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It was the picture that caught my attention first. There was a guy sitting on a bed, wearing a vest that showed boobs and a big belly. He looked serene, maybe tired. But it was the video that made me stop and watch again – and again. The guy is Masanobu Ogura, a Japanese member of parliament, who wore a 7kg-jacket that simulated breasts and a baby bump to try to understand the toll of pregnancy. In the video, he said he didn’t sleep well with the big belly and that other domestic tasks like cleaning a bathtub or cutting his nails were really hard.

It was the tone of it that threw me off. Why does a male politician have to go through this weird experiment to get a sense of the potential difficulties of pregnancy? “I’m sure I cannot fully understand what a 10-month gestation feels like in just two days. Also, I hear that what strikes pregnant women is not only weight but also morning sickness, physical pain and mental anxiety,” he commented.

Ogura was one of three politicians who took part in a scheme to “understand pregnancy”. As if men had to understand it themselves because they can’t just trust women to tell them what pregnancy is like and what would support them. As if wearing a bump-like heavy jacket for two days could get you somehow close to understanding what a pregnancy feels like.

When I saw these images and read about the scheme, I couldn’t help but go back to Breasts and Eggs, the novel by Mieko Kawakami that I read earlier this year and loved. Kawakami portrays many women in her novel, women who question what it means to be a woman and how difficult it is to fulfil one’s desires in a conservative, rule-bound society like Japan. One character, in particular, comes to mind: Rie, a work acquaintance of Natsuko’s, the main character.

Rie is a marginal person in Natsuko’s life, but the one time she asks Natsuko to meet, she vomits what’s on her mind and – to Natsuko’s surprise – she is quite direct (and a feminist).

Rie talks about her experience as a mother and how she fell apart after her child was born: “My husband didn’t do anything about it. At least, not anything to help. He was, like, What’s wrong with you? Having a child is a totally natural part of being a woman – How could it possibly take that much out of you? My mom did it. Every woman does it. Get over it – he said, just laughing.”

The book shows many powerful and conflicted women – and several inane men. It also shows the power dynamics at play and how much women suffer from societal expectations. Those who are single are expected to be married. Those who are married are expected to have children. Those who have children are expected to be well and work towards their family’s well-being. “Even when a woman dies, she can’t become a Buddha. A long time ago, all these important people wrote about how dirty women are and why that’s bad. So, basically, to become a Buddha, you have to be reborn as a man first,” writes Midoriko, Natsuko’s niece, in her diary.

So, do women also need to be reborn as men with a fake bump and breasts to have their needs around pregnancy heard? In Japan, harassment towards pregnant women is so common that there is even a word for it: matahara.

Japan is the worst-ranked economic power when it comes to gender equality: the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 rated Japan 120th out of 156 countries in terms of gender parity. The annual study compares indicators in four areas: economic participation, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival. Japan ranks very low in women’s participation in politics (9.9% of women among parliamentarians and 10% among ministers). It also fares poorly regarding women’s involvement in the economy. Even though 72% of women are in the workforce, 50% of them work part-time (compared to 22% of men working part-time), and they earn almost half on average than men.

Here is the conundrum: women are expected to have children, but mothers do 3.6 times more housework and childcare than men, according to a 2020 national survey. So if they decide to have a family, they often start working part-time (earning less on average than a man also pushes towards these decisions). Conservative ideas and expectations of women at work also push women away from the workforce: from having to wear high heels to being expected to clear the agenda for a full day, regardless of family commitments.

So, what impact does this context have on mothers and their children? I have little knowledge of Japan, but I find the issue deeply interesting because it can show us that wealth does not create an equal playing field for women, nor a more child-friendly environment. Sometimes a shift in mentality is more necessary and useful than a big budget. In order to understand more about the Japanese context, I spoke to Yoshie Ichijo-Kawado, a Japanese journalist who is about to launch a newsletter about feminism in Japan. She is also a member of this community.

Three questions for … Yoshie Ichijo-Kawado, Japanese journalist

Q: How mainstream is the understanding of the word matahara –and in what contexts is it used?

A: Without exaggeration, every adult in Japan knows matahara. The word is an abbreviated form of the English words “maternity” and “harassment.” It refers to the unfair treatment – namely harassment, both physical and mental – of working women when they become pregnant or give birth. Such treatment may involve termination of employment, termination of their contracts of employment, or forcing them to leave their job “voluntarily.” (The last one is the most likely.) Along with power harassment and sexual harassment, matahara is one of the three major forms of harassment that burden Japanese women in the workforce.
The word was created in 2013 by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, which conducted the first nationwide survey. It then spread so rapidly that it became the buzzword of the year. The confederation’s second survey in 2015 revealed that one in every five working women in Japan (20.9%) had experienced matahara. In other words, it is something to which any woman in the workplace may become vulnerable.
Japanese society suffers from a deep-rooted toxic work culture. Progressive people are trying to fix it, but change goes so slowly. Sadly, matahara remains almost the same as it was a decade ago. Unless we change our work environment, it will persist forever.

Q: What kind of reaction was there to the politicians’ stunt to wear fake boobs and bellies?

A: Not everyone received this behaviour favourably. Many women wondered why Ogura didn’t just listen to those who had experienced pregnancy. As he himself said, he cannot understand how it feels to be pregnant in just a two-day experiment. Feminist activists said his behaviour came from a patriarchal perspective and underestimated women’s lived experiences.
I would introduce another interesting reaction. Soon after the topic was discussed on social media, my friend and author Junko Takasaki, who writes about parenting and reproductive health, conducted a quick survey of her Twitter followers. The question was, “What do you want this politician to know? Did you have any problems during your pregnancy and after giving birth?” Women weren’t as disappointed with him as activists were (partly because Japanese women don’t expect too much from men; look at their husbands!). Instead, 98 out of 180 women strongly demanded institutional changes: covering hospital fees for giving birth, sick leave and remote work during pregnancy, and more extended maternity leave. This made me think how little Japan’s policy-making has cared about women’s reality in their workplace.

Q: What is the attitude in Japan towards pregnancy and early childhood? And is there a change happening to shake up the sexist elements of society?

A: In my country, there is an incomprehensible discrepancy in the attitude toward pregnancy and early childhood. Japanese people (and the government in particular) are concerned about an ageing society and eagerly urge women to have children. But people don’t respect mothers and young children. Some people regard pregnant women as low in productivity and are reluctant to help them at work. Some say without hesitation that children are noisy and dirty. Imagine a mother taking public transportation with her baby. If the baby begins to cry loudly and doesn’t stop crying, the mother would receive bad looks or tsk-tsked, and forced to get off the train. These kinds of issues are frequently discussed, but little has improved. “People see children as if they are luxury items,” says Dr. Mihyon Song, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who is a strong advocate for reproductive health. As the Japanese economy has declined, people have gradually become poorer, work longer and are paid less. That consumes the room in their hearts.
However, there seems to be hope. Younger generations want to challenge the status quo. In recent years, more and more women have spoken up. They use social media very effectively and successfully receive support. Young fathers have joined the movement, and some have formed organisations and started working with local governments.

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them below the story. Yoshie is a member of this community and she will be happy to answer! I’d also love to hear what you make of the politician’s experiment. And do you recognise some of the attitudes towards children and pregnancy that Yoshie says are common in Japan? Can you find them in your context? I would love to hear from you. As usual, below this newsletter on the website.

Before I go, let me tell you a bit about how this newsletter came about because it shows how much you, members of the community, help me in my journalism.

Just after I wrote a newsletter about Breasts and Eggs, Claudia, a member, shared the article in Vice about the politicians wearing fake bumps. That’s where I learnt about the word matahara and started researching it. I was lucky to have met Yoshie through the entrepreneurial journalism class I am taking at CUNY. When I asked her to explain matahara further, we thought we should try out this Q&A experiment. So, as you can see, this story would not be here without your input.

One more example of how important your input is. Last week, I wrote a story about how we should stop referring to the “terrible twos” as such. I argued that parents’ flexibility plays a role in children’s emotional reactions and that we may be able to avoid tantrums if we don’t expect them to be a regular feature of our children once they turn two. Michael, a reader, sent me a message from north Idaho, where he is based. “Along with not calling them terrible, how about not calling them ‘tantrums’”, he wrote. “How about describing them instead of using words that have negative meanings.” His email shook me. Maybe because I am not a native English speaker and I learnt the word tantrum at some point in my 20s, I use it in a descriptive manner only. But Michael is right. The term has negative connotations, and I will be examining the issue he brings up in one of my upcoming newsletters. Thanks so much to Michael for questioning my writing, and keep the comments coming!

Photo credits and alt-text: Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash; ultrasound photo surrounded by string lights.

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

7 thoughts on “Pregnant – and harassed – in Japan

  1. On the question of “do you recognise some of the attitudes towards children and pregnancy that Yoshie says are common in Japan”…
    Outrage over nursing children in public is still a thing. Feeding your child is regarded as (at best) a nuisance. At worst, it’s a flagrant display of sexuality (because, breasts, you know?).

  2. I do have a question for Yoshi:
    It seems to me that one way to make excuses is to reduce the entire discussion to so-called traditional values: “well, that’s what happens when you let all these ‘Western’ values take over our culture,” To some extent, I was fed the notion that one difference between East and West is that Asian cultures revere the sphere of home and family. The narrative goes that the post-war industrialization eroded the traditional family values, and that’s what accounts for most of the ills in current society. From your perspective, is that rationalization present in a Japanese culture war?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Bonnie. I can’t tell if harsh attitudes toward pregnant women and children come from our loss of traditional values because our problems are extremely complicated. However, when I focus on how we work, there is actually a cultural struggle that was brought to us from the global West.

      As you pointed out, postwar industrialization has significantly changed our way of work. Let me take a quick look at history. After World War II, the Japanesestarted commuting to factories or offices, and spent long hours there. Until the 1980s, in this case that meant men. In 1985, only 22.5% of women who had been employed continued working after marriage. Most left their job when they became pregnant. Therefore, matahara couldn’t happen. As time went on, however, the Japanese economy declined, and a single income couldn’t support a family. Women gradually chose to remain in the workforce. In 1997, dual-income households outnumbered single-income households. Two decades later, 65% of wives worked full time or nearly full time.

      What seems problematic to me here is that Japan’s heavily gendered culture remains the same. Women are expected to take care of family tasks while working outside the home. In fact, women spend 7.34 hours a day in housekeeping and childcare, while men spend 1.23 hours. What a discrepancy! Women are expected to manage dual burdens. Employers lack imagination, so when women fail to do that, they start harassing women.

      I would add one thing. Being part of the modern workforce has disconnected women from their local communities. As long as they are connected to their community, they can get help from its members. It was a good part of our traditional culture. But with industrialization, they have lost their bonds with their communities, causing lack of support for young mothers and children in Japan.

      (All statistics from the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office)

  3. Maybe I am a bit slow in understanding. But what is so bad about a man, not only imagining what it is like to be pregnant, but also what some of the physical aspects of pregnancy feel like? Isn’t it a very empathic activity?

    Now that I think about it, the activities in the video were, among others washing a bathtub and clipping nails (I think). That is perhaps not a really representative activity for a pregnant woman…

    Sidenote, I have no clue what was said in the video, perhaps that makes a difference too.

    1. Hey Joram,
      So I think the experiment is OK in and by itself. But I have a couple of problems with it: 1. It was a public experiment by a politician carried out to show how concerned he was about women’s rights. I think that if he had done it privately to understand something himself, it would have been more effective. Also, as you say: is clipping nails and washing your bathtub the kind of stuff we need to worry about? How about standing long hours at a factory or trying to get to work in a crammed train? As I say, it is very limited and seems almost like a joke in this sense, because it is a public experiment.
      2. The experiment was carried out to pass legislation to help out women. This upsets me because they should have asked women instead of trying it out themselves!
      That said, another (male) reader had questions similar to yours in an email, so I wonder whether you guys are sensing an empathy that I cannot sense.
      But thanks for raising this, I’d be interested in discussing further!

      1. Ah while my girlfriend was pregnant I did carry the belly for a couple of minutes by wrapping a scarf around the belly while she was standing on hands and knees and stood over her carrying the weight of her belly with my arms by lifting the scarf+belly up. Does this make any sense? Long story short: that was incredibly heavy!! (At 37 weeks it should be pretty heavy!)

        P.s. I didnt notice you reply only after reading this weeks newsletter!

  4. Yes indeed the timing is a bit unfortunate too. I do think that asking women how pregnancy feels is a smart thing for anyone, especially since you get many different responses. The interesting thing for me seeing a man with such a suit on is that I imagine myself wearing that suit and thinking how that would feel. One could do the same by looking at a pregnant woman but somehow there this doesn’t work for me…..?

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