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No working moms portrayed in Japanese children’s books?

  • August 5, 2017
  • , Asahi , p. 27
  • JMH Translation

By Kazuki Nobuhara


“There aren’t many books that feature double-income households in Japanese picture books,” said my wife. She and I work full-time as we raise our two-year-old daughter, and ever since my wife made that offhand comment, it has stuck with me.


The popular children’s book “Yorukuma [Night bear]” by Komako Sakai published in 1999 by Kaiseisha triggered my wife’s curiosity. When she read the part where the night bear’s mother goes fishing at night to catch fish in the night skies, she realized that she had never read a single picture book that portrays a double-career household among the countless number of books depicting human families.


It has been more than 20 years since the number of dual-income households exceeded that of households with full-time homemakers. Are there really no such illustrated books?


I was shown a book called “Boku no mama wa untenshi [My Mommy is a train driver]” (2012, Fukuinkan Shoten) when I visited a children’s bookstore in Tokyo called Crayon House. The book is about the hectic, drama-filled lifestyle of a household with a mother who is a JR train driver, who sometimes works nights, and a father who works as a nurse. I knew there had to be some books.


Great obstacles stood in the way of getting published


“It was very hard getting published. It took a very long time,” reflects Yasuo Otomo (71), the author of the book.


He showed me a photo of himself smiling as he gave a piggyback ride to his two-year-old son, taken 37 years ago, when I visited his home. “Actually, I had to force myself to smile in the picture.”


Otomo often took his son to his meetings with his publishers, as his wife was prone to illness. Members in the meetings often made comments like, “It looks as though your wife left you or something; that’s not good,” and “You are like one of those people in a tragic drama.”


“A generation ago, ikumen [fathers actively participating in the raising of their children] were the subject of ridicule, even in the children’s book industry,” says Otomo. “I have always wanted to depict actual families in my books.”


However, it was easier said than done. He was told that books could not be published unless there was some certainty that the book would sell, and that “there was a risk in delving too deep into the lives of the portrayed families, as it could place the readers at a distance if they couldn’t relate. That is the key difference between children’s and adult literature.”


Some illustrated books deliberately obscure details so as not to alienate any readers, such as avoiding specifics on where a character goes to school, kindergarten, or day care.


“My book ‘Boku no mama wa untenshi [My Mommy is a train driver]’ got published only because a female editor on the brink of retirement age championed my cause. She said to me, ‘Let’s get this book published.’”


Diverse role-models in the West


How are working mothers depicted overseas? The American children’s book “Mama’s Coming Home” (2004, Kodansha) portrays a mother, who works at a pet shop, hastily making her way home through a storm. In the meantime, the father makes pizza and awaits his wife’s return with the kids. The entire story is expressed in bright colorful hues.


“You don’t often see this kind of book in Japan,” says Professor Emeritus of Naruto University of Education Hiroko Sasaki, who has been studying children’s books for 30 years, as she introduced this book to me. “The father and the children have a great time giving free reign to their curiosity while they wait for the mother, instead of just passing the time dilly-dallying.”


In the U.S. and Europe, there are many books dealing with divorced parents and single mothers. This shows a cultural backdrop that encourages children’s independence regardless of family makeup. In addition, there is less psychological resistance towards themes portraying divorced families as husbands and wives are seen as independent individuals.


Hope for Japan’s transition


“There are very few picture books in Japan that depict marital relationships where the husband and wife have distinct identities,” says Sasaki. However, she is hopeful that children’s books will evolve to reflect the changes in society. “If only traditional family constructs with fixed gender roles are found in children’s books, this could discriminate against households that do not fit that mold. Other types of families should be warmly accepted. This inclusive attitude will be embraced and reflected in the world of children’s books one day.”

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