Japan’s Perennial Baby Stroller War

Japan’s Perennial Baby Stroller War

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Woman with stroller
Many moms don't regard Japan as a friendly place to raise kids - and attitudes towards baby strollers have become symbolic of their dissatisfaction.

Japanese politicians – particularly from the country’s right-wing – are fond of simple solutions to Japan’s depopulation issue. If Japanese women just did their patriotic duty and had more kids, they say, everything would be fine.

To which Japanese women respond: Maybe you should make Japan an easier place to raise children!

Japan is known for many modern conveniences. But both Japanese and foreign resident parents complain that child-rearing there is “10 times harder” than in other developed countries. Madame Riri, a Japanese blogger living in France, chronicles several reasons for this. Some of them are economic. Compared to many European countries – and even to America – Japan spends relatively few tax dollars supporting parents. And the assistance stops while kids are still relatively young (age 15, compared to 20-25 in many European nations). Other reasons are social. Many women don’t feel their country does enough to support both raising children and having a career. A significant number even report facing harassment and calls to quit when they dare return to working after giving birth.

Women also feel they don’t get enough support at home. As Motoko Rich detailed in a piece for the New York Times, Japanese women shoulder a disproportionate burden of housework and child-rearing duties in their homes. And as I discussed recently, recent reforms mean many office workers leave work earlier than ever before. But some Japanese men, knowing the responsibilities awaiting them, are simply refusing to go home.

But there are other, smaller ways in which Japanese society expresses that, while it might love the idea of more kids in theory, it has an issue with them in actual practice. Perhaps no other object has become more symbolic of that tension than the “baby car” (ベビーカー) – a.k.a., baby stroller.

Strollers: An Unavoidable Nuisance?

Anyone who’s ever ridden a fully subway train (満員電車) in Japan, or been on a crowded bus, knows that there’s no daylight during peak commuting hours. People are often pressed up against one another in ways that are, for those unaccustomed to it, downright uncomfortable.

Now, however, imagine you have to use the trains during peak times…with kids and a stroller in tow.

Advertisements

This is the situation that harried Japanese parents face. (Usually mothers, because…well, see above). What’s worse, many have taken to social media in recent years to complain that the reception they receive from other passengers ranges from disgruntled to downright hostile. People often treatwWomen who board elevators with strollers as nuisances. Passengers collectively click their tongues when they board crowded trains. Even bus drivers and train conductors sometimes jump in and ask passengers to fold their strollers – which isn’t always possible for moms who have their hands full, or who can’t physically hold their children for long periods of time.

In a piece on the issue on Toyo Keizai, author Oota Ayako, chairwoman of the organization Committee for the Women’s Section (営業部女子課の会), says that survey results from her organization show that almost 57% of women have reported experiencing unpleasantness when riding the subway with a stroller. Some women interviewed by Oota expressed sympathy with other passengers’ frustration. But even women who go out of their way to not get in other peoples’ way, such as 31-year-old Sayaka (pseudonym), said it’s not always possible to avoid:

混雑したバスに乗る際、できるだけ邪魔にならないようにベビーカーを畳んで席に座るようにしました。ただ、電車よりも狭いバスの中では、畳んでも邪魔になります。しかも、バスの優先席は通常、前のほうにあり、乗り降りする人の動線を妨げてしまうのです

When I board a crowded bus, as much as possible, I try and fold up the stroller and sit down so that I won’t get in anyone’s way. But on a bus, which is even more narrower than a subway, even a folded stroller is a nuisance. Moreover, the priority seats [reserved for mothers of small kids, pregnant women and the elderly – ed.] are at the front, and that disrupts the flow of people boarding and alighting.

Parents who have spent time abroad know that such attitudes towards strollers aren’t universal. 37 year old Saori (pseudonym) now resides in Setagaya Ward, an area of Tokyo known as a hotbed of competition for day care spaces. But she began child-rearing in America, and can’t hold back how shocking the difference is to her:

1人目を出産したアメリカでは、社会全体が子育てに対してウエルカムな雰囲気でした。だから、社会の宝を授かり、育てているという充実感があったのです

In America, where I had my first child, there’s a welcoming atmosphere towards children that permeates the society. Child rearing gave me a feeling of accomplishment, a sense that I had been blessed with a treasure to society.

(JP) Link: The Baby Stroller Controversy: The Dilemma Mothers Wrestle With

Bright Spots on the Horizon?

The debate around strollers erupted several years ago, and still hasn’t abated, occasionally flaring up in the news and social media. However, there are signs that public attitudes might be improving.

Just this month, a man named Masuda posted a screed to Hatelabo’s anonymous blogging service. He accused parents of “exposing their kids to danger” by boarding trains that are packed to 200% capacity. Parents, Masuda declared, should consider “commuting at different times.” While some people piped up in support, the majority of replies slammed Masuda for his “absurd” suggestion. One parent piped up:

「わからなくは無い。でも『近くの保育園に入れず、離れた保育園に預けるしか無い』『行動範囲の保育園全て落ちて入れなかった』という人もいるのを知ってくれ」

Not saying I don’t feel you. But you need understand there are people who can’t get their kids into a nearby day care and have to deposit them at one far away, or who couldn’t get into local day cares because they’ve all folded.

(JP) Link: Baby Stroller Critic Who Asks “Can’t You Commute at a Different Time?” Gets Slammed: “Absurd Demand When People Must Bring Children”

Additionally, when Oota Ayako’s organization surveyed people on what they thought about the baby car controversy, nearly 62% replied that they “want to understand [the parents]’ situation, and respond kindly.” If those numbers are to be believed, then it’s clear that the “baby stroller = nuisance” crowd is a dwindling minority.

Personally, I wonder if some of this anger that comes out towards strollers is part and parcel of Japan’s customer-centric commercial culture. I’ve discussed before how Japan’s “The Customer is God” mentality has created a generation of “monster customers” who feel entitled to engage in all sorts of abusive behavior towards staff – from verbally abusing them to throwing food in their faces. I can’t help but think that this same social expectation leads people to feel they can take out their anger over small delays and nuisances on regular citizens as well.

Whatever the underlying factors, it’s clear that, if Japan wants to encourage its citizens to re-populate the islands, it should consider starting with creating an atmosphere more hospitable to parents.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy