Women resist motherhood, alarm the nation

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Nancy Rosenberger

As Japanese women take increasing control of their lives, the birth rate is plummeting, provoking alarm in families and the government alike.

In her book-in-progress, Playing Out the Gamble: Japanese Women Delaying Marriage, A Decade Later, Research Fellow Nancy Rosenberger is tracing the dramatic changes in Japanese women’s lives from the 1970s to the 1990s. “I investigate how the ‘gamble’ to resist control over their reproductive bodies has played out for a generation of women who came of age as consumerism, travel, sexual freedom, and careers for women increased.”

The book builds on work that Rosenberger did, in part, during two previous Center Fellowships, which resulted in Gambling with Virtue: Japanese Women and the Search for Self in a Changing Nation. Both books are based on multiple in-depth interviews with 60 Japanese women in 1993, 1998, and 2004 in Tokyo, a regional city, and a farming village.

“My book focuses on rather ordinary, heterosexual, middle-class women, manipulating gender norms yet finding compromises mostly within Japan,” said Rosenberger, a professor of anthropology at OSU. She first interviewed the women when all were single and ranged from 25 to 35 years old, past the normative marriage age at the time. The women came of age in the 1980s, the decade when consumerism took off in Japan.

“This is significant because, although they have inherited changes which resulted in the Equal Employment Act in 1986 and have enjoyed hobbies and travels that their mothers could not, they have had to figure out how to live with these changes in a culture still demanding reproduction and marriage-based care of men’s and children’s productivity for the national good.”

The women matured during an era characterized by increasingly contradictory discourses of knowledge and power that emerged from the culture itself--the education system, family, work, mass media—as well as the international flow of ideas, persons, and technologies. “The focus of my project is the nature and effects of resistance over time as these women delay or forego marriage and childbirth for fulfillment of ‘self,’” said Rosenberger. “They speak of their resistance as unintended, a result of a number of decisions—to break up with a boyfriend, continue to work, live alone, or enjoy themselves a bit longer.”

Now between 36 and 46, the women have transformed their lives in some ways, yet they’ve “been co-opted and made compromises in other ways.” As of 2004, one-third remained single, and among the married two-thirds, two-thirds were not working and three-quarters had children.

“They are positive about self as their generation has fashioned it, but criticize those younger as going too far,” Rosenberger said. The earlier work has given her a basis for understanding the generation of the mothers of these young women who, “in their frustration with post-war gender norms, have helped create space for their daughters to enjoy their lives, at least up to a point.

The book will offer “a rare look into how the experience of resistance via low fertility transforms women’s lives and identities in an Asian country that combines western-style modernization with a history of selflfessness within male-dominated hierarchy. . . The book is timely because so many countries are experiencing low fertility in Europe and parts of Asia, where governments are struggling to softly to regulate women’s lives.”