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Writing Pregnancy In Low Fertility Japan (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Amanda C. Seaman
Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan
Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
ISBN 9780824859886

While Japanese bookstores are full of colourful books and useful manuals about pregnancy and childbirth, Japan is dubbed as a ‘childless society’ and the media often talk about a possible fearful future in which children are not enough to support its aging population or even to sustain the industrial economy.
The low-fertility issue ‘officially’ started in Japan in 1989 and the risk that grandparents outnumber grandchildren is widely discussed by demographers, sociologists and economists, talking about risks and possible solutions about  this problem, but far less attention is paid to the cultural and artistic perspectives of pregnancy and childbearing from the point of view of women.

Writing Pregnancy In Low Fertility Japan by Amanda Seaman explores how Japanese writers, especially women writers, have used storytelling to share the meaning and experience about pregnancy and childbirth. Not only for their characters, but also for themselves and their communities: complex and sometimes contradictory behaviours toward maternity are expressed and shared by authors from different ages that have seen the decline of their country’s birth rate, such as Takahashi Takako, Itou Hiromi, Ogawa Youko, Tadano Miako and Hasegawa Junko. In a society where women still face pressure to marry and have children and some of the most popular manuals focus almost exclusively on the physical changes of the pregnant body. These female authors, mothers and daughters themselves, explore how mothers-to-be change emotionally and think about their changing self and about the baby growing inside their belly.

Sometimes pregnancy is felt as an invasion, where the fear that something might be wrong with the baby inside them recalls traditional Japanese ghostly tales and monsters, such as snakes or demons, and the mystery of the womb, full of changes and ambiguities during nine months of gestation, for literature is a perfect target for the genres of horror and fantasy: a lot of Japanese folk tales focus on pregnancy and  childbirth, especially as moments of vulnerability of possession by malevolent spirits like in an episode of Genji Monogatari.

In a society like the Japanese one, especially during and after in the post-war period, becoming a mother makes a woman whole and it is not only a relationship between her and the new-born baby, but it also allows her to be integrated in a wider society and not to be isolated and lonely. Sometimes the protagonist is a single mother proud to raise her children all by herself, or a divorced woman with a daughter of whom she was impregnated by her lover and wants to carry the pregnancy to term: all the authors want to express their thoughts and feelings about pregnancy as an escape, from difficulties and social impasses, through characters that see a kind of personal salvation and redemption in motherhood.

The canonical pregnancy literature, with all its manuals and biographies, shares a strong bound with medical establishment in placing the focus of the relationship between the mother and the baby-to-be in the central role of the woman that have to restrain herself from excesses in order to carry a healthy baby: there is a very active surveillance of the mother’s behaviour to encourage her to do the ‘right thing’ and dissuade her from slips-ups, especially about diet and gaining too much weight. The authors taken as example in Writing Pregnancy In Low Fertility In Japan see pregnancy as a partnership not just between the mother and the baby in her belly, pushing away the rest of the word, but they offer narratives in which childbearing is an emphatically social enterprise, one whose success depend upon the mother’s relationship with people in her life, such as family, friends and especially her husband. Being a mother is not a solo act, not an innate and immediate mother–child bond based on self-discipline: instead it is a journey in which the boundaries with the people in her world are recreated and strengthened day by day, during these important waiting months.

Not only literature has written about motherhood and childbirth, but also manga, a Japanese comic style: the physical changes that pregnancy brings and its pain, and together with the actual labour are portrayed in visual form, visceral and often graphic detail. Itou Hiromi’s frank, metaphorical as well as humorous way to depict it contrasts to the ‘official’ medical literature, but reflects the author’s own true bodily experience. Hiromi is interested in exploring without censorship how the self is transformed by the physical experience of pregnancy and childbirth, a process often shunted off the page. Another fundamental author that has drawn and written about ‘new-born’ mothers and their relationships with sex, men, friends and family is Uchida Shingiku, an outspoken media personality challenging the traditional family system and expectations surrounding motherhood.

Despite their central places in women’s lives and society too, attention from Japanese writers on pregnancy and childbirth started only in the early modern period, especially now that Japan is an aging and ‘childless’ society. Writing Pregnancy In Low Fertility Japan wants to highlight the major authors and works about this topic, in a cultural and artistic perspective, so different from the most common ways offered by media nowadays.

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