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Dilemmas of AdulthoodJapanese Women and the Nuances of Long-Term Resistance$

Nancy Rosenberger

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780824836962

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824836962.001.0001

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No Children despite Running the Gauntlet of Choice

No Children despite Running the Gauntlet of Choice

(p.80) Chapter Four No Children despite Running the Gauntlet of Choice
Dilemmas of Adulthood

Nancy Rosenberger

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how married women without children have braved the challenge of choice and decided to marry. Drawing on interviews with eight women who had married but remained childless in 2004, it shows that spoiled, controlling husbands are a source of tension and ambivalence in the lives of some married women more than the lack of children. Other childless women gain satisfaction from being with their husbands and are not keen in having children via fertility treatment. Some women use the values and strategies of long-term resistance to carve out a new, if ambiguous identity, especially for those without a meaningful career. This chapter also discusses several reasons why childlessness did not seem like a contradiction that brought tension to the lives of married women. Finally, it explores how the ambiguous, long-term resistance of married women affects the ways in which they experience marriage without children.

Keywords:   married women, children, choice, husbands, tension, ambivalence, long-term resistance, childlessness, marriage

SERIOUS, STRAIGHT-BACKED, and dressed in dark colors, Yamamura-san held her hand on her chest as we talked in a Tokyo family restaurant in 2004. She had married quickly at thirty-five to a man she had once refused, and against the advice of her mother, sister, and superiors at the bank where she worked. Her work had lost its meaningfulness, she said, and “I think it is important to marry.” She appreciated the fact that this man did not object to her discussion of art therapy or Christianity, both of which she had espoused as an adult, even travelling to the United States for a short training in Christianity. She soon had a miscarriage—“a shock in the middle of myself that I couldn’t express to my husband” (Rosenberger 2001, 226).

“After the miscarriage, I no longer wanted a couple’s life [sex]. We have skinship, but it doesn’t come to that. He’s late [coming home] anyway, drinking and playing mahjong.” She wrinkled her nose. Yamamura-san had decided that having no children was best after all, because her husband was “spoiled.” “He is like a child. He doesn’t cooperate with things for my ‘self.’ He wants me to direct my feelings toward him. I can do nothing if he doesn’t change his life.” Furthermore, she had discovered various “dirty things” in her husband’s family. His father, now dying of cancer, tore up family pictures, and his mother confessed that she had almost thrown herself and her son (Yamamura-san’s husband) onto train tracks. Her husband was “strangely close to his mother,” she thought, when he crawled in bed with her on a visit and invited Yamamura-san to join them.

Her body expressed her unhappiness. She got terrible head and neck aches when they visited his home, and they grew worse as transfers to new places (p.81) came on a yearly basis. She still enjoyed time alone at home, but her dreams of starting an art therapy classroom had vanished and she rarely went to church.

“Is it hard to be married without children?” I asked her.

“People don’t think it is strange,” she said. “And I have never fit very well in Japan anyway.”

Marriage without children

In this study eight women had married but remained childless in 2004. Five are from the regional city, and three from Tokyo. They have braved the challenge of choice and married, often because they felt increasingly ambivalent about the low-level nature of their work and its worth in society, but particularly because they wanted children. Marriage is a scary choice in part because it entails a commitment to children, but to sacrifice the flexibility of the single life and not to have children is worse, because women will not reap the rewards of the warmth of the mother–child relationship, a focus of hegemonic appeal in Japan that lives on in most of the women in this study.1

The image of shame attached to the childless woman persists from the past; even in the 1980s in the regions, I met women who had been divorced because they did not reproduce. It would seem that things have changed, yet “if the new generation feigns a certain tolerance towards childless couples, it must be recognized that in Japan marriage is still strongly synonymous with procreation” (Jolivet 1997, 40). Being a mother still endows a woman with meaning and local stature (Iwao 1993; Ezawa 2002; LeBlanc 1999). A Japanese scholar who studies infertility treatment in Japan argues that infertile women are considered “deviants,” who lose their self-esteem because they cannot fully express the affection that is essential to the ideal parent–child relationship (Tsuge 2000). In short, I expected these women to be suffering from this anomalous position.

My expectations were wrong. Less than suffering from not being able to have children, half of the women suffered most from a contradiction between their ideal husband and the everyday reality. Spoiled, controlling husbands caused tension and ambivalence in their lives more than the lack of children. The vignette above makes this clear: having lost one child, Yamamura-san reasons that children would be too much in any case because her husband himself is like a spoiled child and he holds no sexual (p.82) attraction for her. Like single women, she must use her experience in the sphere of resistance to be the strong, dependable one in the relationship, but unlike her single compatriots, she ends up with just what single women fear—a dependent husband. Being the dependable one can give women a kind of power in the household (Rosenberger 2001), albeit in a bargain with patriarchy (Kandyoti 1988), but without children to provide leverage, achieving such power seems hollow.

However, not all of the women in this group have to cope with a spoiled husband. The second category of case studies shows that some childless women gain satisfaction from being with their husbands and are not insisting on producing children via fertility treatment. I call them the Romantics, because they value life with “just the two of us.” The last category consists of an outlier case study—the younger high-flying Tokyo career woman married to a young man with a lucrative career; they enjoy being fashionable Tokyo DINKs: Double Income No Kids. Women in this last category use the values and strategies of long-term resistance to carve out a new, if ambiguous identity, especially for women without a meaningful career.

Why is childlessness not such a problem?

In this analysis of case studies, several reasons emerged for why marriage without children did not seem like a contradiction that brought tensions to these women’s lives.

First, these women were almost all older when they married, with an average age of thirty-seven and a half, ranging from the Tokyo career woman of thirty-one to two women who married at age forty-four. Their age made pregnancy more difficult, and they knew it. However, all but two (one disabled, the other career-track) had desired children at some time in their lives. The point that pregnancy is more difficult with age must be tempered with the fact that fertility treatment is available, though at the judgment of doctors and not in the form of sperm or egg donation (Tsuge 2000). These women have chosen to leave pregnancy “up to nature,” in contrast with two women in this study who had fertility treatment and did become pregnant. These decisions against fertility treatment must be weighed against reports in this study that such treatment is time-consuming, painful, and inconvenient for those who live outside main regional cities.

(p.83) Second, because they put off marriage for so long, expectations for marriage and children on the part of parents, friends, and colleagues lessened. Eyes turned to younger women in the nation and parents became resigned. These women were fast entering a category of women whom people feel sorry for more than get angry at: older wives who could not bear children.

Third, these women had entered the classification of housewife, which still carried cultural importance and ideological attraction, although in new forms (Goldstein-Gidoni 2007). They fit into postwar classifications of women supporting households and husbands on behalf of a productive society, yet they could still potentially express aspects of individuality while living within this older mold.

Fourth, a new aura had grown up around couples. All but two of the women had married because they felt an en–a special, spontaneous link between two people—that was a pillar in their generational discourse. Now they saw themselves as “older couples” who married because of a quiet attraction, usually expressed as “drinking tea together,” with the implication of a companion with whom to age. Ads targeting middle-aged and older couples romanticized trips with “just the two of us”—a phrase mentioned by many as the alternative life to a family with children. In his interviews with couples seeking infertility treatment, Tsuge (2000) did find a minority of couples who perceived of childless life as happy.

Fifth, in the case of two women, the Tokyo high-flyer and the disabled Morioka worker, the high values they place on individual careers make having no children an advantage. Despite huge educational, income, and urban/rural differences between these two, they differ from others in accepting not having children because they feel they must continue their work.

For all of these reasons, marriages without children are not tragedies for anomalous women. Rather, such marriages have become a valuable laboratory for viewing marriage without the added variable of children. They spotlight the marriage relationship, and often the relationships with parents on both sides as well. There are no children to mask or reconfigure the relationships among these representatives of a generation that expected so much from marriage. Long-term resistance takes on a different hue in this subject position that on the one hand carries potential for creative experimentation and on the other redirects a woman’s long-term resistance, in all its tacit accommodation and festering irritation, toward her husband and his parents.

(p.84) Why the regions?

Five of the eight women in this group were raised in the regions, and four live there now. The difficulty in remaining single in the northeast, evidenced in the frustrations of singlehood in the last chapter, may account for this preponderance of regional women marrying at an age when to become pregnant is harder. To remain single in Tokyo, where single women have many like friends and no sense of anomaly in public, is more enjoyable. This study indicates that single women in Tokyo after thirty-five or forty are more likely to remain single, not compromise on partners, and enjoy friends and lovers. Indeed, overall in Japan, of all women born in 1964—age forty in 2004—22.3 percent had not given birth by age forty (Mainichi Shimbun 2006).

Women in the northeast are more willing to take the risk of a later marriage. They have learned endurance from their mothers and consider putting up with a husband much easier than enduring under the arm of a mother-in-law. Further, their risk matches the overall greater concern among single women in the northeast that in their old age they will be lonely and lack a caretaker.

In addition, the regions are a reservoir of unmarried men, elder sons responsible for an inherited farm or family house, graves, and care of parents. Unlike in the city, where men do not always want to marry, these men want to, and their family members work on their behalf. For example, the friend of a sister of one of these bachelors who was in the hospital with one of the interviewees introduced her to her future husband. Women partially recognize the risk, however, as the stereotype of elder or only sons as being spoiled and tied to their mothers was noted in the postwar era and continues today (Wagatsuma and DeVos 1984). During my 2004 fieldwork, a regional acquaintance had a friend who had killed her son because he refused to get a job; the blame was immediately assigned to the overly intimate and dependent relationship between mother and son.

Marriage without children after long-term construction of single self

This laboratory of case studies is particularly interesting because these women have had plenty of time to experience the excitement and pain of making new scripts for themselves as single women. Their workshops of experience (p.85) have been full as they have taken on the task of building their narratives of self and challenged the makeup of their own selves and their relations with close others. How marriages and the women in them are affected by this self-construction is a question that spans all the remaining chapters. Here, the question is: How does the ambiguous, long-term resistance of these women in this globalized generation shape the ways in which they experience marriage without children, either negatively or positively?

With their skills of long-term resistance, all of these married women without children appealed to the diversity that is the emergent norm within themselves and, gradually, in society in late-modern Japan. It was their hedge against anomaly. Yet even in the performances being created by their own generation, they were in-between the single-woman world and the mother–child world. Rather than easily entering the next stage that they have acquiesced to or welcomed, they have had to use the scraps and pieces of old and new habits of mind and body to create yet another script for self in the midst of the tensions of husband’s self, own self, care for parents, and work. Even if they wanted to now, they could not lose themselves in motherhood or use its power as a leverage for status. Nor had they married rich men whose wealth allowed them to lean back and enjoy life. In only one case did a woman quit her secretarial job after a year of marriage, but she was commuting several hours from a small village where the couple lived humbly in his family’s old farmhouse, and her husband earned little with construction jobs.

Spoiled husbands: Kato-san

Kato-san met me at the turnstile in her station about an hour from central Tokyo in 2004. The ponytail and slim lines of her twenty-five-year-old self had given way eleven years later to a medium-length hairstyle and a new pudginess under her navy-and-white-striped shirt and red capris.

“I’m sorry for this old apartment,” she said as we entered. “I want to get a new carpet and new furniture—do an interior, since I am a housewife now. But he likes old stuff—like that bookshelf—yuk! But it has memories for him. And he likes to save money. What for? I wonder! I said I would use the money I saved from my work, but he said I shouldn’t use it for everyday life.”

“Is this your marriage photo?” I studied the handsome couple on top of the TV: he tall in a gray tux and she dressed like a southern belle in a pink gown with a train.

(p.86) “Yes.” She smiled as she looked at the photo. “He’s ten years older than me. He’s tall but his back is rounded. We got married here and then honeymooned in Switzerland. We argued then, too!” She chuckled with chagrin and explained.

“We’d just got there and as I entered the hotel, I threw back my head and laughed—‘How great it is to be here’—but he pushed me from behind and said angrily, ‘Get into the room!’ I know we were tired but … I got really mad.”

“O-o-oh.” My voice could only dip sympathetically. Kato-san was relaxed and open, ready to talk to me, taking my research as a chance to speak honestly to a person outside her network. She served me black tea as we settled into the old chairs.

“How did you meet him?” I knew she wasn’t meeting men easily in 1998.

“It was an arranged meeting. My mother introduced us; her friend had brought his profile from his parents. His parents and mine live five minutes apart. Five years ago, the same request came, but I thought it was a joke—such an old person. Before, I absolutely wanted a love marriage, but slowly I decided I really wanted to marry and became open to introductions. My grandmother kept saying she wanted to see the face of her grandchild.”

I remembered her opposition to arranged marriages from our first meeting in 1993 when she was working as a dorm mother and had a boyfriend. She wanted a husband she “could talk with about anything. If I express my opinion, he will respond in a settled way. I want a home (katei) where I can be free.”

Kato-san explained her shift into accepting a semi-arranged marriage: “I looked into the future and all I could see was work. The printing company I worked for in Sapporo was so busy that I had no chance to meet anyone. He and I met once in December at a coffee shop and then saw each other every day for a week. I was searching for what kind of person he was. So we decided then. In March I just came here right away after I quit my job and we lived together before our wedding. I wanted to.”

She hesitated, eyes cast down, and then, looking up, said: “I need to tell you he is divorced. I never thought I would marry a ‘man with an X’ [on his household registry].2 You just never know about life, do you?”

She went into the kitchen and brought out a rice and chestnut dish on handsome plates.

“Well, let’s see,” I said after a few bites. “I remember when we talked last time you liked your work and your brother’s dog …”

(p.87) She nodded and smiled, “I miss him! I want another, but my husband doesn’t like dogs much.”

“… but you felt something was lacking.”

“I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment anymore, and I worried a bit, ‘Is there no good person?’” Her memories of that time ripened. “When I was single I took the dog for walks late at night. I bought things I wanted like clothes, magazines, candy. I was poor but free. Now I am not sure. I want some money that I can use freely, like for Pilates.”

“Do you work?”

“I wanted to work but he didn’t want me to. He’s an old Japanese type. He wants me home when he leaves and comes home. I worked part-time but I got tired and then I got upset when he wouldn’t help take out the garbage or clear the dishes. I asked him to take up the futon and he did it, but I had to ask. I realized that if I was always angry, my face would change. I’d become unpleasant.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to do it yourself.”

“Really, you don’t have freedom. Like I get lonely and want to call up my friends at night, but I worry about his eyes. He wouldn’t like it if I talked for several hours. It’s his house and his telephone and his salary. So I feel constrained (kyukutsu).”

After a while the conversation turned to children. I remembered that even when I first met Kato-san she thought “a family would be nice.” She said: “He generally doesn’t like children all that much. He says he wants them but … I have a benign fibroid tumor and if I don’t get it removed, it would hurt when I was pregnant. But if they operate, you can’t get pregnant for a year. The doctors say one in six women have them now because of late marriage. So, my husband (otto) says that we can just enjoy life the two of us. But I say that I won’t be able to have children if we keep saying ‘let’s enjoy life the two of us.’” She wrinkled her brow and continued. “If I had children, it would be easier to make friends. The lady next door is my age but has three children, so we don’t talk.”

She collected the dishes and brought Japanese tea. Several hours had passed, but she seemed in no hurry.

“So I am asking everyone what they feel as they look back over their lives.” I said.

She cocked her head and thought. “I have naturally done the preferable things for each age. I thought I was individualistic and different when young, but I am a typical Japanese among Japanese. I wasn’t a career woman but I (p.88) lived alone, worked, and had my own money. There are places that became like a typical ‘old miss.’3 It’s because Japan allowed it. I felt that I was special, but I am common now that I am married. I am a woman of now (ima-fuu onna).”

I nodded and took notes.

“I had lots of chances but it was hard to make decisions. I wonder now, ‘Is it okay?’ Maybe now it’s okay when we are just married, but in the future? Sometimes I say I will divorce you or leave … but I don’t have the courage. So enjoying things is best. I won’t be hurried for children. I am trying to go slowly and get used to this life. There are various ways to live. We can take trips together.”

Postdecisional regret

Kato-san’s ambivalence about herself has not ended but, as an aging single who gambled on marriage, probably increased. She felt that she, along with her generation, had done something different and special, but with age she also saw the eventual emptiness and isolation of the working single woman who lived alone and worked hard without promotions. Her disillusionment overcame the risk of the blind spot that she stood in as a single facing marriage, for she realized that as a single in regional Japan working in a job in a small company, life narrowed after a point. She gave in to her grandmother’s and her own wish for children, hoping that as a housewife and mother her life might broaden again.

Now in her state of marriage without children, Kato-san’s description of her life hinted broadly at the ambivalence and tension of “postdecisional regret.” Her narrative was sprinkled with laments for the loss of freedom centered on her depiction of her husband as old-fashioned, controlling, and overly frugal. His independence as a wage earner shifted into dependence on his wife when he walked in the door—the very postwar formula that Kato-san wanted to avoid. He took up the late-modern slogan “just the two of us” enthusiastically, as perhaps he himself perceived childlessness as a way to lighten his conventional role as a breadwinner. Her gradual understanding that he really did not want children but just wanted to be taken care of himself grew inside her like the fibrous tumor that she did not treat. In her estimation she had become “common”—a woman putting up with what she disagreed with and possibly forgoing the children that she believed would enliven her life again. The hopes of her generation were doubly dashed. Unhappy and perfectly able (p.89) to perceive her predicament, but without “the courage” to divorce, she is the perfect picture of ambivalence.

However, marked by the efforts of her generation’s long-term resistance, several other strategies came to Kato-san’s aid. Her husband and she found ways to enjoy their childlessness by going on trips together; she could sell her work skills on the side within limits set by her husband, as she continued to do seasonally; and she had interests such as Pilates that she could pursue. Friends were a tougher strategy for her, but she communicated with old friends by e-mail and met with a nearby junior high friend.

Still, in her own evaluation, Kato-san ended up an ordinary Japanese woman of her generation. She was caught in a double bind of having learned a new disposition as a single woman but having to relearn the old disposition that her mother had displayed at home in relation to her father. This double bind was exacerbated by another—the contradiction of an inflexible, spoiled husband who blocked her from having children with whom she could shape relations that she thought she would be in control of as a mother. Her self, built with latitude for self-reflection as part of her generation’s social movement, enabled her to gain insight into these dilemmas and potentially to help carve out a new role for childless married couples; but the workshop of her life mostly attested to the effects of power in her life (Abu-Lughod 1990).

Disabled with husband and cats

Disabled and with a high school education in the regions, Kojima-san presents a unique case study in this book. What has marriage, and now marriage without children, meant to her?

The answer at one level was quite positive. Because she had severe rheumatoid arthritis requiring many joint operations since childhood, she still lived with her parents in her late thirties. Unable to fully enjoy the freedom heralded by single life, her marriage to a man who promised to “be her arms and legs” opened a path out of her parents’ house to greater independence. She had always said that “with this body I can’t have children,” so a childless life met her needs. Furthermore, she had great pride in her work as a telephone operator for the local government because she succeeded in this career despite her disabilities and high school education. Because of her lower-class status, she was determined to hang onto the economic independence that this (p.90) low-level career gave her (Roberts 1994). However, her case study of childless marriage also reveals negative processes of her husband’s childish ways and demands from his parents for children that did little but shift her sense of ambivalent resistance from her own parents to her husband and his parents.

At forty-four in 2004, Kojima-san still had curly, shoulder-length hair and dimples when she smiled. Her hands were bent and scarred and she walked with a limp from rheumatoid arthritis, just as when I had first met her in 1993 (Rosenberger 2001, 206). She had various questions about the United States and world politics; a Japanese man’s head had just been severed by terrorists in Iraq and it greatly disturbed her. In general, Kojima-san seemed content. “I watch the news all the time. My husband got transferred several years ago, and I stay here in our apartment with the TV on and the cats. This is the best way—married but he lives apart. My time is free and I am free to do things according to my own way of thinking. I eat when I want to eat. I go at my own pace.” The ambiguity of this seemed to appeal to her.

“Nice compromise between single and married life!”

“Yes. I’m busy with my cats, giving them food, cleaning their box, talking with them. I have five and now a litter of four kitties. Here, look at their pictures on my cell phone.”

We bent over the cell phone to watch a small video of the kittens and another of her cat, which lifted the milk into its mouth with its paw rather than lapping it with its tongue. She laughed, enchanted. “They’re so cute!” she exclaimed. “My husband thinks they’re cute, too. They are my friends, because my friends from school are all busy with their children. Most are in junior high now. Maybe in ten years we can meet easily again, but for now I have the cats.”

“I loved my dog, too, but she died and my husband doesn’t want another. How’s work for you?”

She announced, “I have been working at city hall for twenty-two years! I want to continue until I get my pension at sixty-six. There may be a problem, though. They are contracting out this service, so I may get paid less and have a different kind of pension, or maybe have to learn the computer. I don’t know whether I can do it.” She held up her fingers that were crippled from arthritis. “But anyway, I’ll keep working. Because of my job, I can’t move to be near my husband or his parents, not until I retire.” She flashed a quick dimple on one cheek.

This statement was heavy with meaning. She had married a first son from Niigata, a mountainous prefecture in central Japan. His parents had (p.91) built them a house to live in near them and continued to pressure her either to have a child or adopt one. She refused.

Kojima-san had realized how spoiled her husband was when he repeatedly called up his mother to defend him whenever they argued. In 2004, she said: “He finally noticed it was hard on me and doesn’t do it anymore. But now he leans on me! I was surprised when he said that we are like brother and sister now. I don’t think so. At least I would like an older brother who would protect me! He’s like a younger brother. He doesn’t even want to get together with other couples. I have the stress of worrying about the money we owe and cleaning and cooking and my health. But I have learned a lot.”

“What about your parents? How are they?” I asked. Her father had not wanted to give me her phone number, and it reminded me that she had married a first and only son against their wishes; her parents didn’t even go to the wedding in Niigata. They had told her, “Either marry a boy whom we can bring into the family to carry on the family name or just stay single.”

Yet time was softening her relationship with her parents, just as with her husband. “My parents have given me a lot of care because of my condition, and my mother still cares for me when I need operations on my joints. I am her daughter after all. I am the oldest daughter, and I think sometimes I should go to live with them in my old age.”

I could have joked that that would be a good way to get out of living with his parents, but I refrained. I was sure she had thought of it.

“My husband used to hardly speak to my parents, but that has gotten a little better. Now we take them to hot springs sometimes.”

The agency of time

This case study is valuable for how it reveals the changes and potential in a childless marriage with a spoiled husband. However painful the process, the course of time itself became part of Kojima-san’s long-term resistance (Das 2007). Her stubborn adherence to her job, the course of her disease, and her aging all were making a difference. Her husband’s dependence did not diminish, but over time it shifted to his wife as an asexual sister, and their relationship was eased by pets, perhaps used like children as a common focus of attention and affection. Kojima-san was gradually coming back to her parents, bringing her husband over into their care, and building the case for never having to live with his parents. Her “lesson learned” was that marriage did not mean a place of dependency for her, but one of increased (p.92) independence and responsibility. Via this childless marriage, she backed into the very independence and freedom in which her generation believed, albeit a freedom ultimately circumscribed by old-fashioned dependency. Her many cats, enjoyed by both her and her husband, can be interpreted in various ways. Like children, they are living beings to care for and afford an alternative focus within the relationship, perhaps a redirection of sexual energy. Most broadly, in the individual isolation of late modernity, pets offer an anchor of solidarity that provides intimacy without judgment or conflict.

Ironically, Kojima-san’s identities as lower-class and disabled were anchors that stabilized her gender identity and gave her the determination to tough it out. However, the contradictions of the political economy might disturb the job she hung onto: Japan’s growing debt diminished the resources coming to the regional cities from the national government, and jobs such as hers were outsourced. Thus, the neoliberal shift toward individual responsibility combined with the responsibility and demands thrust on her by marriage end up making the independence from her parents that she had craved more demanding than she had imagined.

Lack of sex

A lack of marital sex emerges in this section on childless wives with spoiled husbands. According to the wives, two marriages were sexless, and they seemed quite satisfied with this arrangement. Causes for such arrangements are complex, and supposedly they are widespread in Japan,4 perhaps a bodily manifestation of neoliberal individuation and protection of self against the risks of intimacy. In these interviews, the lack of conjugal sex appeared to be related to the kind of relationship the husbands required of the wives involved—namely, more maternal or sisterly than sexual. It was also a fairly effective birth-control tool in a marriage that did not fit the mutual relationship that the women had in mind when they married.

As single women age, they marry in part to have a person to depend on. Like successful singles, they feel proud of their independence, but the effort to maintain it is continuous and exhausting, and thus they wish to ease their stress by having a person to confer with and help them out in weaker moments. The tragedy here is that these women have neither flexibility to experiment nor a person to support them psychologically and socially. In short, they have failed in extracting themselves from the “sticky” interdependent relations of the Japanese cultural code and have to use their energies of (p.93) long-term resistance to keep their husbands’ dependency in check and make this a tolerable situation for themselves.

The romantics

For three women in this laboratory of childless marriage, marriage has resolved much of the tension and ambivalence they experienced in their single lives. All of these women had already trod rocky paths before marriage: pressures from parents and, for the two who were high school graduates, low-level jobs with little pay or security. All of them had seen the hardships of the market self, whether as consumer or laborer, by the time I met them in their early thirties. Their expectations were already less than those of most of the women in this study, and thus their surprising marriages in the late thirties and early forties gave them a new lease on a life for self. Indeed, marriage seemed to be the “place of psychological rest” that the government ideology advertised (Rosenberger 2001), because now they have someone with whom to talk about their worries and to enjoy life. These romantics all are from the northeast and now live in villages there. They all were somewhat disappointed not to get pregnant, but did not opt for fertility treatment because of the distances to the regional city hospital and also a vague feeling that it was best to leave it to nature. Their saving grace was their belief in the marriage ideal of their generation—to be in a self-chosen relationship of mutual understanding—because they felt that by it their self-narratives were enhanced. As one said, “My husband is shy, but kind and warm. … I just want to be the self that I am when we are the two of us” (Rosenberger 2001, 202). Indeed, compared to an overbearing and sometimes abusive though much-loved father, her husband looked quite good.

In all of these marriages, life was bound up with care of elder parents, but each in a different way. This responsibility encouraged the young women to reach out for marriage mates who would make them feel more akin to others their age. Only one woman married and moved in with her husband’s farmer-parents because her husband was the typical elder son left at home; she travelled to care for her parents in another village. The second woman married a man from Tokyo who was entranced by village life and married into her family, taking her family name and helping her parents in the shop they owned. Both of these couples had their own bedrooms and sitting rooms in the house they shared with parents, but usually ate dinner together with (p.94) them. The third married a farmer whose parents had already died, but she enlisted her husband’s help with her own parents in the regional city. At this point, these ancillary relationships were not an encumbrance on the marriages because the parents involved seemed to give latitude to these new relationships and the women were glad to have someone with whom to relax and share their concerns.

“Just the two of us”

The glow of marriage shone most brightly in the story of a hospital telephone operator, a high school graduate, and daughter of a construction worker–farmer. Kurokawa-san described her marriage in romantic terms, especially compared with the buffeting she had received on the regional city’s irregular job market, shifting from job to job and taking up the slack with nighttime bartending over the years. Now she was married to a lower-level salaryman who worked at a local food company and lived with his parents. She continued to work evenings, but this decreased the possibility for conflict with her mother-in-law, she reasoned. Of her husband, she said: “We are enjoying life. We frequently go to hot-spring hotels in the area on weekends.” Although she still had a desire for children, she counseled herself to be satisfied. “My friend tried fertility treatment for twenty years and failed. We say: ‘Let’s live a life of the two of us. Save money and travel.’” In looking back over her life, she skillfully combined her generational discourse of self with a Buddhist philosophy of cause and effect (karma), constant change, and acceptance: “All these things are necessary to come to the self of now. I learned from it. … It all comes back to you in time. … It all depends on your spirit. Nothing is secure.”

A hint of sadness over her lack of pregnancy and children echoed in the conversation with Sugimura-san, the woman whose husband from Tokyo married into her family and her village (Rosenberger 2001, 205). She was in the city doctoring for a cold. “Well, we haven’t had any children. We are for now just two (mazu futari),” she said. “I am forty-three, so maybe it is no use (muri). People, especially the older ones say: ‘Keep trying! Don’t give up!’ But it can’t be helped.”

Again, it was the “awful” experience a friend had with fertility treatment that played in her mind. “I can’t do it with my pharmacy work. I can’t sacrifice to that point. I will leave it to nature. My parents have six grandchildren anyway. My grandmother asks, ‘Who will inherit the shop?’ But with a big (p.95) supermarket coming in outside of town, I am not sure our small sake store will continue.”

She felt that her married-without-children position allowed her to communicate with both single and married friends, but she felt that those with children had “broader worlds … links with people. They can learn as their children grow.” She drifted off and stared out at the misty day, but then a small smile appeared. “Anyway, my husband is getting used to life in the village. At first he was annoyed by all the questions people asked him about himself. But now my parents and he are getting used to each other. As long as we get along well as a couple, all will be fine.”

Embedded in family, Sugimura-san said, “I can do things without pushing my ‘self’ through now. Compared with my mother, I had a period of free time, and I’ve had choice about coming home and marrying. At work, I am the main pharmacist, equal with men. I am satisfied. But it is all I can do to keep up with my everyday existence!”

Her words reflected a combination of experiences: a renewal of habits of mind that she had been raised with in her multigenerational family, but also her own journey as a pharmacist who converted to Christianity, rebelled against her job, and volunteered to work with disabled people. Like others of her generation, she now stands at the nexus of a productive tension among the various strands of her life, all coming to bear on these women’s abilities to cope with not getting pregnant and enjoying their new husbands. They continue their long-term resistance, however, for they are in a dangerous position in relation to the ideology of doctors and government pushing for pregnancy in legally married couples as well as the expectant eyes of relatives and neighbors.

Like single women who had to prove their success in career and consumption in order to escape anomaly, married women without children were challenged to maintain a meaningful couple relationship to avoid old-fashioned belittling. They maneuvered life and reported on it in such a way that their relationship fit a romantic mold, one that attained a kind of ambiguous independent responsibility in relation to a spoiled husband, or one that concentrated on parental care. They were no longer in the “free-floating” relationships of late modernity, separated from kin or economics, but they were in relationships in which, more than people married with children, the bare bones of each person were exposed, and their selves revealed to each other (Giddens 1991, 90–98, 186).

(p.96) DINKs

In this last section, we meet a trendy Tokyo woman, Yanagi-san, who is by choice a self-described DINK, double-income-no-kids. A high-climber, she travelled the world—Germany, Malaysia, Denmark—studying health policy and its potential for Japan.

In 2004 I visited Yanagi-san’s think tank, housed in one of Tokyo’s new shiny multiuse buildings that features offices, boutiques, and restaurants. Yanagi-san was tall with short hair and wore a gray suit tailored with flattering lines. I thanked her for the New Year’s card she had sent me with pictures of her and her husband in Alaska. Both had masters degrees and knowledge jobs that helped them write their own script as a young, successful married couple (Rosenberger 2001, 214–215).

“We’re still DINKs!” Yanagi-san gave her high, rippling laugh. “Really this is the easiest way. We have a rich life and others are jealous of us. We worked hard to get here, so we want to enjoy it.”

I remember when I first talked with Yanagi-san at the University of Tokyo in 1993. “I dream of being a bride, but I want to continue working,” she had said in a loud voice. “I don’t want children at all. It will be enjoyable the two of us.” In 1998 at thirty, she had denied being ready to marry yet, but soon after did marry. In 2004 she characterized her marriage as a sign of her fashionable independence. “I said either no big wedding reception or no entry into the family’s register (by which she would change her name and enter his family). So I entered the register but had no marriage ritual or reception. We did as we wanted, like kids.”

“What did his parents think?” I asked.

“His parents were fine with it. They’re cool. His father is high up in a company and his mother works at a nonprofit every day. He’s the eldest son, but they don’t want a yome [a daughter-in-law with implications of servitude]. While we went on our honeymoon, his parents went down south to visit my parents and travel. My parents don’t care about the ie [ongoing household] either.”

Yanagi-san grabbed a magic marker and drew her kin relations on the board—her husband’s parents, and his older sister, still unmarried; her parents caring for her mother’s parents; and her sister married with one daughter living near her parents.

She pointed at her niece: “Only one child for both families now. That feels insecure. Maybe my niece will come up here for university and I will be (p.97) really nice to her and she will care for me when I get older … and senile.” She made a face, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

“Not being a mother is okay, but if I were to get sick … well, I need to save money. You need a person to depend on, and a blood relative is best. You need a guarantor to decide things like what to do with your bones.”

I wasn’t surprised that Yanagi-san, a researcher on elder policy, would think this way. But I was surprised that Yanagi-san, the swinging Tokyoite, would worry. The intricacies of making the choice to have children or not for both her and her husband unfolded, and it involved a great deal of ambivalence—feelings about their own lives and their trust in each other to go beyond their fashionable, self-centered selves. “I loved various people and it was enjoyable, but now I have settled down. I want kids, but he doesn’t have confidence in himself so he doesn’t want any. He’s a perfectionist.”

The second reason for Yanagi-san’s chart emerged as she pointed to the stick figures representing their parents. “Our parents could raise the kids. His mother is so organized. I would be assured if she would take care of the grandchild. If not, my parents down south would. I would enlist lots of people’s help. My husband says I would do that too much. Actually, I think he saw me and thought I couldn’t raise kids to his level of perfection so he decided he didn’t want them. But I wouldn’t kill the children! He sees my plants die, and he thinks the children will too!”

We both giggled. I assured her that my plants die regularly but my children have survived.

Strolling down the broad marbled halls of her building afterwards, gazing at expensive clothes and organic foods, I felt that I had met Yanagi-san at an interesting turning point in her life. She had reached the epitome of the late-modern self, building her narrative via career, enjoyment, consumer goods, romance, and even parents and husband who respected her decisions. Yet she revealed tensions around the self-centered character that she prided herself on being—tensions that provide insight into the future of self as it evolves in this generation. Significantly, it wasn’t the voices of her parents or in-laws, but the voice of her husband evaluating her—and indeed her voice evaluating him—that resonated in her interview. Skillful at developing selves that fit the globalized image of independence in career and consumption, they now looked at each other as potential parents and doubted: Is the other mature enough to raise children? Could they be the kind of people that children could depend on, and could they raise the cooperative (p.98) yet competitive children that Japan now demands? Their plight represents the ultimate ambivalence of this generation.

Although Yanagi-san and her husband were financially independent in knowledge careers, they doubted each other’s emotional independence to the extent that they wondered if they could care for others. They suggest that this generation, even in its highly polished and successful form, is not completely satisfied with the new cultural code that they have hammered out, and that they need some higher level of maturity to expunge the soft spoiled places.

Yet Yanagi-san did not summon herself to meet this ideal, but rather turned to their parents to raise an imaginary child, silently assuming the greater importance of her and her husband’s work and lives. Disembedded from hierarchical demands of family in her single and early married life, she was still ready to be dependent on aspects of the old cultural code in the person of parents whom she assumed would be willing to step in, despite the fact that her husband’s mother had her own career activities. Having married for love not children, Yanagi-san found herself in another dilemma of choice, another blind spot between past and future. The specter of her lonely aged self with “postdecisional regret” for not having children danced on her whiteboard. What she was not ambivalent about was that her “self” was actualized into her career, and in that she was different from most of the married women, and even many single women, in this book.


The analysis of women who are married without children resulted in somewhat surprising conclusions. These women were not without tensions, but the worst tensions did not stem from the lack of children in their lives. Families and even regional society had changed enough to soften the sharp anomaly of being a childless married woman. For those who were married with husbands to whom the wives felt emotionally close, the generational ideal of romantic love for them as a couple filled the breach of children for now, a point of view that adjusted well to the search for fulfillment on a more individual level. For the urban professional, lack of children allowed a global version of a lifestyle of urban married woman with a career, and while children presented a dilemma of choice to some extent, they were not seen as necessary, their absence only arousing worry about the far future and a cute selfishness on a personal level that further testified to Yanagi-san’s devotion to work.

(p.99) Spoiled, immature husbands were the main problem these women had to confront. Marrying late, they lived the reality of which many women spoke: “Women’s consciousnesses have changed, but men’s haven’t.” In short, women were going toward an independence that moved away from the confining, even cloying, dependent relationships that they identified with their upbringings and historical Japan. That several women who had wanted children did not pursue pregnancy despite probably being physically capable of achieving it indicates the measure they took of their husbands. A new double bind developed, because the very independence that these women had nurtured as they explored their options before marriage was sucked up by husbands who, also responding to the appeal of a more self-centered existence, wanted to be free of responsibility and maintain “the two of us,” enjoying the indulgence of their wives.

These women’s ambivalent construction of an independent self in the workshops of their long-term resistance contributed in both positive and negative ways to their experiences as married women without children. It gave all of them resources to earn money on the side and to seek out friends and activities, even when these were difficult. But it made marriage to spoiled husbands harder to bear, for they had reflected long and hard on whom they wanted to be and the trade-offs demanded in marriage. It may have led to several sexless marriages. Yet, having acquired the disposition of a single centered on self, some women’s vision of romantic life as a couple was well-developed and sustained them in a long-term couple relationship. The ambivalence of this social movement made them seek some dependence, however, and women who were caring for parents welcomed having someone to depend on for even a bit of help in the emotional and physical tasks of this situation. Furthermore, becoming housewives normalized them as women in Japan, and given the decreasing marriage rate, the low birthrate, and their advanced ages, they were not ostracized. In short, these women had already inhabited the ambivalence of single life, and the ambivalence, even the tension, of a childless marriage was disappointing but hardly a new experience in their long-term resistance.


(1.) Like others, they inherited the ideology of the mother that has grown strong in the last century in Japan. In the late 1800s, “wise mothers” began to be valued for the growth of the nation (Uno 1991), and the idea grew with the increase in middle-class urban mothers in the twenties, honor given to war mothers in World War II, and importance of professional housewife-mothers in the 1960s and 1970s. Mothers’ value in time spent with and for children ratcheted up postwar, because mothers supposedly gave the physical and emotional stability, along with gradual discipline, that would produce children with the idealized Japanese psychological characteristics of cooperation, empathy, emotional dependency, and perseverance. The success of postwar institutions in Japan was supposed to depend on mothers’ contributions and made them significant.

(2.) The popular way of quickly labeling a person who is divorced is to refer to them as having an X (batsu), a word that can also mean a penalty.

(3.) “Old miss” is used in Japanese as a derogatory term for an unmarried woman and is spoken with a Japanese pronunciation of the English words. Americans would use the phrase “old maid.”

(4.) A survey done by the Asahi Newspaper Company of 600 wives in 2005 showed that 26% of married women had not had sex with their husbands in the last year (Cameron 2005). Other surveys of men and women have shown even longer time statistics.