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Welfare’s not fair when it comes to single mothers

by Philip Brasor

In show business, you can’t look as if you made up your own labels. Only someone as big as Michael Jackson gets away with calling himself the King of Pop.

Last month, when singer Anna Tsuchiya performed nine songs at a concert in Paris as part of the Tokyo Style Collection, Japanese tabloids reported that in France Tsuchiya is known as “Japan’s Madonna.” How she earned such a moniker isn’t clear, but if you compare the two women you find little to support the analogy.

The child of an American father and a Japanese mother, the 22-year-old Tsuchiya became a popular fashion model in her teens and later starred in the movie “Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls),” where she played a foul-mouthed free spirit trapped in the sticks of Ibaraki Prefecture. She then launched a solo singing career and scored big with the theme song for the animated TV series “Nana,” which is about a punk-rock singer.

One could possibly forge a Madonna connection with the sexy image that’s been foisted upon her by her management — her new debut album is called “Strip Me?” — but the very fact that she has a management company who foists an image on her makes her quite different from the imperiously independent Madonna.

There is one thing the two women have in common. Tsuchiya is a single mother, and Madonna is famous for purposely getting pregnant with her first child via a man she wasn’t even dating. Maddy is now an equally famous married mother, but no celebrity has done more to challenge the taboo against unwed motherhood than she did when she gave birth to her daughter Lourdes.

Tsuchiya, however, didn’t “become a single mother” until she divorced her husband, also a model, three days before her Paris performance. That’s how the Japanese media phrased it, and since they all phrased it the same way one is tempted to think that, as with the Madonna label, the PR was orchestrated. Tsuchiya is being groomed as an iconoclastic rebel, and the single mother thing is meant to give her an aura of feminine strength and purpose — she’s a “punk” with responsibilities. However, her situation is a far cry from Madonna’s. Tsuchiya got married in June 2004 and her son was born in November 2004. In other words, it was a dekichatta kekkon, a marriage as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.

It’s important to point out that the English phrase “single mother” is used in Tsuchiya’s case, rather than the Japanese kataoya (one parent), which still carries a stigma that has recently been reinforced by the government. Changes in the way welfare is distributed will effectively condemn all single-parent households to what the magazine Kinyobi calls “the underclass.”

As part of its effort to trim spending, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is cutting back on public assistance. Unemployed single mothers now receive something called boshi kasan (mother-child supplement) in addition to welfare payments. The Health Labor and Welfare Ministry (HLWM) started paring the supplement last year and plans to stop giving it out for dependent children over 15 years of age next year. Experts interviewed by Kinyobi say that it is only a matter of time before the supplement is phased out altogether.

What’s more, the jido fuyo teate (dependent child allowance) that is given to working single mothers will be reduced by half over a five-year period starting in 2008. The purpose of reducing the allowance is to force single mothers to secure employment that will make them “fully independent” of the government. It isn’t clear what exactly “fully independent” means, since according to Rikkyo University instructor Naomi Yuzawa in the women’s issues newsletter Femin, 80 percent of Japanese single mothers already work — the largest percentage in the developed world. HLWM statistics say that the average single mother earns 2.24 million yen a year, which is about 30 percent of the income of an average Japanese household. Some of these women are widowed, some have never married, most are divorced, and according to the HLWM only 17.7 percent receive any money from the fathers of their children.

Single mothers also face discrimination in the tax laws. In a recent Monjiro column in the Asahi Shimbun, a divorced mother wrote in asking why she no longer qualifies for a “widow deduction” on her tax return now that her children aren’t dependents any more. Asahi contacted a tax expert who explained that the deduction, which was created in 1951 for war widows, but now also applies to single parents, has four categories in descending amounts of deduction: widow, divorcee, single father and never-married mother. A widow can deduct as much as 350,000 yen from her annual income her whole life, even if she never had children, while a never-married mother gets no deduction unless her income is very low. Even single fathers get a larger deduction.

According to the Finance Ministry, the tax system is based on “the principle of legal wedlock,” which implies that a single mother who has never married is less qualified for government assistance than a divorced or widowed parent is. Her children are beside the point. A single-mothers support group told the Asahi that women in Japan are punished for not getting married. In other words, it’s better to marry the guy who knocked you up and then divorce him later than it is to try to go it alone.

That’s what Anna Tsuchiya did, but she doesn’t have to worry about any of this bureaucratic stuff. Her single motherhood is a facet of her outsider image, theoretically adding to her appeal and, in turn, boosting her income. For the vast majority of single mothers, however, single motherhood is a social and financial liability. They can’t all be pop stars.