The Yanmama Boom

Young Mothers

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.

W. David MARX
May 11, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

28 Responses

  1. grz Says:

    Interesting, and a good segue from the podcast.
    Maybe I’m missing something, and being a bit reductivist, but this is what I understand, and seems a bit extreme, no?: A post-industrialized nation (though singular its aging population/repopulation problems) with young mothers, replenishing the ranks with kids of incompatible values of the “national mainstream” that will not raise children of the same upstanding work ethics; young moms with socially, economically, culturally-underprivileged children, creating a downward spiral on every front. Is it not similar to the American pro-pregnant-teen-mom-movie-Juno scare?: media-hyped and it will blow over.

  2. Don Says:

    Case in point: http://www.toei.co.jp/release/movie/1188761_979.html

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Juno is a good parallel, but it seemed to be the indie aestheticization of teen pregnancy rather than a “real” example of the average case in the U.S. In Japan, my guess is that girls from the gyaru world (even before they were called gyaru or dressed the way they dress now) were having babies much earlier than the good girls of An•An and even CanCam. So I think the boom is not a media-led aestheticization of teen pregnancy as much as the reality kind of “popping out” into the Japanese media — and the girls themselves are aestheticizating it to their own subcultural style.

    I don’t know whether there is any sort of moral panic about the gyaru mama. I don’t want to say that the mainstream media is going out of its way to support it, but there is no judgment on the girls either.

  4. grz Says:

    Though Juno was nothing more than a Hollywood fantasy, the reaction to teen pregnancy in America in the last two decades has been even to the media-hyperbole extent of an “epidemic”, which led to a nationalization of teen pregnancy awareness in public schools’ health classes the country over: “abstinence education in reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing”, “prom promise”, etc.
    Japan does not seem to have that wide scale of a problem, the consequent moral panic, or the global solutions: possibly because girls from the gyaru world are only a temporary phenomenon (not in the saying that the “bad girls” weren’t getting pregnant before, but media-coverage-wise), and do not signify or represent anything overall besides a minority.
    The fact that they escape any critical scrutiny may be that it’s of that same vein of inconsequentiality.

  5. grz Says:

    Did I say two decades? I meant: “in the history of American media, period”.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    http://www.japantoday.com/category/entertainment/view/narumi-yasuda-four-others-win-best-mother-awards-in-2009

    This is interesting in that this is who “responsible adults” decided to give awards to: older women. The poll of young people, however, tells a different picture.

  7. Japanese government tells citizens that having children is not a “duty” | Japan Probe Says:

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  8. TheStrawMan Says:

    Good article Marxy, this is what I come to this site for.

    Regarding Yanmama, the most striking thing about the phenomenon for me, is that it represents a conscious effort on the part of the mothers to maintain some continuity of lifestyle/identity between their pre and post-child selves.

    What I mean is, of course in any country anywhere a person’s life changes a lot when a baby comes, but I’ve always been struck by how large this change seems to be in Japan.
    For example, after having a child, couples often refer to each other exclusively as Otou-san and Okaa-san, or some variation thereof.

    It also seems that many marriages suffer a big drop-off of intimacy once a child is born. Especially if the parents take to sleeping in separate beds/rooms, or the child shares a bed with one or both of the parents.
    While some of this is probably natural and occurs in other countries, it just seems to me to be more widespread here.

    So, while the Yankee/Gyaru lifestyle is not one that holds attraction for me, I can respect the Yanmamas’ desire to maintain some individual identity, and not strictly be defined by their role as “mother”.
    Of course, I would still hope they would be good mothers and raise their kids well, which may or may not be the case.

    So maybe one reason why this phenomenon has been taken up by the media, is that it appeals vicariously to the many women who have had, or will have to, change their identities/lifestyles to fit the role of mother.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    You make a good point: I think this yanmama trend is a pretty direct reaction against the idea that motherhood must be a full-time, identity-consuming job. This seems to be a positive change, for sure.

  10. RMilner Says:

    It is too early to tell if the Yanmamas will become very fecund, or stop at one child like their older counterparts.

  11. KokuRyu Says:

    I used to part-time as a wedding officiant (ie, fake priest) in rural Shiga, Fukui and Ishikawa, and 30% of the weddings I did were shotgun weddings between yankii 20-year-olds.

    Outside of the bigger cities, the region was very yankii – lots of fishing and construction jobs for the men, no jobs for the women, so women do get married young.

  12. LS Says:

    This is a great post.

    Is access to abortion real a factor in who ends up actually having kids, given that no one uses contraception? Why is the state of birth control in Japan so dismal, anyhow?

  13. Peter Says:

    Marxy, very interesting post.

    I think that there are more or less two groups of women involved in life planning: the career-oriented woman, whose family planning comes secondary to at least the first phase of her career, and the reluctant housewife, who for whatever reason desires to marry and have kids, and will kill time doing various things until that comes to fruition.

    The “young mother” phenomenon here is neither of the above. Although I will not pretend to grade Tsuji and other seemingly accidental mothers like her, I will say, as a new father myself, that trying to make motherhood fashionable will not at all make it any easier. When that illusion fades, the glamour of being married and childrearing in one’s early 20′s may wear off, and hopefully it will be replaced by a slightly more realistic set of values.

  14. xee Says:

    i was reading RS Yoder’s “Youth Deviance in Japan” (which by the way appears not to have been proofread – many misplaced apostrophes, and i suspect that all the m-dashes disappeared between writing and printing and were not noticed. poor old academic publishing) the other day, which nicely suited all my left-over thoughts from hearing the podcast. There was one thing that I wish he’d flagged up more: he said that “gender differences [in delinquency] are less pronounced among working class people compared to those in the middle and upper classes” (even in terms of the schools they go to) — but later mentioned that there was a significant gender difference in terms of educational achievement. (nb underage sex counted as an act of delinquency – so did dating, actually; and also shoplifting, smoking, etc.) So working-class girls are as “delinquent” as working-class boys, but they get less schooling, often marrying straight after high school (if they don’t quite after middle school) — mostly because they’ve no expectations of a future career, although they’re more likely to end up working (post-marriage/post-children) than middle-class girls who marry their college sweethearts. I don’t know if I can spin any sort of thought out of this beyond that it tallies with what you’ve been saying, Marxy.

    Or I guess– as TheStrawMan says, there’s a media image of women having to change their identity when they have children and become mothers, but as Yoder wrote there’s always been the economic necessity for working-class mothers to continue working. Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of stuff in the media about middle-class women choosing to return to work post-marriage (or perhaps “choosing”). The thing about Yanmama is that they really don’t have much of a choice about returning to work – they have to keep that baby in baygyaru clothes, after all – and they’re from a class that historically never has. So they’re a media-friendly, super-glamorous face on something that’s been economic reality for years.

  15. xee Says:

    that “quite after high school” was a “quit after high school”, by the way. oh and ‘babygyaru’. so much for my aside about proofreading, eh.

  16. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Hey dudes, Marxy is now doing posts by request over twitter. Go there and ask him to write essay-length texts on stuff you’re interested in.

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    Slow down there, Leonardo. I don’t think I can necessarily take EVERY request, but I am making an effort to write shorter and more timely posts… (Yes, this post was “short” to me.)

    i was reading RS Yoder’s “Youth Deviance in Japan”

    I think that book is ultimately where I got a lot of my background for the piece, so if I sound “correct,” it’s just because we read the same source material. Maybe Yoder is right though!

  18. xee Says:

    I sort of guessed you’d read it: it seemed fairly simpatico.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    But you bring up a really great point that the entire concept of “graduation from worker to mother” is based on middle-class lifestyles. That being said, I think there was more “graduation” to at least sober lifestyles for working class youth in the past. You were not allowed to be a 21 year-old bosozoku.

  20. Nojaponisme Blog Archive The Yanmama Boom | Quit Smoking Plan! Says:

    [...] A nice web master added an interesting post on Nojaponisme Blog Archive The Yanmama BoomHere’s a small excerpt(nb underage sex counted as an act of delinquency – so did dating, actually; and also shoplifting, smoking, etc.) So working-class girls are as “delinquent” as working-class boys, but they get less schooling, often marrying straight … [...]

  21. Nandasoreya!? Says:

    Japan needs to get its act together with child support. Single mothers have very little they can do to force delinquent fathers to pay. And when they do negotiate compensation it’s like 1-2man a month. Most single mothers I know aren’t getting anything from “dad”. The big losers are the kids.

  22. Lauren Says:

    But still, why is this a working class thing mostly? Are they just having more sex, using contraceptives less (if that’s possible) or having fewer abortions?

    Or do they want kids sooner? I mean, if you get out of high school and just have a lifetime of shitty jobs ahead of you, what does it matter if you have kids now or wait a few years? Ok, I can come up with some reasons to wait still, but I could understand women who just don’t see the benefit of waiting. Especially if you are pregnant already by accident, it’s not so hard to say “Why not?” and have the kid. Upper class women are probably more likely to have things they want to do before they have kids.

    That said, I will never understand Japanese aversion to birth control. Even if you don’t think abortion is a big deal morally, from what I understand it’s still physically a bad time and you have to take time off of work/school and stuff.

  23. M-Bone Says:

    “reaction against the idea that motherhood must be a full-time, identity-consuming job.”

    “At least in my understanding, the unplanned and hasty move into parenthood has always been a major part of Japanese rural working-class culture.”

    “Japanese society has dropped all pretense of being a nation of universal middle-class sexual values.”

    Since all of the above are inventions of the high-growth period that lingered into the 1990s, I think that what we are seeing now is a combination of commercialized polish (once reserved for the massification of Taisho middle class culture and is now falling along with depato) and fast 風土 with prewar styles of community organization (rural village youth organization or collections of young people around an urban nagaya – always pretty randy).

    In extreme examples, I think that we can also compare the motives for having children on the part of Japanese young people who don’t see a whole lot of hope for a prosperous future and the sorts of motives on the part of inner city Americans that David Simon explored in “The Corner” (it gives a boy some respect as a man and allows him to move into the the man’s sphere which in Japan, if you wanted to be really cynical about it, would be work, drinking, and 風俗; for a girl it suddenly gives her real social place, something not likely to be found in a crappy konbini baito after high school and if it is combined with a layer of media posh, all the better).

  24. Jose Says:

    I’m not so sure that nice middle-class girls are necessarily less likely to get pregnant, but they are certainly more likely to get an abortion.

    Not only do these girls tend not to work and therefore have time to get one, they also have parents who can afford the costs and are probably more likely to fork out in order to save face. After investing so much money into their daughter’s education, what is a couple of man to make sure that she doesn’t ruin it all and still manages to marry a lawyer? A yankii’s parents wouldn’t care for they themselves would have had children at the same age.

    Considering how many Japanese youth live with their parents, having children young does not seem so difficult, especially if one has not only a mother, but also a grandmother to help with childrearing.

    What is most interesting about this new trend is that it is very urban – these are gyaru in Tokyo, not yankiis in Gunma. These girls may in fact be doing all the hard work by themselves in a tiny 1dk and then working as a hostess at night to mangae both expensive rent and the 109 look for 2.

  25. Topics about Idols » Néojaponisme » Blog Archive » The Yanmama Boom Says:

    [...] nj@neojaponisme.com added an interesting post today on Néojaponisme » Blog Archive » The Yanmama BoomHere’s a small reading… 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. … [...]

  26. Gag Halfrunt Says:

    And then there’s Néojaponisme’s favourite ero-kawaii gaijin tarento idol yanmama, Leah Dizon.

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  28. Roy Berman Says:

    “Japan needs to get its act together with child support. Single mothers have very little they can do to force delinquent fathers to pay. And when they do negotiate compensation it’s like 1-2man a month. Most single mothers I know aren’t getting anything from “dad”. The big losers are the kids.”
    That cuts both ways, as the fathers also don’t get any legal visitation rights. If you don’t get to see your kid, why bother paying?