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An editor in London once told me that a book written about Asia will only sell if there is one or another of these three words in the title: “mother,” “chrysanthemum” or “tea.” I listened with incredulity but understood that these are the things that make Asia appealing to the rest of the world.

In Japan, all three of these items are so ubiquitous that few people ever think to question the subtext behind them — especially when it comes to 母 (haha, mother).

The Japanese haha of lore gave her children unconditional love while protecting them from the wrath and 理不尽 (rifujin, unreasonableness) traditionally inflicted by the Japanese 父 (chichi, father). The chichi was respected in the family, though long working hours meant he was often absent from the fold. Family life ran smoother when he wasn’t around and, obligingly, he stayed out of the picture by immersing himself in 仕事 (shigoto, work).

It would become unbearably inconvenient, though, if the mother were to do the same. Who would push the kids to get good grades, make the キャラ弁 (kyara-ben, bento decorated with cute character themes) and take care of the million little details of home and community? The haha was held in the highest regard, the 家庭の太陽 (katei no taiyō, the sun of the family) around which other family members revolved like planets.

The pedestal holding up that stereotype is finally crumbling. These days, the haha is often called out for her 共依存 (kyōizon, co-dependency), her 独善 (dokuzen, self-righteousness), manipulation and abuse.

In the media, the haha — once portrayed as a bastion of benevolent common sense — is apt to be shown as a helpless housewife who can’t get it together, or the dreaded 毒親 (doku-oya, poisonous parent) who ruins her child’s life with or without intending to.

Daughters are almost always the whistleblowers on their poisonous mothers, and bookstore shelves are crowded with titles like 「母が重くてたまらない」 (Haha ga Omokute Tamaranai, “My Mother Weighs Heavily on Me I Can’t Stand It”), 「母がしんどい」 (Haha ga Shindoi, “My Mother is a Burden”) and 「母を片付けたい」 (Haha o Katazuketai “I Want to Clean out My Mother” — all written by women.

As less women get married and those that do marry later, more Japanese women are apt to look upon motherhood as an option rather than a fate over which they have no say or control. And professional women are more likely to look into the all-important issue of 保育園 (hoikuen, day care facilities) slots before they even contemplate giving birth. The old 常識 (jōshiki, consensus) that a woman stayed at home to care for her kids and bury herself in chores has been replaced by a strong collective determination to keep working well after marriage and 出産 (shussan, childbirth).

Japanese women of today have worked hard their entire lives — often in the iron grip of the infamous 教育ママ (kyōiku mama, mothers bent on getting their children into elite universities) — to get an education, secure employment and gain financial freedom. They aren’t about to give all that up for being a ママ (mama, mom).

As my friend Mayuko said when she was 33, 生活のスタンダードを落とすくらいなら 結婚しなくてもいい (Seikatsu no sutandādo o otosu kurai nara kekkon nante shinakutemo ii, “I don’t have to get married if it means lowering my standard of living”). Mayuko’s mother raged and ranted, but her daughter stood firm. Now in her late 40s, she is making ¥13 million a year and has built up a sizable retirement fund in a foreign bank account. 母になることは経験できなかったけど、他のことは全部やった (Haha ni naru koto wa keiken dekinakatta kedo, hoka no koto wa zenbu yatta, “I couldn’t become a mom but I’ve experienced everything else”) is one of her 口癖(kuchiguse, favorite phrases), much to the admiration of her friends.

One of the candidates up for this year’s 新語流行語大賞 (Shingo Ryūkōgo Taishō, New Words and Buzzwords Awards) is 卒母 (sotsuhaha, graduating from motherhood), coined by manga author Rieko Saibara. Saibara’s comic 「毎日かあさん」 (Mainichi Kāsan, “Everyday Mom”), about her escapades as a working mother, ended a 16-year-run in the Mainichi Shimbun in June when the author announced her graduation from the role of a mother. Both her teenage children are doing their own thing and she was ready to call it quits on looking after them. Saibara has said in many interviews that she’s inundated by fan mail from mothers all across Japan, telling her that the whole concept of sotsuhaha has made them feel empowered and free.

While Japanese mothers may be learning to 手放す (tebanasu, let go), the Japanese chichi have never found it easy to reinvent themselves. As far as back as the 1980s, retired salarymen were referred to as 濡れ落ち葉 (nureochiba, wet, fallen leaves that cling to their wives) or 粗大ゴミ (sodaigomi, large garbage items), objects of pity and contempt after a lifetime of being that most familiar of the Japanese male species: 仕事人間 (shigoto ningen, human work machine). But in this 超高齢化社会 (chō kōreika shakai, super-aging society), the long years after retirement should be golden, not gray. 頑張れお父さん (Ganbare otōsan, Good luck, fathers)!

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