In studies of unwed mothers in the industrialized world during the post-war period, the “breakdown of the family” came to be seen as an unavoidable consequence of industrialization, modernization and concurrent change in social mores. Yet there is one industrialized country where the number of unwed mothers stayed miniscule, although this country underwent most of the social and economic changes to which the growth of illegitimacy in the West is so often attributed. This country is Japan.
Whenever the virtual absence of illegitimate children in Japan is mentioned, the remaining vestiges of the stem family (ie seido) are referred to as one of the main reasons why Japan is so different from the West. In this paper I will talk about the experiences unwed mothers had with their natal families after discovering premarital pregnancies and will discuss the effects of these experiences, which were far from straightforward. On the one hand, my findings indicate that there was a generational gap in perceptions about illegitimacy. Grandparents (especially grandfathers) found it difficult to accept the prospect of an illegitimate grandchild, and thus put a lot of pressure on their erring daughters. Once the decision to carry the pregnancy to term had been made, unwed mothers, whose parents lived far away or had already passed away at the time of their pregnancy, were much less likely to waiver. On the other hand, it was much easier for unwed mothers to raise their illegitimate children, if they could rely on parental support. The paper is based on 68 in-depth qualitative interviews with lone unwed mothers I carried out in 2004/05.
Ekaterina KOROBTSEVA is a junior research fellow at Wadham College, University of Oxford and currently on a JSPS research grant in Tokyo. Her main research interests include marriage and family, social and cultural norms, mating markets, signalling games and contemporary Japanese society. Her doctoral thesis is entitled “Making the Choice to Become a Lone Unwed Mother in Contemporary Japan”.