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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000

Birth of a new generation

Gyarumama rewrite the rules of motherhood

Staff writer

Turn on the television or flip through any popular magazine, and you're sure to come across gyarumama (gal mamas) -- teenage moms with tanned skin, trendy clothes and towering platform shoes.

Twenty-year-old Chiharu Ito (left) and Yuka Ichikawa, 17, are new-generation moms.

The media hype has focused on the superficial aspects of the phenomenon, namely the incongruity of teenagers with dyed hair and miniskirts pushing babies in strollers around the streets of Shibuya.

However, the emergence of the gyarumama highlights the fact that a growing number of young women in Japan are no longer willing to sacrifice their identity and individuality in order to conform to societal expectations of how a "good" mother should look and behave.

Part of the reason for this change in values lies with Namie Amuro, the Japanese pop icon who got married at age 20 and had a child soon after. An influential figure for Japanese teens, Amuro challenges the traditional belief that becoming a mother means losing interest in fashion and style, and sacrificing personal fulfillment for the sake of one's children. She was bound to become a role model.

Most young mothers today are fearless and do not care what people think of them, says Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology and women's studies at Keisen Jogakuen College and author of the book "Boseiai-shinwa no Wana (The Trap of the Myth of Maternal Love)."

"They have the guts to follow their own paths," Ohinata says, "and can ignore societal pressures" to conform to the traditional image of a wife and mother.

Regardless of the reason why they have became mothers (whether getting pregnant was a conscious choice or happened accidentally), once the baby is born, most young mothers these days have a very positive attitude toward motherhood and try to enjoy raising their children as much as they can, getting by with the support of parents and friends. Their logic is that if they are happy and satisfied themselves, then the children will be happy, too.

At only 17, Yuka Ichikawa is the mother of an 11-month-old son and pregnant with her second child. Although she enjoys a close relationship with her children's father, who is 20 and works as a monorail conductor, they are not married, and she lives with her parents, who support her and her son financially. Ichikawa's parents were not against her having a baby.

Three generations of the Ishikawa family live under the same roof. Ichikawa's parents think of their grandson almost like their own son, and Ichikawa's father, who is in his mid-40s, helps out by bathing his grandson and doing other everyday chores. For these grandparents, an additional member of the family is a joy, not a burden.

"I'm glad that I had a child this early, because I'll be able to enjoy my life after age 40," Ichikawa says. After she gives birth to her second child she says she intends to go to a computer school and eventually get a job in that field.

In her desire to lead a second life after her children grow up, Ichikawa is no exception. Many young mothers look forward to having the freedom to enjoy what they want to do at an age when most Japanese women are still fully occupied with family life.

Many young mothers, however, must overcome serious problems. Unlike Amuro, whose success has made her extremely wealthy, most young couples face financial difficulties. The fathers of children born to teenage mothers are usually too young to earn enough to provide for their families, so couples are often dependent on financial support from their parents. The stress of becoming a father at a young age also increases the likelihood of the husband's infidelity.

When faced with the possibility of such consequences, most parents are against the idea of their children getting married so early and having children.

Yuki Hoshi, a 20-year-old mother of two, aged 1 and 3, admits that she was embarrassed and could not bring herself to tell her own parents, knowing that they would oppose her quitting high school and having a child. Even now, she is not on good terms with them. However, her husband's parents live close by and give them all the help they need, including financial support.

"They're just wonderful," says Hoshi. "When we first got married, we wouldn't have been able to manage on our own if we didn't have [financial] support from them."

In addition to parental support, the existence of gyarumama support groups, which have increased in number in the last couple of years, also help these women deal with stress of being a young mother.

"Other mothers in the group understand my feelings: how difficult it is to raise a child and do housework [at such a young age], which a lot of friends who are not yet married don't understand," says a mother of a 3-year-old, Chiho Minegishi, 22. She is a member of Fura Rosa, a group based in the Tama district.

The problems that teenage mothers face are not new; however, the recent visibility of gyarumama could be seen as a blessing that not only reveals neglected societal issues but also challenges preconceptions.

Ohinata believes the strength of these young women should not be underestimated.

"They [young mothers] are still in the middle of growing as individuals as well as parents," she says.

"However, they have huge potential, so society should give them the necessary support and watch over them with patience."

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