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  February 15, 2002  

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Japan's single mothers fight back
By Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO - Forty-one-year-old Satoko belongs to a growing group of women in Japan who are opting to raise their children alone, turning their backs on deep-rooted social norms that revere marriage and the family.

"I became pregnant after a brief liaison with a Thai man who I met when I was living in that country," explains Satoko, who prefers to be identified by her first name. "Despite objections from my own family, I decided to have the baby alone after I returned to Japan."

Inada, for her part, works as a freelance graphic designer and has a 10-year-old son. She says she has told her boy that his father passed away when he was a few months old. "I am glad to be a single mother but it's not easy living as one in Japan, even in a huge modern city like Tokyo," she explains. "I want to spare my son the discrimination of being the child of a single mother, which is why I have not told him the truth."

Despite the uphill struggle faced by single mothers, statistics released by the government last year indicate that the number of households headed by single mothers grew to 954,000 in 1998 - or 85 percent more compared with 1993.

"There are more women out there who want to be able to lead their own lives without depending on husbands or lovers," opines Mizuho Fukushima, a lawyer and lawmaker who had a daughter without registering her own marriage. Comments posted on a Web page run by Single Mothers Forum, a support group, confirm this trend.

"I separated from my partner despite being pregnant because I knew I would not be happy if I married him," writes a 35-year-old company employee who has a three-year-old son.

"I do not want to beg and plead with him," writes another, referring to her ex-husband's reluctance to pay her child support. "I would rather work myself to death to support my children. I have my pride."

Comments on the Web page also illustrate a deep aversion among young women toward tying the knot. The current system of marriage, writes a 36-year-old divorcee, is discriminatory against love and children because it forces a man and a woman to be mothers and fathers, not themselves. Indeed, Satoko recalls how her father pressured her intensely to have an abortion after she returned home. "He threatened to disown me if I had the child out of wedlock simply because I was breaking Japanese customs. I had to leave home to give birth to my son in order to protect his reputation."

In addition to social discrimination, single mothers also complain of financial hardship in Japan's male-dominated employment system, a factor that makes it even harder for them to bring up families. About 60 percent of single mothers, according to the Single Mothers Forum, earn less than 3 million yen (US$25,000) annually. Forty-one percent earn even less, or below 2 million yen, a figure well below the average income of male salaried workers. Most single mothers are forced to take on part-time work to be able to juggle child-rearing with work, and are dependent on state allowances. "Tears fill my eyes when I think of my child waiting alone in our apartment until I manage to rush home after being forced to work late," writes another single mother to the Single Mothers Forum site.

A further blow to their struggle to lead independent lives, is an upcoming law - now being debated in the Japanese Diet or parliament and to be passed next year - that would reduce public welfare assistance for single-parent households. In a bid to reduce social-security costs and shrink Japan's huge public debt, the government is including in its reform package a new bill that would stop providing full, child-rearing allowances after the child reaches five years old. The proposed system stipulates that after the child turns five, the allowance would be reduced gradually but would not go beyond a 50 percent reduction. The current law provides financial aid to single mothers until the child is 18 years of age.

Satoko is bitterly critical of the upcoming law. "It's almost impossible for women to financially support their children by themselves right now. With less state help, the situation will turn critical and force women to marry in order to survive," she says.

Kimiko Abe, a writer on women's issues, says that while the greater number of single mothers shows a change in society toward more economically independent women, they still need the state allowances. "Women are more economically independent, but they are still treated as second class workers because they work in a male-dominated society," she says. "Therefore allowances are important - it is not an issue of supporting women but of child's rights."

Single mothers are also fighting against a new law that would allow the state to reject assistance for the children of single mothers after their fathers have acknowledged the children. Last week, a judge in a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court by an unwed mother against the state ruled that the decision to stop state payment to her was "unconstitutional". Women's groups said this decision is an example that focuses on the inequality promoted by the state.

All children are entitled to financial aid, whether the mother is married or not, says Fukushima: "The current situation illustrates how men are controlling Japanese society."

(Inter Press Service)

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