Child's murder focuses Japan on moms' stress
The confession and the crime are shocking enough. A Tokyo woman tells police that she has killed a two-year-old girl who attended her own daughter's nursery school.Skip to next paragraph
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Then comes the reaction. A wave of sympathy for Mitsuko Yamada, the confessed killer, swamps sorrow for the child and her parents. The murder took place Nov. 22, but the media are still examining why so many young mothers say they understand Ms. Yamada's plight, although they condemn her crime.
The reason is that Yamada has become a tragic symbol of the stresses and strains of modern-day Japanese motherhood. The attention of commentators and reporters is almost a relief to Junko Takizawa, who lives with her husband and two small children in a small apartment in northwest Tokyo. "Now they are starting to focus on us,"she says, "who are taking care of children."
For many mothers and a variety of politicians, feminists, and experts, this scrutiny is long overdue. Being a mother has its challenges the world over, but these people say it is especially difficult here.
They describe a nation of anxious, isolated women who are pressured to devote themselves to their children and expected to forget any sense of fulfillment that does not derive from childrearing. They get little help from husbands, the government, or even other mothers, who become competitive as they seek to advance their own children's interests.
"Japanese mothers live for someone else," says Yoko Tajima, a women's studies professor at Hosei University here. "They aren't in control of their own lives, and they are immature as human beings because they are not allowed to become independent."
Police say that Yamada strangled the child, Haruna Wakayama, because she had grown to detest Haruna's mother on the playground and in other settings. "Some Japanese women don't know what they want or what they are feeling, so they do things like, in the case of [Yamada], killing someone or killing themselves. Mothers here are driven into such circumstances," says Ms. Tajima.
Ms. Takizawa, the mother of two, understands the strains. Dressed in brown corduroys and a patterned sweater, and keeping a nearly constant grasp on one-year-old Kazuki, this talkative, thin-faced woman says her "baby is very sweet, but I don't have enough free time."
Her time to herself is zero. Leaving children in play groups or with baby sitters is rare in Japan, so those options are out. Japan's network of public day-care centers is off limits to women who are not employed or incapacitated. And for those who qualify, there is a delay. Approximately 32,000 children are on waiting lists for government-run day-care centers, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
So it's all Kazuki, all the time for Takizawa. She's left him with mothers she has met through her daughter's nursery school, but "they have their own lives so I just can't ask them often," she says, reflecting a cultural reluctance to impose on others. She has visited the leafy little park in her huge housing complex, but didn't become friendly with other mothers because she's "not very sociable."
Many parents complain about the scene at the local playground, which often features a clique of mothers who compare their offspring with other children, pass judgment on others, and scheme over how their child will fare in school entrance examinations. Turning up at the playground for the first time is called "park debut" because of the angst involved.