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.
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.
Nonetheless, Takizawa is in what many women consider an enviable position. Her husband, Hiroyuki, is willing to irritate his bosses to come home on time to help with the children and Takizawa herself is planning to return to work as a systems engineer next April, when Kazuki gets a place in a nursery school.
But she says Japan needs a lot of things to make life bearable for mothers, especially more nursery schools and places for homemakers to leave their children for a few hours.
Local governments sponsor motherhood classes, and Takizawa says there should be less emphasis on being a "perfect mother" and more on how to cope, citing the instruction that women breast-feed or make food for their children instead of using formula or store-bought baby food.
A little recognition would be nice. "I just want someone to admit that raising a child is a job," she says, struggling to keep Kazuki - who can stand, grab, and fall, if not quite walk - from testing his yanking powers on the tea towel that covers her coffee table.
While these reforms seem straightforward in the context of Takizawa's compact living and dining area, they rumble the foundations of Japanese society. Japan's rise from the ruins of World War II to global economic power in part derives from a division of labor: Men devote themselves to their companies and women take care of family.
Even more profound than the economic structure is the idea that men should lead and women should follow. This idea has not been abandoned by men, especially the older ones who dominate politics.
The irony is that political and corporate leaders have been worrying about Japan's notoriously low birthrate and the predicted shrinkage in the workforce.
Politicians such as Yoriko Madoka, a parliament member from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, recognize that one solution to both problems is to make it easier for working women to have children, but she says her colleagues don't get it. "There are lots of old-time politicians who say that men should be the breadwinners," she says.
"In the 21st century we need working women to maintain the society," adds Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology and women's studies at Keisen Women's University in Tokyo, "but then people ask who will take care of children?"
Some members of Japan's old guard also argue that stay-at-home mothers are the solution for another pressing social problem: the need to care for an ever-expanding number of elderly citizens.
But the insistence that men should have careers and women should care for others makes family life seem remarkably unappealing to young women. As a result, as Ms. Madoka notes, they are staying single and forsaking children altogether. The proportion of Japanese society that consists of dual-parent households with children is down to one-third after 20 years of decline.
Aside from the economic and social stakes, some observers stress the need to help mothers break out of isolated lives.
Too many mothers have no other option but to evaluate themselves in the successes and failures of their children, says Yoko Niwa, president of the Childrearing Culture Institute, a foundation in Tokyo. "We have to get rid of this situation where mothers bring up children by themselves." Like many observers, she calls for an it-takes-a-village approach - more help from husbands, friends, and the government.
"Haruna's case was very shocking to me because I thought this was not someone else's problem, but our own," says Rie Kurono, a young mother in Tokyo. "I really see that the more Ms. Yamada worked hard to take care of her children, the more she must have lost herself."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society