Kazumi Kato has been married for 15 years. When she got married at the age of 22, she planned to have a baby once she turned 26 or 27. But when she reached that age, she still did not feel like becoming a mother, and decided to wait until she was 30. When she turned 30, however, she still did not feel ready and postponed the decision to 35.
She is now 37 and her biological childbearing limit is approaching, but still she does not feel like having children, she says.
Kato has a full-time job at a U.S.-owned chemical company and fully enjoys her “double-income, no kids” lifestyle. She often eats out, plays tennis, goes skiing and travels abroad with her husband. “If I had a child, it would be difficult even to have dinner at a restaurant, because my parents live quite some distance away and I couldn’t expect much help from them,” she says.
The easily imaginable duties and worries of motherhood make her even more reluctant. “[If I had kids] I would have to worry about whether I could raise them properly. I would also have to take them to a neighborhood park to play, where I would have to socialize with other mothers — some of whom I wouldn’t like,” Kato says. “I simply don’t want to have a new source of troubles.”
Until a few years ago, it was not easy for women to express reluctance about having children the way Kato does. Many people would have considered such women to be emotionally defective, lacking normal maternal affection, and some would even blame them for neglecting their duty to society.
Even today, a poll conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in 1997 shows that nearly 80 percent of Japanese people support the conventional form of family centered on children. Nonetheless, childless couples are gradually increasing in number. According to a 1982 NIPSSR survey, the percentage of couples who had been married for less than four years and had no children was 38.9 percent; by 1997 this had jumped to 42.6 percent. The rate of childless couples who had been married five to nine years was only 4.3 percent in 1982, but had risen to 10.3 percent by 1997.
“I assume these figures include infertile couples. Still, I have a feeling that the number of people who are choosing not to have children is gradually increasing,” says Masami Ohinata, a professor at Keisen Jogakuen University.
Women in the old days had children as a natural result of getting married, “without thinking about it much,” but women today can control their fertility through contraceptive measures.
“More women are living their own lives by their own efforts today,” Ohinata says. “Naturally they are afraid of what they may lose by having children: time, money, youth, a fashionable lifestyle.”
What Yuriko Tamiya fears losing is her work career. As a legal department staffer at a U.S.-owned company, she works hard, often till midnight. On weekdays she usually has dinner between 10 p.m. and midnight.
“Children can be an obstacle for working women in Japan. It would be impossible for me to keep up my work if I had kids,” Tamiya says. “If I cannot have both work and children, giving up children is easier, because I haven’t had them yet.”
When she got married six years ago in her mid-30s, her younger husband wanted to have children; however, he soon realized it would be difficult as long as both of them kept their current jobs.
“If I had a baby and the baby became sick, for instance, who would take a day off? My husband or me? I know he couldn’t, because he works at a Japanese company, where husbands can never take paternity leave to look after their children. I would be frustrated if I had to cut back on work often because of caring for my children,” Tamiya says.
In Japan, child-rearing has normally been considered women’s responsibility, and the burden on working mothers is very heavy.
Another survey conducted by NIPSSR indicates that wives who work a permanent full-time job are more likely to avoid having children. In 1997 the percentage of childless couples in which the wife worked full-time was 72.2 percent for those married less than four years, and 29.7 percent for those married for five to nine years, compared to 29.8 percent and 5.1 percent respectively for couples in which the wife stayed at home.
“This is a social issue as well as a private matter,” Tamiya says. She thinks she might have had babies if Japanese society provided working mothers with better incentives, such as more and better day-care centers, more reasonably priced babysitting or housecleaning services and more help and understanding from men.
While some like Tamiya can logically explain the reasons for their reluctance, others find it difficult. Kyoko Okada, for instance, says she does not know why she feels no eagerness to have children.
“I have no strong reasons not to have children. I have already done the things I really wanted to do and I wouldn’t mind staying at home now. We would have no problem financially even if I stopped working,” says the 33-year-old freelance writer, who has been married for six years. “Yet, I don’t feel any urge or necessity to have them, either. I think I might be immature in a way, so that I’ve never developed maternal feelings.”
Many people believe that maternal feelings are an instinct all women have by nature, but Professor Ohinata says both men and women acquire such feelings in the process of raising children.
“Recently, however, it is becoming more difficult to expect child-rearing to be a joy. We receive so much negative information about children, about things such as juvenile crime, school bullying, suicides and various kinds of abuse, and consequently we have less opportunity to see the natural appeal of children,” she says.
More and more women will choose not to have children, because having them is no longer a social obligation, says journalist Kiyoko Yoshihiro, who authored the book “Onna ga Kodomo wo Umitagaranai Wake (Reasons Women Do Not Want to Have Babies)” in 1991.
According to Yoshihiro, until the 1960s the majority of the Japanese population were either farmers or self-employed craftspeople and shopkeepers, and having children was a duty for married women because the family needed successors to take over their business or land. Today, however, the largest group in society is salaried workers, a nonhereditary occupation.
When Yoshihiro’s book was published nine years ago, few people wanted to talk about why they did not want to have children, and persuasive reasons were necessary if they had to explain it to others; now, however, having children without clear reasons is becoming acceptable, she says.
“Social pressure [on childless women] is becoming weaker. A consensus has grown that we must recognize a great diversity of values and must respect individuals’ choices in their private life,” Yoshihiro says. “The situation of long-term singles was similar several years ago. They used to need a good reason to stay unmarried before, but now they are seldom asked why they are not married.”