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Sunday, Aug. 4, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Can you celebrate? Not yet, Amuro- chan


It's generally assumed by the media that pop singer Namie Amuro's recent divorce from dancer Masaharu "Sam" Maruyama is the first step in an earnest attempt to reinflate a career that lost a lot of air after the 24-year-old dance-music diva took a year's maternity leave. If that sounds like a cynical assessment, bear in mind that the media never really accepted the marriage as something that would last and, worse, that it was exploited by people who certainly weren't thinking about the couple's well-being.

Amuro married Sam at the height of her popularity, when she had just turned 20. It was a well-publicized dekichatta kekkon, a marriage occasioned by an unplanned pregnancy. However, instead of tsk-tsking about the loose morals of youth and the carelessness of a man who was 16 years older than the girl he knocked up, the media responded positively because the two were "doing the right thing" and getting married.

The media -- and even the government -- boosted them as a model couple, because Amuro's fans, all young girls like her, were in thrall to her image. With young women increasingly foregoing marriage and the birthrate dropping, the powers that be latched on to the Amuro-Sam team and gave them support, hoping that young people would follow their lead. Sam was tapped by the government to spearhead a campaign to encourage young men to be more responsible fathers.

Understood in this way, the divorce could also be regarded as something of a model, though one that the government certainly doesn't approve of. According to the Asahi Shimbun, which, in another bizarre twist, was the media organ that scooped the story (not the wide shows, not the weeklies), Amuro and Sam will continue living in the same apartment building (but on separate floors) so they can continue to be parents to their son.

But if you look elsewhere in the media, it's easy to get the impression that Amuro may have little to do with her son from now on. The singer, it seems, had always assumed she would take up where she left off before having her baby, but in the meantime upstarts like Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki stole her pop-princess crown. The young Okinawan felt she was a victim of bad timing, refusing to acknowledge that even if she hadn't taken the year off, her star probably would have been eclipsed anyway by Utada, who's a much better singer, and Hamasaki, who's a slightly better singer.

According to the weekly women's magazine Josei Jishin, Amuro decided that she would go to New York for an indefinite period to regain her musical footing, and so initiated the divorce and even gave up custody of the child to Sam with no strings attached.

Giving up custody isn't as coldhearted as it sounds, since the baby was probably going to be raised by Sam's mother anyway. Sam's family owns a successful hospital in Saitama Prefecture. Three of his brothers are doctors. Amuro was raised by a poor mother (since murdered by her brother-in-law) and, despite her money and fame, was looked down upon by her in-laws, who never approved of the marriage.

According to another women's weekly, Shukan Josei, a neighbor said that Sam's mother intended to raise the child to be a doctor, and since Sam apparently is too weak-willed to stand up to her, Amuro would never get any support from him even if she did want to raise the child herself. So the singer's decision to chuck the marriage, chuck motherhood and return to her career (which will probably be as successful as the marriage) might not have been as difficult as it appears.

What's deja vu-y about all this is that it follows the social pattern for dekichatta kekkon almost to the letter. At the moment, 80 percent of all teenage and 60 percent of all twentysomething dekichatta kekkon in Japan end in divorce, the majority of them within five years; and often the child is raised by a grandparent. These rates, in fact, have increased since Sam and Amuro were married in 1997, as has the overall rate for dekichatta kekkon in general, though, despite the authorities' best-laid plans, I wouldn't attribute it to the Maruyama model since both rates have been increasing steadily since the '80s.

Where the model falls short is in the economic realm. However unprepared for marriage and immature about their future Amuro and Sam were, their divorce is relatively painless since they both have jobs (for the moment, anyway) and money. For the majority of dekichatta-kekkon wives, divorce is an expensive and often terrifying decision. Many women are forced to remain in loveless, sometimes violent marriages because they know they cannot support themselves and their children if they leave.

Nevertheless, many women are making that choice, as seen by the fact that there has been a steady increase in the number of single divorced mothers in their 20s. Only 21 percent of these women receive any child support whatsoever from their ex-husbands. The average yearly income for a single mother is 2.3 million yen, or about one-third the national average for a household. That amount includes child support and the meager dependent-children's allowance that the government grudgingly gives to single parents. In August, eligibility for the allowance will be narrowed, and applicants will be forced to surrender more personal information. These changes have been cynically implemented to discourage divorce.

So there's no reason to cry for Namie Amuro; but don't condemn her, either. Her son will grow up in a loving, stable household, even if it's possible he won't see much of his mother. If that sounds sad, keep in mind there are many, many similar cases that are much, much sadder.



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