Mothers under pressure


Recently much media attention has been paid to the rise in depression and suicide among middle-aged men threatened by layoffs. The Yomiuri Weekly, however, reports that stress-related illness is actually more prevalent among housewives (Nov. 24).

One expert sees multiple causes of such stress: lack of recognition for housework and child-rearing, increased pressure to be a perfect mother in an age of fewer children, and husbands under pressure at work and emotionally less available to their wives. Another even predicts a wave of suicides among women in their 40s, especially among working women who feel their biological clocks ticking and find themselves running into a glass ceiling at the office. However, the story ends on an upbeat note, pointing out how the strength and resiliency of several women enabled them to balance child-rearing, work and their own identity.

There was, tragically, no happy outcome for Mitsuko Yamada, a young mother who strangled a 2-year-old in the notorious ojuken (entrance exam) murder case of 1999. In a recent book, “Otowa ‘Ojuken’ Satsujin” (“The Otowa Nursery School ‘Ojuken’ Murder”) (Shinchosha), the nonfiction writer Yukiko Utashiro examines how Yamada came to kill Haruna Wakayama, the younger sister of her son’s classmate in nursery school.

Since the murder took place during the entrance-exam season in Bunkyo Ward, a section of Tokyo with many prestigious preschool and primary schools, at first the media dubbed it “the ojuken murder.” When Yamada revealed it was the result of a personal clash with Haruna’s mother, the focus switched to the problem of ijime (bullying) among cliques of mothers, and to bashing Wakayama.

However, as revealed in Utashiro’s carefully researched account, the situation was both simpler and more complicated than that. Yamada had been raised in a multigeneration household in Shizuoka Prefecture that was divided over inheritance issues. She commuted to a girls’ high school and later became a nurse. Her early experiences seem to have led her to be distrustful of others, and although she presented a cheerful outer face to the world she gradually withdrew into herself. In her 20s she suffered eating disorders and made two attempts at suicide.

Seeking a helping hand in religion, she attended a special Buddhist seminar where she met her future husband. When she came into contact with him again several years later, they began dating, and married not long after. Yamada, then aged 29, moved to Tokyo to join her husband in his small apartment near the Buddhist temple where he worked as assistant to the head priest.

It was in May 1994, while adjusting to life in Tokyo, working at the temple seven days a week, cooking three meals a day for her husband, and caring for a 4-month-old son, that she met Wakayama, also the mother of a 4-month-old boy, at a neighborhood park. They became friends and both gave birth to daughters in early 1997. Yamada, however, felt slighted when Wakayama became closer to another mother after their sons entered the Otowa nursery school, and developed a secret hatred for Wakayama that festered all the more since she felt compelled to keep up the appearance of friendly relations. She began to have visions of killing Wakayama, and eventually strangled Wakayama’s daughter in November 1999.

It remains unclear why Yamada’s husband didn’t take the signs of his wife’s escalating depression (irritability, insomnia, neglecting her household duties, being abusive to her son) and her unhealthy obsession with Wakayama more seriously. It appears that she married him as someone older and steady while he saw her as someone suited to being a priest’s wife, quiet and considerate. In a poignant detail, the hours they spent walking together and talking on a park bench before she turned herself in to the police was the first such time they had spent together during their marriage.

But why did this tragic crime by one disturbed women resonate so strongly with young wives in Japan? Many recognized the difficulties facing Yamada and seemed to feel that there but for the grace of God went they.

One expert consulted by Utashiro points out that the nuclear family, with wives raising children alone in urban apartments with little family or community backup, is a postwar phenomenon. Shocked by the gap between the ideal and the reality of motherhood and starved for human contact, young mothers often form overly intimate ties with the other mothers they are thrown together with at the park or nursery school, women with which they may otherwise have little in common.

One mother recalls taking her child to nursery school at 9 a.m. and waiting with other mothers in a nearby coffee shop until it was time to pick the child up at 11:30 or 1:30. Then there was much pressure to go on to a park together for more playtime for the children. The mothers also work together on school events and outings, leading to many opportunities for petty jealousies and hurt feelings. For example, another mother told Utashiro how she was once invited to ride with F to a sports meet, but ended up riding with K. After that F was cool to her, and she realized she had happened to buy the same umbrella for her child as K had and that F must have thought she was slighting her for K.

Many Tokyo mothers also get caught up in ojuken madness almost by accident, thinking it wouldn’t hurt to try to get their child into a university-affiliated preschool or primary school. Such schools are thought to provide better teaching and a safer environment than public schools, as well as almost automatic admittance to the affiliated junior high, high school and college. Soon they find themselves paying 50,000 yen or more per month on special cram schools and study materials or drilling the child at home.

It is impossible to say how much such pressures affected Yamada, but it is clear that she envied Wakayama for having the loving parents, loving husband, urban polish and more comfortable lifestyle that she herself dreamed of. I wonder, too, if she didn’t see in Haruna not simply an easy-to-kill surrogate for Wakayama, but a painful reminder of the cherished and trusting child she would like to have been.

Yamada was sentenced to 14 years in prison for her crime, a sentence extended to 15 years by the Tokyo High Court late last month.