Rumiko, the 29-year-old president of her own computer-graphics company, says she has decided to become an achiragawa no ningen (person who has crossed over to the other side) by having a baby.
Far from being aglow with happiness, she’s rather grim about the whole thing. Rumiko’s refrain these days is “jinsei owatta (my life is over),” and to prove it she’s going to hold a garage sale of her wardrobe, which consists of Earl Jean low-rises and what the girls downtown call pita-tee. The name has no connection with pita bread, it’s just an abbreviation of “pita-pita T-shirt,” a teensy T-shirt that barely covers the rib cage.
What triggered her depression was a trip to the hospital for a four-month checkup. She and several other expectant mothers were herded into a small waiting room by a prissy nurse who kept calling them Ninpu-san (Ms. Pregnant Woman).
“Mo dame (This is it for me),” says Rumiko. “It was an electric shock of reality. In the eyes of the world, I was no longer myself, but a female lump scheduled to give birth.”
Rumiko may be overreacting, but it’s true that motherhood in Japan has never had an oshare (chic and fun) or pojitibu (positive) image. Entrenched in Confucianism and traditional family values that dictate a mother should sacrifice all for her children, the concept of bosei (a mother’s nature) remains sacrosanct, despite being in many ways antiquated.
Rumiko and other young mothers-to-be complain that only the most dasai (frumpy) maternity garb is available in stores, and that workplaces and public transport systems are unwilling to recognize that pregnant women may prefer to go on working instead of sitting at home and listening to Mozart as part of taikyo (fetal education).
The language used in hospitals doesn’t help much, either. As in Rumiko’s case, Ninpu-san can have the same depressing effect on one’s self-esteem as a Koizumi statement does on the Nikkei stock average. But she had better get used to it, because in another five months, Ninpu-san will morph into Sanpu-san (Ms. Child-Bearer). And when Rumiko finally holds her precious bundle in her arms, the label will change again — to Sanjokufu-san (Ms. Recovering-From-Childbirth).
And when she and her akachan (baby) — presently called shinseiji (newly-born child) are obliged to visit for the ikkagetsu kenshin (first month’s checkup), Rumiko will be called okasan (reverent mother), or mama-san, thus officially completing her transition from person to mom.
Some mothers, though, buy wholesale into the tradition. Take the current fad of suffixing the mama to the child’s name, creating labels such as Reiko-chan mama or Yohei-kun mama. One friend of mine was so incensed by this that she went around correcting everyone who called her by her son’s name. All that ensued, however, was that the other mothers wound up avoiding her.
On the other hand, she can see the mothers’ point of view. “They’re so busy and so tired, they just couldn’t care less anymore. I get like that, too. Mama, okasan, whatever. Nandemo sukinayoni yonde (Call me whatever you want).”
But is motherhood really a one-way ticket to the achiragawa, from which women cannot return until their children grow up, liberating them from okasan duties? Young women instinctively fear that by then, it will be too late. They will have forgotten their way back to kochiragawa (this side of the fence) — and they won’t be able to count on their spouse or society to help them remember what they were before they were someone’s mama.
Simplistic as it sounds, many remain convinced that it’s either pita-tees, or relinquishing your identity as an individual and turning into a bonyuseizoki (nursing machine).
But the good news is: Rumiko is now designing her own line of maternity pita-tees. Go, girl!