Japan Today

Filmmaker looks at plight of single mothers in Japan

By Kathryn Wortley

In his award-winning documentary film, “The Ones Left Behind: The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan,” Rionne McAvoy hopes to shine a light on what he describes as a “double taboo” in Japan, namely “being divorced and being poor.”

The problems facing single mothers are “largely ignored,” he said, noting the incongruence between Japan’s rich, technologically advanced economy and the  economic suffering endured by one of the most vulnerable groups in society. “Japan’s poverty is real; it’s just being hidden away in plain sight,” notes one of the texts at the end of film.

The extent of the taboo became apparent for McAvoy immediately after beginning research for production. Despite corresponding in Japanese, he was unable to secure any Japanese female university professors to discuss the topic of single mothers, and received only one reply from the 15–20 single parent groups in Japan he contacted. In contrast, he reports a response rate of about 50% from overseas-based single parent organizations, and even received messages of encouragement from those unable to help.

Documentary maker Rionne McAvoy Image: AP

Undeterred, though, the long-term Tokyo resident and Australian filmmaker embarked upon what became an 18-month project that revealed the physical, mental, emotional, social and financial hardships faced by women in Japan raising children on their own.

Compared to the nation’s median household income of ¥4.4 million, for example, the annual income for a single mother with one child is ¥1.75 million. Of those single mother households, 56% are classed as living in poverty despite 85% of single mothers holding a job, equating to the highest employment rate of all OECD countries. Moreover, only one in seven single mothers receive government welfare, in part due to stigma, restrictive and outdated qualifying criteria or lack of knowledge to access it.

During the film’s 78 minutes, McAvoy weaves data, expert commentary and real-life stories into a comprehensive narrative delving into how and why single mothers struggle today. Discussion ranges from practical issues, such as difficulty gaining regular employment, affordable childcare and government support, to societal norms including breakdown of communities, isolation in a digital age and cultural discomfort in asking for help or showing weakness.

“The topic is incredibly complex but my job is to uncomplicate it,” said McAvoy, adding that it took him months to uncover how Japan’s history, culture and society affects single mothers. His curiosity of the subject — which stemmed from hearing about single mothers who didn’t want support despite their harsh situations — and determination to cover an issue that no-one else had remained his guide. With a “loose idea” of where he wanted to go, he decided to focus on listening to the interviewees, to “let them tell the story.”

For that reason, McAvoy describes the film as a journey of his own discovery, too. His inclusion of Kodomo Shokudo, or Children’s Cafeteria, which provides needy children with nutritious meals and a welcoming environment, for example, became a core part of the story after it was introduced by an interviewee.


One thing he was sure of from the outset of production, however, was that the film would showcase the fastidious efforts made by single mothers to do their best for their children and try to improve their situations.

“I’m not trying to tell a sob story … there’s hope there. If we understand the problem better, I think changes could happen quickly,” he said, noting that Japan may be slow to start but can move fast once decisions are made or plans are in place.

Viewers will also notice the film’s appeals to “try to recognize SOS signs from our neighbors,” he said. And the final screen displays the words: “Let’s reach out to those in society who need our help. Make a the world a better place. We can do it together.”

McAvoy hopes that greater coverage of the film by the Japanese press will help raise awareness of the topic, but says his primary goals are for his film to be watched at screenings and distributed on streaming platforms and at theaters.

“I’d like to pass off the issue the people who care about it the most: lobbyists and single parent groups … and for people to learn how to use the film to get things moving [for single mothers], perhaps through a think tank,” he said.

Since debuting at the Yokohama International Film Festival in May 2023, “The Ones Left Behind” has scooped up several accolades including Best Documentary Award Winner at Miyakojima International Film Festival.

McAvoy’s success so far with his first feature documentary has led him to consider his next project, which he expects will illuminate another social issue in Japan.

“I’d like to look at child suicide. In 2022, 514 children aged 18 or under committed suicide. These are things that need to be brought to light,” he said.

For more information, visit https://onesleftbehind.com/

© Japan Today

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I have a problem with the documentary. It only tells one side and not both sides because there are men who are also left behind. Ok I get it the documentary shows viewer the struggle of single mothers in Japan but what about the single father who perhaps have to deal with the same problems as those single women in which the document experience in the Japanese society, may it be the culture, and history, nothing different whether its a mother or father a parent is a parent who has custody.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I am now retired from my work in the U.K. Child Support Agency. I contributed to some research by a Japanese academic. Here, in the period during and after WW2, things were hard for single mothers and widows. Gradually that changed as the State absorbed the role of the absent parent (not just the mother). However, in a bid to reduce administration costs, parents are now encouraged to negotiate their own arrangements, either through mediation or the legal system. Sadly, under the present Government's cuts to public services, it seems that child poverty is increasingly rearing its ugly head. I hope this film reaches large audiences.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Mr Kipling

Today 05:47 pm JST

Are all these fathers dead? Surely they are required to pay for their children until the age of 18

Simple answers are no and no.

Under the system here in most cases a single payment may be made or an agreed monthly payment but once the divorce is done, family court has basically no real capability of enforcement.

I know I made the "amicable" divorce with a written support agreement and after multiple times and water money I honestly was never able to get the children's mother ( who is very very well off) to pay her agreed monthly support!

The system is still in the Edo/Meiji world.

One parent takes the children the other moves on to a new life!

Remember PM Koizumi, he got divorced, he took both sons had his sister and family raise them, his ex-wife never had any contact again and she was pregnant with their third son and he never had contact with him and the 2 sons his family was raising never had contact with their brother who was being raised by their mother.

The problem here is that those in power will not or do not want to change the rules/law.

This applies to paternity using DNA, dual custody, child support, etc... and we all know why, because it would all impact on the men as they could no longer just walk away and ignore responsibility.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Are all these fathers dead? Surely they are required to pay for their children until the age of 18.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Will be very interesting. With the decline of the family structure we have to rely on the state for support.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Again,why the pressure on people to have children,when they obviously have no desire to do so?

Not excusing absentee fathers on bit.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Mc should have been less focused on gender/biological sex and more in the "single" part!

As a single father it was no better, perhaps worse in many cases.

At the beginning of being single, the single parent subsidy was only available to women, when the law changed the cities made it near impossible for men to apply or get it with constantly being told

"why don't you get a better paying job, your a man"

To make matters worse single mothers could at least get a lower office worker job not good pay but they could leave on time to pick up their children from daycare etc..

No such option for men.

I and several single fathers I knew lost several jobs as we were told "No" to leaving on time I was even fired for leaving because my son was rushed by ambulance to the hospital and an emergency surgery!

City, school officials, employers would constantly tell me and other single fathers to:

" find a new wife to take care of the children and get a better job"

I don't know a single father that was ever able to satisfy the city criteria for single parent support!

The stigma of single parents in Japan is not just reseverd to women but also men, certain things may vary but the results are the same!

But the biggest difference was with the government.

Watching the social workers and single parent aid section treat the women as needing help and with compaction then the sound of disgust when a single father was there needing help was an eye opener.

It was nit just me but I know several other Japanese men that got the same treatment.

All of us got told to " find a wife" from daycare teacher, to employers some going as far to try and "arrange" marriages between us and single mothers with the comments.

" it will be better for both of you and the children"

The above happened in government daycare and elementary school and was by both teachers and school directors.

9 ( +11 / -2 )

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