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First published in ejcjs on 14 January 2008

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Representations of Parenting and Gender Roles in the Shōshika Era

Comparisons of Japanese and English-Language Parenting Magazines


Tomoko Shimoda

School of Asian Studies
University of Auckland

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This article examines how Japanese parenting magazines portray parenting and gender roles in the shōshika era, an era of sustained decline in the Japanese birth-rate. Recent surveys indicate that Japanese society remains ambivalent about the need for fathers to be involved in child rearing. This article examines why these attitudes and ideas persist and how the Japanese media, specifically Japanese parenting magazines, may contribute to perpetuating traditional attitudes towards parenting roles. The article explores how parenting is represented in text and visual elements of contemporary popular parenting magazines, with comparisons made between the distinct approaches of selected Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. The findings indicate that narrow and stereotypical representations of mothers and fathers remain common in the Japanese parenting magazines. The findings also highlight the lack of visibility of the social context within which parenting occurs, with parenting represented as a largely individual-level experience. In contrast, the English-language parenting magazines depict a more diverse range of social issues of relevance to parenting, a more diverse range of family structures, and greater involvement of fathers in parenting compared to Japanese parenting magazines.

Key Words: Gender, media, Japan, parenting


This article explores some of the historical and contemporary influences on Japanese parenting roles, and examines the nature of contemporary media representations of parenting in Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. The first section of the article discusses the shōshika era, the second section describes how parenting and gender roles are depicted in the Japanese media, and the third section analyses parenting and gender roles in selected Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. The fourth section concludes with comments on some of the contrasting features of the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines, discusses possible future changes in Japanese media policies and practices, and suggests possible directions for future research.

The changing nature of marriage in Japan

In the post-World War Two period the nature of marriage in Japan has changed significantly in conjunction with major changes in the country's socio-economic environment. Factors such as higher levels of female education, increasing numbers of women entering the workforce, technological advances (for example, improvements in contraceptive and medical technologies), legal advances (for example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Parental Leave Act), and changing female expectations and aspirations, are some of the complex array of elements which have influenced marriage trends and have contributed to a sustained fall in the Japanese birth-rate.

Source: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (Vital Statistics of Japan, 2005).

The Japanese government has emphasised policies designed to raise the birth-rate under the broad title of shōshika, which means the 'declining number of children' (Abe, 2003). Issues related to shōshika were a key theme of a 2005 government White Paper on the Japanese National Lifestyle which highlighted the trend towards later marriage (or no marriage) and a decline in the 'reproductive performance' of married couples (Japanese Cabinet Office, 2005). This trend is evident in data which show that the average age of first marriage between 1975 and 2005 increased from 27.0 to 29.8 years for men, and 24.7 to 28.0 years for women (Figure 1). In addition, the proportion of unmarried people between 30 and 34 years of age rose sharply from 14.3 percent to 47.7 percent for men and 7.7 percent to 32.6 percent for women.

These trends towards later marriage (or no marriage) and a declining birth-rate are influencing the ways in which relationships within the family develop, the structure of families, and conceptions of what constitutes a family (Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2005). This has also been accompanied by a steadily increasing divorce rate (Figure 1). In 2005, the number of divorces totalled 262,000, and the divorce rate was 2.1 per 1,000 people, up from less than 1 person in 1970. White (2002) suggests that later marriages, smaller families, and increasing numbers of divorces and re-marriages, indicates a significant shift in the nature of marriage in Japan over the past three decades and that these trends are having a major effect on Japanese society as a significantly more diverse range of family forms emerge.

Societal responses to shōshika

Shōshika has stimulated considerable public debate and concern and led to the Japanese government initiating policy responses in an attempt to stabilise and reverse the falling birth-rate. In 1992 the Parental Leave Act was introduced to enable full-time employees to take parental leave to raise a child below one year of age, this was followed in 1994 by the so-called 'Angel Plan' which established the government's fundamental principles for having, or not having children. The Angel Plan affirmed that having children is a choice for individual couples to make and the government made a commitment to create a supportive social environment in which people can raise children.

The Japanese government has introduced a range of shōshika counter-measures over the past decade, for example, a child allowance is now paid to households with children to provide financial support, and parents (or guardians) taking childcare leave are eligible for compensation towards any loss of income. Further measures include an expansion in the number of nurseries and the times they are open, and an expansion in the number of Childcare Support Centres.

A number of local governments have also introduced shōshika counter-measures. For example, Fukui Prefecture offers families with three or more children free medical care and discounted childcare costs for their infants prior to them starting at elementary school (Japan Local Government Centre, London Office, 2006). In a further example, local government officials in Miyoshi City, Hiroshima Prefecture, who have a baby, are required (either the mother or father) to take two months off work (Japan Journal, 2006).

Some private companies are also endeavouring to ensure their workplaces cater for parents and enable them to combine employment with childcare more easily. For example, Toshiba now offers up to three years leave for childcare, leave to care for elderly family members of up to one year, re-employment leave for workers who have resigned, leave for the care of sick children, and leave for fertility treatment. All employees in the company are eligible for these leave entitlements (not just women) to assist them in combining work with childcare and other responsibilities outside the workplace (Japan Journal, 2006). However, it is far from clear that these policies will lead to a significant change in entrenched male attitudes (especially among Japanese managers) that women are almost solely responsible for raising children.

The initiatives of individual companies have also been strengthened by government policies. In 2003, the Japanese government introduced new legislation which requires all employers with 300 or more employees to introduce childcare programs from 2005. These programs will include parental leave for women and men of pre-school children, overtime exemptions, and shorter working hours for parents of pre-school children. However, as figure 1 indicated, it remains to be seen whether the fertility rate, which stands at 1.32 per woman in 2006 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2006), has stabilised.

Attitudes to parenting roles

The above trends and policy initiatives are influenced by, and are an influence on, attitudes to parenting roles and also influence shōshika. Recent surveys have highlighted how attitudes about gender roles are gradually changing, even if some traditional elements remain strong. For example, a 2002 survey by the Cabinet Office on gender equality issues found that almost half of respondents agreed with the statement 'Husbands should work outside the home and wives should take care of their families' (Japanese Cabinet Office, 2002). Previous Cabinet Office surveys (Japanese Cabinet Office, 2002), and the five-yearly NHK surveys of the attitudes of Japanese people (NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, 2004), indicate that a clear majority of respondents supported this statement, illustrating the continuing evolution of attitudes towards gender roles that is occurring within Japanese society.

Some insights into the factors underlying shōshika are indicated by a 2002 survey of unmarried men and women in the 25 to 34 age group (National Institute of Population and Social Security, 2003). This survey reported that the three primary reasons for not marrying for both men and women were an inability to find a suitable partner, marriage not being considered necessary, and a reluctance to compromise a carefree single lifestyle. The survey also asked people their reasons for not having the number of children commonly considered 'ideal'. For many decades, a husband with a stay-at-home wife and two children has been considered the typical structure of Japanese families. In contemporary Japan, however, family structures are diversifying and it is now common to see unmarried women or couples in their thirties without children. A steadily declining proportion of Japanese families fit the 'typical' nuclear family structure of two parents with one or more children.

A large Yomiuri Shinbun survey in 2003 provides further insights into the attitudes underlying Japan's declining birth-rate. The survey found that three-quarters of the respondents thought it was difficult to raise a child in Japan. Almost 90 percent thought it was hard for fathers to take parental leave, with most stating that Japanese society still does not understand the need for men to be involved in child rearing (Yomuiri Shinbun, 29 May 2003).

Government statistics indicate that less than one percent of eligible male workers took parental leave in 2005 (Japanese Ministry of Health and Labour, 2005). Similar results were seen in a 2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security which found that Japanese fathers generally lacked engagement in parenting tasks, particularly time-consuming tasks, with their engagement in parenting largely confined to playing occasionally with their children at weekends and occasional baths with infants. To a significant degree this lack of involvement by fathers may be a consequence of a lack of positive fathering role models and the inflexible employment practices common in Japanese companies.

Representations of parenting roles in the Japanese media

Although the above arguments present a mixed picture, overall they indicate a modest and gradual shift in Japanese attitudes towards parenting roles and wider gender roles. That said, Japanese society still does not adequately facilitate or support mothers and fathers to participate more equitably and flexibly in raising children (Molony and Uno, 2005).

The aim of this article is to explore these issues by examining how Japanese parenting magazines represent conceptions of motherhood and fatherhood and how they represent the social dimensions of parenting. A prime motive for investigating these questions is that the media has the potential to play a progressive role by portraying the increasing diversity of families and parenting roles in Japan, and by encouraging informed discussion of the personal and social implications of these trends.

A contrary view is that it is not necessarily the role of parenting magazines (or other magazines, or indeed the wider media) to promote progressive social change (in this case, more diverse and equitable parenting roles). Rather, it may be argued that the magazines exist in a competitive media market, and a strategy of promoting 'progressiveness' may be perceived as too risky.

While it is acknowledged that this is an important point, it does not explain how parenting magazines in English-speaking countries have pursued a significantly more progressive approach in their representations of parenting roles. Neither does it explain why Japanese parenting magazines could not gradually pursue a more progressive approach, evolving in an incremental yet sustained manner (a gradualist approach being, arguably, less economically risky).

A further contention that may be used to justify current patterns of gender representations in the Japanese media, is that they reflect social reality with reasonable accuracy. An extension of this argument is to suggest that as Japanese social reality evolves then changes will be reflected in the Japanese media. This argument may appear to have a degree of plausibility, however numerous studies indicate that the Japanese media rarely accurately reflect social reality in terms of gender representations, but instead tend to portray selective and distorted representations (Miyazaki and Suzuki, 2001; Shimoda, 2003).

Influence of parenting magazines

While parenting magazines lack the broad audience that television attracts, they nonetheless have the potential to influence parents' attitudes and behaviours. Underwood (2002) suggests that the media's influence is derived, to a significant degree, from their ability to select, construct, and represent a particular view of the world. For example, if Japanese parenting magazines consistently depict women as caring and devoted mothers, while depicting fathers as uninvolved and unimportant, then in the long-term these representations are likely to influence, to varying degrees, the attitudes of the readers of parental magazines (and in turn they may influence people close to them).

Takakubo (2005) suggests that although parenting magazines are just one of many sources of information about parenting that are available in Japan, they nonetheless play an important role in influencing attitudes towards parenting. Takakubo's suggestion is consistent with a 2002 Government White Paper on the Japanese National Lifestyle which found that mothers consider parenting magazines to be the most reliable source of information about parenting.

Japanese parenting magazines have grown significantly in popularity over the past three decades with the annual circulation of magazines that focus on pregnancy and childcare surging from 2.5 million copies in 1970 to 14.5 million copies in 2003 (even though the annual number of children born in Japan fell more than 40 percent from 1.9 million to 1.1 million a year over the same period) (Wijers-Hasegawa, 2004). The growth in parenting magazines is quite notable in the Japanese magazine industry as the combined sales of all Japanese domestic magazines declined for seven consecutive years, from 1.6 trillion yen in 1997 to 1.3 trillion yen in 2003 according to the Japanese Research Institute for Publications (Wijers-Hasegawa, 2004).

Despite the growing popularity of parenting magazines, meagre research attention has been given to representations of gender in these magazines. This lack of research is notable, given the changing, sometimes contentious, nature of Japanese parenting roles, and the advisory and educational role parenting magazines can play in influencing social norms about gender-appropriate parenting roles. As Masami Ohinata, Professor of Psychology at Keisen University in western Tokyo has observed, when the birth-rate was high, young mothers could easily exchange information on the streets about raising children, but now, partly due to the increase of nuclear families, magazines have become one of the few readily available sources to them (Wijers-Hasegawa, 2004).

Research approach

The lack of research on the representation of gender in Japanese parenting magazines and the changing attitudes towards gender roles in Japan prompted exploration of several issues including; how do contemporary parenting magazines represent conceptions of motherhood and fatherhood, and how are the social dimensions of parenting – such as childcare and parental leave – represented?

These issues were explored by examining selected Japanese and English-language parenting magazines through use of interpretive content analysis, a form of content analysis considered appropriate given the more qualitative nature of the subject matter and research questions (Ahuvia, 2001). Interpretive content analysis recognises that the coding of media content is a subjective process especially when the content is more complex and subject to different interpretations.

Analysis was undertaken for six issues, for each of five Japanese and five English-language parenting magazines published between 2003 and 2007 (sixty magazines in total). The Japanese magazines included: Tamago Kurabu; Hiyoko Kurabu; Kokko Kurabu; Pre-Mo; and Baby-Mo. The English-language magazines included: Parents (United States); Prima Baby (Britain); Australian Parents (Australia); Kiwi Parents and Little Treasures (New Zealand). Magazines were selected as they were commonly available and among the most popular in their genre in their respective countries. The research focussed on the Japanese parenting magazines with the English-language magazines providing a comparative component to the study.


The magazines were analyzed for gender representations in text and images. Items of text included coding of feature articles (over one page in length), short articles (less than a page in length), question and answer sections, and letters/testimonials. Advertisements were excluded as they have been the subject of considerable attention from other researchers (for example, Ford, 1998; Wolin, 2003).

Coding of images encompassed illustrations and photographs. In both the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines a large majority of images were photographs, this was particularly the case for the Japanese magazines due to their heavy use of thumbnail images.


Findings from the interpretive content analysis are discussed below, firstly in terms of editing issues (language usage, design and layout) and secondly in terms of content related to parenting and gender roles.


The tone of the Japanese parenting magazines differed markedly from the English-language parenting magazines in employing a prescriptive style that often instructed mothers how they should behave (a tone akin to teaching from a prescriptive school textbook). For example, a commonly used phrase was 'Okaasan nara shitte iru beki koto . . . (the things the mother should know are . . .)', and '. . . ga dekiru mama ni narou . . . (let's become a mother who can do . . .)'. A prescriptive tone was a common and notable feature of the Japanese parenting magazines, a degree of prescription that was rare in the English-language parenting magazines. This prescriptive style is not unique to parenting magazines in Japan, for example, it has previously been observed that a prescriptive style is a feature of Japanese women's fashion magazines (Assmann, 2005). A prescriptive teaching style is also normative style in the Japanese educational system (Tanaka,1998) and this may explain why a prescriptive style is commonly used by magazine writers and accepted by readers

Design and layout

The layout of the Japanese parenting magazines was also distinct in having a strong visual orientation (more images and illustrations), with the design and colours conveying a somewhat youthful and happy impression. This impression appeared intentionally to align with the emphasis in Japanese parenting magazines on youthful, happy mothers, and happy, healthy, problem-free babies and children. Again, there was a contrast with English-language parenting magazines, where the layouts, designs and colours employed were more diverse, usually aligning with the greater diversity of family types, issues, experiences and emotions that were represented.


The differences seen in language and layout style between the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines were even more pronounced in terms of magazine content. The most notable differences being related to the invisibility of many family structures (for example, single-parent families) and activities in Japanese parenting magazines; a lack of visibility that fails to reflect the diversity of modern family life in Japan.

Main characters

The characters portrayed in the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines also differed markedly. In the Japanese parenting magazines, images were predominantly of infants and babies, with a focus on the development and daily activities of babies and infants. Images of babies and infants were also the primary focus of the English-language parenting magazines, but the overall profile of who was portrayed differed markedly between the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. The English-language parenting magazines represented parenting in a broader context, as a special experience for mothers, fathers, and extended families, while also often commenting on connections between parenting and wider societal issues (for example, childcare and employment polices). While a focus on the needs of children was maintained in the English-language parenting magazines, this was achieved in a broader, more diverse, and socially inclusive context.

Non-nuclear families are invisible

A clear finding of this study was that the Japanese parenting magazines consistently represent a decidedly narrow conception of the nuclear family. The standard portrayal is of a young nuclear family with one or two children. In addition, coverage in images or text, of extended families (for example, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, and other adults forming part of an extended family, adopted children, and step parents) were rarely seen in the Japanese parenting magazines. This contrasted with the wide variety of extended families which were seen in the English-language parenting magazines. The English-language magazines portrayed extended families as a common and normal type of family structure, a marked difference compared with portrayals in the Japanese parenting magazines.

In addition, the Japanese parenting magazines rarely showed images of teenage parents, blended families or single parents. In contrast, English-language parenting magazines portray a wider diversity of parents, children and family types. They regularly show parents from different socio-economic, racial or ethnic groups, and portray a wider range of family types, giving representation to 'non-standard' families rather than excluding them. The English-language parenting magazines tended to represent the diverse circumstances of families in a way that is generally lacking in Japanese parenting magazines.

English-language parenting magazines – diverse families and situations are portrayed – below a teenage mother (Little Treasures, 2003), an employed mother (using keyboard) (Australian Parents, 2003), a self-employed mother (Little Treasures, 2003), and a single-parent (mother)(Kiwi Parents, 2007) [images courtesy of Little Treasures, Kiwi Parents, and Australian Parents (the Australian Parents image courtesy of photographer Sam McAdam)].

One-dimensional roles

The women in the Japanese parenting magazines are almost invariably depicted in a full time mother and housewife role, with a husband in full-time employment. In addition, little or no mention is made of the woman's previous work experience, or her future career plans and aspirations. The Japanese parenting magazines perpetuate the notion that women with children are solely mothers and caregivers, and that they have no or little inclination or ability to perform others roles.

The narrow portrayal of mothers in the Japanese parenting magazines is reinforced by the way women are referred to by their given name, followed by mama [for example, 'Tomoko-mama' (Tomoko mother)]. By attaching the personal identify suffix of 'mama' to a woman's name, the term reinforces the notion that a Japanese mother is supposed to be solely interested in, and take full time responsibility for, the well-being of her children, and that her identity is first and foremost as 'mother'. The mama term implicitly negates others roles that mothers can and do play. It obscures the fact that women play many roles, not just as mothers, but also, for example, as partners/wives, daughters, sisters, carers, employees, artists, and entrepreneurs. The mama term, therefore, obscures women's interest in other domestic and non-domestic roles, and reinforces the notion that a mother's sole responsibility is for raising children.

The one-dimensional mothering role represented in the Japanese parenting magazines contrasts with the more diverse roles that the English-language parenting magazines portray. The English-language parenting magazines often provide a range of background information about mothers, for example, their previous employment, present employment (if employed), incomes, interests, future plans and aspirations. Also, the English-language magazines depict some mothers with health problems in a positive way (for example, by highlighting traits of resilience and adaptability). The Japanese parenting magazines are bereft of such background information about mothers, reinforcing the notion of there being a single, narrow mothering role.

Japanese parenting magazines –babies are consistently portrayed as healthy and happy, and mothers are consistently portrayed as young, happy, full-time housewives (images from Hiyoko Kuraba, 2003).[1]

Age profile

A further unambiguous finding was the marked differences in the age profiles of adults in the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. In the latter case, men were generally portrayed as slightly older than women, though these representations seemed to accord with the overall social reality of women marrying older men on average.

However, the age profiles observed in the Japanese parenting magazines bore little resemblance to social reality, with the nearly exclusive representation of young families in their twenties and early thirties and the virtual absence of older parents. The emphasis on youth, in particular for women, is consistent with other research (e.g. Shimoda, 2003) which shows that Japanese media commonly use women to convey an impression of youthfulness, vitality and cuteness.

Emotions portrayed

The Japanese parenting magazines tended to contribute to the perpetuation of narrow conceptions of family life, consistently depicting remarkably homogenous 'problem-free' domestic scenes. In contrast, the English-language parenting magazines examined a diversity of family experiences in coping with financial pressures, health difficulties, stressed relationships, and a myriad of challenges that many families confront.

English-language parenting magazines – diverse and sometimes challenging issues portrayed – below parents engaged in domestic work and childcare (Little Treasures, 2003), a family coping with health problems (Little Treasures, 2007), and a family coping with financial pressures (Little Treasures, 2003) (images courtesy of Little Treasures).

While happy emotions are consistently depicted by the Japanese parenting magazines, a far more diverse range of emotions (for example, happiness, sadness, loneliness, stress, exhaustion, and anger) are portrayed in the English-language parenting magazines. In contrast, the Japanese parenting magazines consistently show parents and children as having unblemished healthy and happy lives, and tend to eschew coverage of routine parenting activities, and the stresses and strains that families often face. It is possible that this silence may make it harder for the readers of Japanese parenting magazines to learn about and cope with, the more challenging aspects of raising children that parents may confront.

'Invisible' fathers

Japanese fathers are shown less often than Japanese mothers and far less than their counterparts in the English-language parenting magazines, which underscores the one-dimensional representation of Japanese fathers. Whereas the images in the English-language parenting magazines often convey the impression of fatherhood as something natural, attractive, and a normal part of a male identity, such representations are far less evident in the Japanese parenting magazines.

The English-language parenting magazines convey these images of fathers, in part, through careful staging of the photographic images. Mainly, however, the 'natural father' impression seems to be due to the editors and/or producers of the magazines choosing to portray more involved and positive parental roles for fathers.

English-language parenting magazines – fathers are often portrayed as enjoying parenting and as competent parents (images courtesy of Kiwi Parents, 2004, and Little Treasures, 2003).

In contrast, the Japanese parenting magazines consistently show parenting as exclusively (or nearly exclusively) a responsibility and natural role of mothers, where Japanese fathers were largely invisible. In the cases where Japanese fathers were visible, the images selected often suggested that fathers were ill-equipped for a caring role. Parenting was depicted as difficult and unnatural for fathers, while at the same time the images, in conjunction with the associated text, often implied that fathers should, at least on occasions, try caring for their children. However, in these instances the impression conveyed was often one of tokenism, rather than an impression of fathers' meaningful participation in parenting. For example, phrases used by the Japanese parenting magazines to describe fathers include 'Zetsuboo ni oikomareru papa (a father who feels desperate due to his inability to calm and comfort his baby)' and 'Okkana-bikkuri no papa (a father who is scared of caring for his baby'.

Japanese parenting magazines – images of fathers are rarely seen, but when they are portrayed they are often depicted as incompetent in terms of parenting (images from Hiyoko Kurabu, 2003, and Baby-Mo, 2003).

Gendered spaces

Distinct differences were also evident between the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines in the way internal (household) and external spaces are imbued with gendered meanings. For example, the Japanese parenting magazines contained almost no images with a bedroom setting, nor other setting where intimate relationships could easily be portrayed. In comparison, the English-language magazines often used images of bedroom scenes with mothers and babies resting or playing, fathers caring for babies, or intimacy between parents. The differences between the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines are primarily a cultural issue, as it is generally considered inappropriate in Japan for outsiders to see bedrooms, and in addition there are cultural sensitivities related to public scenes conjoining motherhood with (parental) intimacy and sexuality. Japanese editors are aware of these cultural sensibilities and choose to accommodate them by limiting the portrayal of bedroom scenes.

A second example of spatial differentiation is evident in kitchen scenes in the parenting magazines, where Japanese women were commonly portrayed but Japanese men were almost invisible, in contrast to the English-speaking parenting magazines where men were more commonly seen in the kitchen, although still far less often than women. Further examples of clear gender differentiation were evident in both the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines where women predominated in domestic (home-based), hospital and shopping scenes.

Further spatial differences were also evident in the representations of fathers and mothers, where far more fathers in both the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines were portrayed in outdoor scenes compared to mothers, a finding that suggests fathers are only interested in being with children when 'masculine physical activity' is involved. The emphasis on 'active fathers with children' was more pronounced in the English-language parenting magazines, where fathers commonly appeared in outdoor scenes playing with children, for example playing in the garden, the park, and at the beach.

The social dimensions of parenting

The study found clear differences in the coverage the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines gave to the social context of parenting. The English-language parenting magazines covered a wide range of social issues of relevance to parenting, for example, issues such as childcare, mental health, physical health, nutrition, children with special needs, new family types (e.g. blended families), flexible employment, and balancing parenting and employment roles. Articles, editorials and letters in the English-language parenting magazines frequently explored parenting experiences in relation to wider social issues, for example government policies towards early childhood education and parental leave. Issues were often covered in terms of the contemporary social context and public discourse, with wide-ranging discussions of how the future social environment could be improved for parents and children, through individual or wider social action. In contrast, the social dimensions of parenting were notably absent from the Japanese parenting magazines. Parenting was represented in the Japanese parenting magazines as a solely personal, individual experience and responsibility. Parenting was also depicted as a sanitised, domestic, and largely problem-free experience.


Among the parenting magazines that were used as the basis for this research, Japanese parenting magazines play a valuable role in providing up-to-date and topical information and advice to parents on a multitude of important health and well-being issues for babies and infants. This advice and information is, however, notably individualistic in nature. Japanese parenting magazines commonly present rather narrow portrayals of parenting roles which contrast with the more diverse representations, and informative and educational social issues covered in English-language parenting magazines (issues such as parental leave legislation or family-friendly employment practices). Both Japanese and English-language parenting magazines overwhelmingly portray women as primary caregivers of young children, however, this emphasis is notably more pronounced in the Japanese parenting magazines.

The roles of fathers were also notably different in the Japanese and English-language parenting magazines. In the English-language parenting magazines, the images portrayed indicated an overlap of mothers' and fathers' roles, with fathers being depicted as comfortable caring for young children. Fathers, although far less prominent than mothers, are depicted as equally capable as mothers and as playing an important parenting role.

In contrast, images of fathers in the Japanese parenting magazines tended to perpetuate stereotypes of fathering roles, with Japanese fathers being far less visible in parenting magazines, and when portrayed, they are shown as secondary figures, with limited childcare competencies or responsibilities. These representations, to some degree, serve to legitimise and perpetuate traditional gender roles and longstanding power relationships between women and men.

Implicitly, the limited representation of fathers in the domestic sphere suggests that Japanese men continue to predominate in the public sphere, the world of employment, politics and wider public activities. While, to some degree, these representations reflect social reality, to an important degree they also simplify, exaggerate and distort social reality, narrowing the range of media-sanctioned parenting role models for mothers and fathers.

Despite a gradually increasing acceptance of the legitimacy of fathers playing a greater role in parenting, Japanese parenting magazines continue to shy away from portraying alternative fathering roles (particularly, capable, involved, and positive fathering roles). This low profile and lack of positive representation of fathers may endure in part because Japanese parenting magazines perceive less commercial risks with an approach that focuses on young, healthy and happy mothers and babies. This approach may be perceived as less likely to alienate those readers who hold more traditional views of gender-appropriate parenting roles. Or, possibly, Japanese parenting magazines may be wary of moving to an approach that portrays a greater diversity of families, including family problems and financial pressures, due to a concern for alienating companies who advertise in their magazines. This is an issue that future research could usefully explore, possibly by interviewing a sample of editors of parenting magazines and magazine advertisers, to investigate the motives and pressures that influence editorial and advertising decisions.

The sustained decline in the birth-rate has prompted the Japanese government to introduce numerous policy initiatives in an attempt to increase the birth rate (Ogawa, 2003). However, these initiatives have had limited success (Ogawa 2003) and it is unclear how any new policy initiatives will be successful without a significant change in contemporary parenting roles. One ingredient that seems necessary for policy initiatives to succeed is for Japanese fathers to become more involved as caregivers. International research on fathers suggests that for fathers to be supported in caring for children they need to be 'included' in a range of institutions and institutional thinking (for example, the Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting Project, 2004) and it is hoped that the new policy initiatives being developed by the Japanese government will go in this direction. In addition, numerous changes could occur in Japan at institutional and societal levels to support fathers who share the responsibility of caring for young children. One such change is for the Japanese media to portray fathers in a more inclusive and progressive manner, as being actively involved in caring for their children and sharing this responsibility with their partners.

If Japanese media practices were to change, and if fathers were positively portrayed as integrally involved in parenting, this could contribute, in some degree, to encouraging fathers to participate more actively in caring for their children. Such changes in the media are, however, unlikely to happen simply or quickly. It is more realistic to expect that Japanese media policies and practices – including representations of gender and parenting roles – will develop in complex ways over time. Despite this complexity, it is hoped that significant long term changes in media representations of gender and parenting roles will eventually emerge in Japan. This is a long-term prospect, which in conjunction with wider social, economic and legal changes, points to the potential to lead to more balanced and equitable parenting roles for mothers and fathers, which may in turn help to address the some of the challenges of the shōshika era.

It is acknowledged that this article is exploratory in nature and that these concluding comments are somewhat tentative in nature. Further research in this area would be worthwhile, for example future research could compare how parenting magazines in other Asian countries portray gender and parenting roles and investigate how these representations may be changing. Such research could provide insightful comparisons between parenting magazines in other Asian countries, and between the Japanese and English-language magazines that are the focus of the present study. In addition, future research could be extended to investigate representations of parenting roles in other 'non-parenting' magazines and in magazines that focus on fathers (such magazines have recently been introduced in Japan and in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom). Such research could test the validity of the findings of the current study in a wider context, and further elaborate the practices and complexities of media representations of parenting and gender roles in Japan.


1. Permission to reproduce images from Japanese magazines has been requested from the original publishers. No acknowledgement of the author's communication has been received.


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The author would like to thank the editor, two anonymous reviewers, and scholars at a workshop at the 4th International Conference The Mother: Images, Issues and Practice, Brisbane, 5-7 July 2007, for their constructive comments and advice.

About the author

Tomoko Shimoda is a lecturer in the School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland. Her teaching and research interests include Japanese language, gender in Japan, the Japanese media, and Japanese popular culture. She gained an MA from the University of Sydney, and a PhD from the University of Auckland. Prior to working as an academic, she worked as an announcer in a television broadcasting station in Japan, and has worked as a narrator in a variety of media. She maintains a keen interest in the Japanese media, and a particular interest in how the Japanese media portray gender.

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Copyright: Tomoko Shimoda
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