Child's Murder Reveals Desperate Plight of Single Mothers in Japan

When an unnamed single mother living in Yokohama decided to put in more hours working at the restaurant where she earned a meager income, she was left with the problem of who would care for her two children, aged three and one.   Though she lived with her father, he was too ill to care for the children himself and she was forced to leave her children in the care of 26-year old Yuji Motte, who she found through an online babysitting service.   Despite the 22-year old mother's reservations about Motte, including suspicious bruises on her 3-year old son's back after he had cared for her son previously, she had no real alternatives given the shortage of daycare facilities and her inability to afford another sitter  on short notice.  

After dropping off her children with Motte on March 15, she had no further contact for two days and eventually became alarmed enough to call the police.   The body of three-year-old Riku was found in Motte's apartment on March 17 although her other child was unharmed.   Motte was then charged with the boy's murder and abandonment of the body. 

In the months since Riku's death, the mother has been condemned by Japan's news media, politicians, and social media commenters, all denouncing her for using an Internet service to care for her children.     One local politician, Yutaro Tanaka, wrote in his blog: "How come it is acceptable for a mother to place her children who are still very young into the hands of a total stranger and have no qualms about it? This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”   Tanaka, who admits to being childless and unmarried, has been an outspoken critic of single mothers who rely on "daytime concierges" to care or their children.

Despite the rage directed against the mother, few seem to be questioning  how a single woman with a monthly income of 50,000 yen (about $476)  can care for her children in a country without a comprehensive day care policy.   According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rankings, Japan is one of the worst countries for single mothers with more than forty-eight percent of households headed by a single mother falling below the poverty line. Even with public child support and help from families, the total income for a single-mother household is still well below the national average.

Part of the problem is the decline in intergenerational households as many single mothers must fend for themselves instead of living with their parents.   Prevailing attitudes about gender roles in Japan help contribute to the lack of support for women raising their children alone.   “Japanese society is built on the premise that the man is the breadwinner and the woman stays at home to raise the children and do the housework,” said Mari Osawa, a professor of sociology at the University of Tokyo. “This setup deepens the poverty of women in general and single-mother households.”

Another problem is that few fathers pay child support.  Though most divorce decisions award custody to mothers, they are usually uncontested with no provision being made to require the father to pay support.   Even when an agreement is reached, there are no guarantees that the father will maintain support payments for more than a few years.   In Japan, child support payments account for only three percent of all income of single mother households while in the United States, that figure is closer to 11.8 percent.  Though the Japan government provides monthly child support payments to single mothers depending on level of income, the mother in Yokohama was not receiving any formal child support at the time of her child's death.  “I had no idea whom I should turn to for help when I am in trouble,” she told local media. 

Despite the continuing controversy over Riku's death, there seem to be few concrete answers about how similar tragedies can be avoided in future.   In the meantime, single mothers find themselves more desperate than ever to find safe and affordable child care in a society that insists on turning them into scapegoats.



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