James Bartholomew

Legitimate question | 2 April 2011

In Tokyo, hardly any children are born out of wedlock. The reasons for this are a challenge to western complacency

Legitimate question | 2 April 2011
Text settings

Yoshiko found she was pregnant and talked to her live-in lover about what they should do. His attitude was not exactly out of the PC book of ‘The Right Things To Say When Your Girlfriend Says She Is Pregnant’.

He said he was prepared to marry her as long as she accepted that she would have to carry on with her full-time job; she must also care for the child and, for good measure, do all the housework. Just to make it crystal clear, he added, ‘I won’t help’ and ‘I like my life as it is.’ It is worth mentioning, too, that the man only had a part-time job and they lived on the higher earnings of Yoshiko.

In Britain, you can imagine this chap would get a rocket-fuelled response. Yoshiko would have found it easier to manage on her own than to marry this bum. But what was her reaction? She jumped at the chance of marrying him. Why?

Because, like most young Japanese women, she really and truly wanted to avoid becoming an unmarried mother. It is a complete no-no. All around the ‘advanced’ world, births outside marriage have grown astonishingly in the past 40 years. But not in Japan. Here in Britain, 46 per cent of all births are outside marriage. In America it is 41 per cent and in France 54 per cent. In Japan, the figure barely scrapes above 2 per cent.

Why the aberration? You might think, ‘Oh, Japan is just behind the times. It has an old-fashioned society that is keeping rigidly to the norms of the past.’ But no. If you look at the divorce rate, Japan is only modestly behind the West. There are almost as many divorced lone parents in Japan as there are in western countries. So the Japanese are quite willing to change their ways like other countries when it comes to getting rid of unwanted spouses. Yet having babies outside marriage is still considered quite wrong.

Is it something to do with the welfare benefits? For a long time, unwed mothers did have a lower entitlement to benefits than divorced mothers. But this began to change in the 1980s and, since 1999, the only remaining difference is a fairly small tax break for divorced mothers. This does not seem to account for the vast contrast between the substantial numbers of divorced lone parents and much lower incidence of unwed lone parents. It also does not explain why differences have existed at all in the benefits received by divorced and unwed mothers.

The underlying reason is that the Japanese morality regarding lone parenting is based around the perceived best interests of the child. You may think, ‘Well, hang on! We in the West care about children, too!’ Up to a point, yes. But the Japanese believe something that many people in the West only half-believe or only believe when it suits them: that the interests of children are clearly best served by having two, married parents. They therefore think it wrong — or shameful — knowingly and intentionally to bring a child into the world without that arrangement.

There is a second crucial difference in the thinking of the Japanese. They are much less bothered about abortions. Half of all pregnancies in Japan end in an abortion, as opposed to less than a quarter in Britain. Why are they not as concerned about it? Perhaps the question is better put the other way round. Why are people in the west so worried about it? My own guess is that it has something to do with Christian traditions and ways of thinking that have survived even while many have lost their belief in a Christian god. The idea that each life made by God is very precious, even in embryo form, runs deep. There was also the specific commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Anyway, for whatever reason it may be, in a survey, only 13 per cent of Japanese people thought abortion was never justifiable, compared with about twice as many or more in Britain, America and Germany. Tellingly, Italy had a somewhat higher proportion, at over 30 per cent.

There is a third difference in attitudes. The Japanese believe that parents — particularly the mother — are of great importance in making sure the child does well at school which, in turn, is the key to a good job. This is part and parcel of putting the child first, but it is also about what works in education.

If you put these three differences of belief and morality together, a young unmarried woman who gets pregnant will probably go one of two ways. Either she will marry or she will abort the child.

But if this is all right, how come there are plenty of divorces and therefore plenty of divorced lone parents? Ekaterina Hertog — whose paper ‘“The worst abuse against a child is the absence of a parent”: how Japanese unwed mothers evaluate their decision to have a child outside wedlock’ provides much of the material for this article, but not the conclusions — found that divorced lone mothers were considered all right because at least they had tried to create the ideal framework for their children. If the men they married turned out to be unbearable, it is considered understandable and acceptable to give up on them. But the women should try.

The different way of lone parenting in Japan and the lower incidence of it overall provide a challenge to the way the West lives. The Japanese system is a moral one based, fundamentally, on the interests of the child. The implication of this is that our own lone parenting and our laws take the interests of the child less seriously. The Japanese example also brings home the point that morality regarding children, marriage and so on can be independent of Christian ethics.

The evidence probably supports the Japanese attitude to lone parenting rather than the western. Children brought up by their natural, married parents tend to do better in life in pretty well every measurable way. And, though many teachers like to think that education should be their monopoly and that parents should not worry their little heads about it, the evidence is that parental involvement and encouragement make a huge difference.

Indeed, it is an interesting mind game to think how one would explain to a Japanese person why there are such vast numbers of unwed mothers in the West. One might have a go by saying that western people are worried quite a lot about embryos but, while they like to think they care about children, they turn a blind eye to the evidence against unwed parenting so that they can pursue their selfish interests.