, I waited again until the end of my paid maternity leave. So in the end, I just kept on putting off quitting my job. [Laughs.] He [her husband] gave up on that for me.


Lessons Learned

The results of our research suggest that women's effectiveness in the role of mother was only partially a function of their own decisions. Their sense of competence and ability to engage fully and joyfully in parenting were also affected by the support they received from immediate family members and the more distal policies and practices of government and corporate interests. Thus, engaging in a systemic analysis of the institutions and policies that set the conditions surrounding the role of mother is essential to understanding how to support contemporary families.

The insights gleaned from the thoughtful mothers in our study have a number of implications for practitioners in the fields of psychology, social welfare, and education. In recent years, municipal governments in Japan have initiated various types of programs to support mothers but these playgroups and classes tend to promote the notion that child rearing should be "standardized and systematized" (Sasagawa, 2006, p. 142). Taking a top-down approach to teaching a "standard"' way of raising children may create a temporary feeling of security among some mothers but the cost of this expert-driven approach is high. The findings from our research suggest that it would be better to support women's own efforts to articulate what it means to be - as Miyuki said -- "my kind of mother."

A second set of implications concerns the practice and promise of psychotherapy. We noted that many women expressed a considerable amount of anger in talking about (and to) their husbands. While they reported that it was sometimes possible to vent these frustrations in conversations with friends, they often added that it was not always advisable to be candid with friends and that they sometimes experienced feelings of competition or inadequacy. The private and structured opportunity for self-exploration in a therapeutic relationship may offer possibilities for support and growth beyond what is afforded by peer relationships. Individual psychotherapy may help Japanese women find a private solution to their problems and a way to satisfy their deep need to feel cared for as well as to care for others (Borovoy, 2005). Local and national government agencies can work toward funding mental health programs and lessening the stigma of seeking this type of assistance.

A third set of implications pertains to the ways labor policies can be altered to support rather than detract from family life. First, corporate policy should stop making experience within a single firm the main criterion for advancement and remuneration, and it should start acknowledging experience garnered in other workplaces (see Rosenbluth, 2007). These changes will make it easier for women to move in and out of the workplace as their children's needs change over time. Additionally, companies should reduce or eliminate such practices as mandatory overtime, after-hours socializing, frequent job transfers, and pressure not to take vacation days.

The government should step up its enforcement of the Employment Measure Act to discourage firms from discriminating against older workers (Hamaguchi, 2007; Sakuraba, 2007). The government should also continue taking action against companies that fail to offer equitable opportunities and remuneration to males and females. In 1997, progress was made in strengthening the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) to enable parents to petition employers to exempt them from night shifts and to work shorter hours, and by encouraging employers to rehire workers who were attempting to return to work after taking a family-related leave. Further legislation approved in 2001 increased the penalties for companies that retaliate against parents who try to take child-care leave, and contained provisions addressed at fathers as well as mothers, such as a requirement that parents of young children can insist on limiting their overtime to 150 hours a year. However, employer discrimination continues to be directed towards women who get pregnant or take time off to care for their children and, as Schoppa (2007) writes, "the percentage of women in full-time, regular jobs staying in those jobs through marriage and child rearing is actually lower than it was in 1992!" (p. 178, emphasis in original).

In summary, the declining birth rate in Japan can and should be seen as an indicator that social changes are needed to make the role of mother more rewarding to the increasingly well-educated and socially powerful female population in that country. The women in our study expressed a variety of views and articulated diverse goals, but they did convey one clear message - namely, that it is imperative to heed their voices and respect their contribution to the ever-changing discourse about what it means to be a wife and mother in Japan.



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More information about Susan D. Holloway's new book, Women and Family in Contemporary Japan, can be found at the following link:


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