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On Tuesday, February 28th, I turned my TV on per my usual morning routine. I checked the clock on the upper left screen to make sure I wasn’t running late as the morning wide show I usually watch filled my otherwise quiet room with cheery, mostly insignificant chatter.
As the show moved from one segment to another, a familiar face appeared on my screen: actress Horikita Maki, through her agency, has faxed a handwritten letter to all media outlets announcing her retirement from the entertainment industry. In the letter, she details that she has decided to step away from the industry she has worked in for 14 years to focus on building a home. This was followed by a recollection of events in the past two years, primarily her marriage and childbirth. As the VTR ended and the camera zoomed back to the live studio, the hosts of the show sang praises for the actress, heralding once again the indisputable virtue of motherhood, before they quickly went to the next segment.
I’ve never been much of Horikita Maki’s fan. I’ve seen her in a few things but she didn’t really make much of an impression on me. Yet a feeling of discomfort sank in as I watched the morning news unfold. The problem wasn’t Horikita Maki’s retirement per se, nor was the reason for it. People have been quitting their jobs for their families for ages, after all. Instead, what I found rather problematic is the Japanese media’s coverage of the event.
Time and again, the announcement of the retirement of an actress or a female talent revolves around either marriage or childbirth. The ritualistic send-off is often met first by surprise, and then congratulatory remarks, before finally dismissing the actress into obscurity. Some substantial work credits may be mentioned, but all pale in comparison with the actress’ noble choice to put motherhood above all else.
Three myths are perpetuated in this scenario: (1) the romanticized notion that a woman’s sense of duty and fulfilment lie in motherhood; (2) that motherhood strips women of desirability; and (3) that motherhood and career are two irreconcilable concepts.
While the romanticized notion of motherhood is not unique to Japanese culture, the nation does have a history of having a state-endorsed ideal of womanhood, neatly packed into the concept of ryōsai kenbo (good wife, wise mother). The term is no longer prevalently present in public consciousness, but fragments of it remain. This becomes evident when we take a look at how female public figures are presented. Actresses like Horikita Maki who quit to give way to the supposedly more important role of motherhood are depicted to exit with grace, while those overstay their welcome are often harshly criticized.
For example, unmarried women in or past their thirties are often presented in variety shows as a case to be solved. One show that I happened to watch had a woman sit in the middle of the studio while the host as well as other guests try to figure out why she was still single. Each had their own say, but the prevailing opinion was that she had way too many hobbies. She was advised to invest her time in dating rather than focus on things she enjoys. Singlehood, thus, is presented as a dilemma, and not by any means a viable way of life.
Similarly, women who continue to work after childbirth walk on a slippery slope. Mistakes, as any normal parent are wont to have, are magnified as scandals for public consumption. In 2015, actress Yamada Yu was severely criticized for dyeing her hair blonde while pregnant. This went as far as her being branded as “mama-tare” (shit mom) after she was seen bringing her 2-month-old daughter to an izakaya. The izakaya, which at the time Yamada went to with her mother, was close to where the actress lived. Regardless of the circumstance, however, articles regarding the actress’ supposed scandalous behavior circulated on the Internet.
As public figures, actors and actresses serve as symbolic images upon which hegemonic ideas of prescriptive and proscriptive behavior are projected upon. When are actresses are vilified for their supposed bad mothering, the oppressive notion that one’s measure of womanhood depends solely on one’s role as a mother is reinforced. All other identities that a woman may assume — a corporate worker, a fan of a rock band, a daughter, etc. — they all disappear the moment a woman carries a child.
Similarly, projecting desirability goes against the identity of the mother. In her works, Anne Allison describes how sex at home is often seen as procreative, while recreative sex is sought by men elsewhere. Sex within the institution of marriage is done to primarily to conceive a child, while corporate practices such as company drinking at hostess clubs encourage recreative sex outside the bounds of marriage as a form of stress relief.
This is problematic because a woman does not stop being a woman once she becomes somebody’s wife or mother. To be stripped of desirability, or to be denied of any agency to want to be desirable is a cruel punishment, and one that no woman deserves.
In the case of actresses where desirability makes up a considerable portion of their marketability, marriage and childbirth become major turning points which usually lead to the end of their career. Horikita Maki’s agency knew this when they deactivated her fan club shortly after her marriage. While the same can also be said for male actors and talents, it can be argued that their careers do not take as much of a hit as their female counterparts do, and many of them are able to continue their career even after wedlock. The image of being a loving husband or responsible father may even work to their favor, whereas being a good wife or mother is equated to being out of the spotlight.
All these lead to the ultimate myth about motherhood in Japan: that it disagrees with having a career. When female public figures are constantly shamed for assuming roles outside of motherhood, we reinforce the idea that a woman has no place in the public sphere. When we question the quality of her mothering as she pursues a career, we confine the validity of her existence within the boundaries of domesticity. When we passively accept the lack of female public figures who are also mothers, we deprive ourselves of the countless possibilities with which we can redefine womanhood.
I believe motherhood exists in many forms. When we sanctify it, we also remove the human side of it. Instead of putting pressure on women to conform to an ideal that does not exist, we should allow space for women to err, and to safely explore identities through which they can give new meanings to what motherhood can be.
At this point, however, the discussion on Japanese femininity and motherhood is stagnant. From this perspective, perhaps Horikita Maki did make a smart choice. She took a graceful exit before public opinion could turn against her. A future where women can both be mothers and in the spotlight at the same time remains as something to be desired.
References & Suggestions for Further Reading
Allison, Anne. 1994. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
—. 2000. Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra. 2012. Housewives of Japan: An Ethnography of Real Lives and Consumerized Domesticity. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Holloway, Susan D. 2010. Women and Family in Contemporary Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press.
VipperTrendy. 2016. 山田優がインスタで大炎上！小栗旬に抱かれた後(?)の画像をインスタに公開w. July 23. Accessed March 24, 2017. https://vipper-trendy.net/yamada-inst/.
“速報！堀北真希(28)芸能界引退。ZIP!だけに語った結婚生活,” YouTube video, posted by “hdxlxgunma Grease,” February 28, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R13YcktKriU.