As evidenced by this poll of “Perfect Mothers” and the recent appearance of multiple magazines dedicated to being a stylish “gyaru mama,” we seem to be living in the midst of a “young mother” boom in Japan. The domestic-yet-glamorous lifestyle of famed young moms like 22 year-old Tsuji Nozomi (ex-Morning Musume) has become prime-time television fodder, and the most prominent heroines in the gyaru subculture — namely, Popteen‘s Masuwaka Tsubasa and Koakuma Ageha‘s Momoka Eri — flagrantly balance busy careers with child-rearing. The Japanese slang yanmama (ヤンママ) has lost its original pejorative context, no longer meaning delinquent “yankii mother” but now just “young mother” in a politically-neutral tone. Yanmamas are not just heartwarming — they’re fashionable.
Many of these young women surely owe their bold new maternal identities to the consequences of barrier-free reproductive activity. Everyone loves to excuse a total and thorough disinterest in birth control pills and patches by claiming a “widespread use of condoms”, but I think we all secretly know that Japanese young people cannot be bothered to use any form of contraception at all. So you end up with a substantial amount of babies, and with the Japanese traditionally relying on social obligation to chart all life courses, most of these teenage moms end up getting properly married to their boyfriends before the water breaks. (These stats call all pre-marriage babies “out-of-wedlock births” but I would guess most get married after conception.)
At least in my understanding, the unplanned and hasty move into parenthood has always been a major part of Japanese rural working-class culture. The curse of late childbirth mainly afflicts educated working women who cling to selfish “life goals” and want trivial things like “careers.” So even if yanmama have become a media boom, the young mother phenomenon strikes most directly amongst women outside of the traditional “good girl” white-collar (or white-collar husband finding) career path: whether than means “reader models” for gyaru magazines like Masuwaka, young pop idols like Tsuji, or high-school drop outs in Ibaraki. Tokyo University is not ravaged by pregnant students. These days, however, Japanese society has dropped all pretense of being a nation of “universal middle-class sexual values.” In fact, mainstream pop culture now looks more to previously-ignored working-class subcultures than to snobby Tokyo art-school kids from good families. The mainstreaming of young mothers is most likely not a trend in itself, but a subsidiary trend in the larger mainstreaming of yankii values. There were always women who had kids at 18 or 19, but it’s no longer something to hide or dismiss as deviance. It’s a cause for celebration, and those celebrations are taking place out in the open.
So there had been young mothers, but the new “cool factor” seems to be dependent upon the changes in the meaning of child-rearing within the paradigm of youth. In the past, having a kid was the ultimate sign of “graduation” from adolescence. Even the yankii bad boys would hang up their tokkofuku at 20 to get a soul-crushing job and support the new family. This is 2009, however, and the entire idea of “responsibly-timed youth deviance” feels a bit old-fashioned. The latest growth market in the gyaru style community is gyaru children’s clothing, because young delinquent mothers want to dress their future-delinquent babies in identical outfits from their favorite Shibuya 109 brands. There is no longer a need nor requirement to “graduate” — only a journey of self to find the perfect balance between individual expression, work, and child-rearing. In the recent issue of Brutus on gyaru culture, Masuwaka Tsubasa claimed that she spends “99% of her time on family and home, and only 1% on work.” This ratio is not physically possible, seeing that Tsubasa is always up to some new cross-promotional activities and magazine modeling, but her style leader status faces no threat from the fact that she defines herself first and foremost as a mother. Being both a mom and a model perhaps has come to embody the Japanese ideals of perseverance and hard work more than dedicating solely to just one single identity.
For whatever reason, the “young father” oddly does not seem to be part of this particular phenomenon. In most gyaru media, boys vaguely exist somewhere off-screen — whether because girls want a repose from constant sexual advances or just take male interaction for granted. It is also worth mentioning that many of the Koakuma Ageha hostess-model heroes are “single mothers” (シンママ), whose young marriages fell apart almost instantly. In most post-industrial societies, early marriage has a much higher rate of failure than later marriage, and anecdotally-speaking, there is not a lot of promise: almost all the Japanese celebrities who trail-blazed the young mother boom — Amuro Namie, Shiina Ringo, Tsuchiya Anna, etc. — divorced within a few years. Current celeb moms like Saeko and Tsuji are happily married for the moment, but the odds are against them. I assume that the de-emphasis on “young fathers” unconsciously takes this harsh reality into the equation. More likely, the potential dad pool is not daydreaming about sacrificing the peak years of libertinage for a single woman and sober family life.
Of course, any talk of baby boom pricks up the ears of social policy planners and amateur pundits, who are eager to know how this pop culture moment impacts Japan’s apocalyptically-low birth rate. I am not sure there are enough Shibuya 109 yanmama to make up for the older cohorts’ abject failure to adequately reproduce, and more critically, I am not sure 19 year-old moms are pumping out the kind of dedicated worker drones required by the bureaucratic blueprints of Kasumigaseki. Many will have a hard time avoiding the question, are the wrong kind of Japanese reproducing? The American film Idiocracy took up a similar topic and expounded a predictable moral panic on the impending dominance of lower-class values. For better or worse, the same population principle could be applied to contemporary Japan: the least elite kids are churning out lots of babies, and apples don’t fall far from the tree.