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For Japanese men, dysfunction starts in the cradle

By CB Liddell

I was lucky. I didn’t have a Japanese mother. My mother had four boys. She had a job. She had my father to deal with. She had her hands full. With my mother juggling the various contradictory roles imposed on women by Western society, I had the freedom to develop more or less as I wanted to, and passed through the Sturm und Drang of adolescence without too many hang-ups about the female sex. Any hang-ups I do have are entirely of my own making. They weren’t spoon-fed to me by a domineering mother when I was too young to resist.

One reason Japan is a male-dominated society is because most Japanese men have a problem relating to women properly. This is why the male business phalanx is so tight-knit. It also explains why Japanese men, once they get out of the house first thing in the morning, are so reluctant to return until the last train at night. If women got into positions of power in Japan, the middle-aged businessman you see confidently strutting around hailing a cab to a business meeting or a hostess bar would turn into gibbering nervous wrecks.

This whole unbalanced society — from the drunks on the last train to the ridiculous caricatures of women called hostesses to the lonely housewives slowly going dotty over their morose, “fatherless” kids — all goes back to one source: the Japanese mother.

The main reason that Japanese males’ attitudes to the fairer sex are so cluttered with complexes is because their own mothers had nothing else to do but bring up baby. Like breaking a butterfly on a wheel, childbearing in Japan is a case of too much energy for the job. Even before the patter of tiny feet is heard on the straw mats, there’s a good chance that the prospective mother has been spending years stuck at home waiting for her husband to come home every night, damming up her energies.

She’s honed her cooking skills to a razor-sharp edge. She’s developed exotic methods of cleaning, like flossing the tatami mats. She’s even revived a few Edo-period arts and crafts. But, whatever she does, being a housewife does nothing to stop her stewing in her own juices, building up immense reservoirs of energy.

Finally the big day arrives. The new mother returns home with her little wet bundle, and a million gigawatts of maternal energy are crackling through her veins. Papa goes off to work. The door closes. For the first time, she’s left all alone with the little stranger: Kaboooom! Kersplat!

Girls fare better; they tend to like intense one-to-one relationships. But boys crave independence. Little Hiroshi-kun doesn’t know it yet as his diapers get changed for the ninth time in half an hour, but he craves independence, too. Fat chance!

From now on, his life will have one central, dominating, all-encompassing fact: Mother. Wherever he goes, whatever he thinks, whatever he does, Mother — all-seeing, all-knowing, the alpha and the omega — will be there spoiling him, scolding him, nagging him; picketing PTA meetings; spoiling, scalding, and nagging his teachers; checking up on his friends, spying on him, telling him what to think, what to eat, what to wear, how to stand, how to sit, how to blink; sometimes wheedling and purring, sometimes shrieking and shouting — carpet-bombing his psyche from a great height, while also dive-bombing it.

It wouldn’t have been so bad a generation ago. After a couple of years of being cocooned and coddled in the flaming ball of maternal energy, reinforcements would have arrived in the shape of siblings to share the boy’s doleful fate and spread the load. But little Hiroshi, unfortunately, is destined to be an only child. For years ahead, his putative life has already been mapped out, planned down to each diaper change and toilet break. He’s running on schedule from now on or he ain’t running at all.

Each hour has to be accounted for: music school from the age of 2, kindergarten from the age of 4, elementary school from the age of 6, and up through children’s English lessons, junior high school, senior high school, juku and, of course, the endless Dantean caverns of Exam Hell.

Deprived of a real life of her own, Hiroshi’s mother is unwittingly taking her frustrations out on her ill-starred offspring. After years of subtle and blatant psychological broiling, Hiroshi proves he’s a bright boy: he passes and fails the right combination of university exams to ensure he is accepted by a college as far away as possible from the maternal furnace.

As his sobbing parent sees him off at the station, and the train disappears into the distance, his sense of guilt mixes with his newfound sense of freedom. The tugging in his gut means that he has finally cut the umbilical cord. Like Norman Bates, he is at last free from the Mother of all mothers. But is he?

CB Liddell is a Tokyo-based writer, editor and cartoonist. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)

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Now add a non-Japanese father into the equation and the whole situation is altered ... for the better I would hope!

I have the pleasure of sharing the parenting duties with my working Japanese wife while I follow my own career. She takes the kids to school in the morning and I pick them up in the evening (well before dinner time.) They get the best and sometimes the worst of both worlds but they get to spend time with us each evening and on weekends. I don't need the schools to keep them occupied until after dark every night of the week with sometimes meaningless "mandatory club fun"

Maybe if some Japanese fathers would try spending more time with their kids they'd come to enjoy it and look forward to getting home earlier.

Just a thought ...

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From the title I thought this would be a rubbish piece insulting the Japanese male from the superior perspective of the Western male.

I was wrong.

It's a rubbish piece insulting the Japanese mother and by extension all SAHMs, from the superior perspective of the Western male. Well done Liddell and JT, yet another bash-Japan rubbish 'commentary'.

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The author's opinion reads like an attack on stay at homes moms. There is no supporting evidence that kids shuffled off to surrogates while their parents work are fairing any better.

Anybody with kids knows that parental influence is temporary. As kids get older they spend more of their formative years alongside their peers and teachers then they do their own parents.

I will concede that those few short years little Kenichi spends with his mom are probably the best years of his life and may explain why he expects his spouse to cook, clean and wipe his butt for him.

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Cleo I don't see any bashing of stay-at-home mums in the commentary. And Japanese men are spoiled by their mothers. There is no question about it or the fact that many do grow up to expect that same level of attention from spouses. Personally, I think a lot of young men have trouble interacting with women because they can't perceive them as anything other than a potential replacement for their mother.

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Totally agree with Cleo. Yet another generalization fluff piece on why all Japanese males/females are dysfunctional, etc. etc. etc. Obviously this piece was meant to appease those here who tend to love these kinds of articles. I am disappointed too, it would be just as offensive to make such generalizations about people of any society, not just japan. Sad.

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I don't dispute that the way men act in any society probably has something to do with their mothers, BUT...

What a load of crap! This idiot took every stereotype he could find, dutifully applied it to all Japanese people, and voila! A steaming pile of an article by another in a long line of people who have neither the time nor the willingness to accept that everyone is different, even in Japan.

Mr. Liddell, I salute you for living in Japan without allowing your delusions to be interfered with by reality.

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Had to refit my monocle after reading this one. Yes, well, for starters - what are the, em, Freudian implications of starting this wild bit of speculation about "mother" with discussion of one's own and then ending with a step into a rhetorical abyss like this one: "Like Norman Bates, he is at last free from the Mother of all mothers. But is he?"

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Better to have a doting mother than to be spend one's childhood being raised by nannies, babysitters, daycare centers etc. I thank God my mother was there every day when we came home from school. You can't put a price tag on that. Having a strong relationship with one's mother is not dysfunctional nor does it cripple one in future relationships with females. I feel quite the contrary is true. This author is arrogant and simplistic and sloppy in his thinking.

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I had the freedom to develop more or less as I wanted to,..... without too many hang-ups

Don't worry Mr Liddel, we see your hang-ups quite clearly. So you came through your childhood with a massive superiority complex. Great.

Girls fare better; they tend to like intense one-to-one relationships. But boys crave independence.

Sheer, utter unadulterated twaddle. I've raised one of each. They're basically no different till the puberty hormones start to kick in. As a toddler my daughter was way more independent than her brother - because of her individual personality, not her double-X chromosomes.

Mother — all-seeing, all-knowing, the alpha and the omega

Duh. Do large heavy mammals of the family Ursidae discharge excrement from the body in areas of land smaller than a forest and covered with growing trees?

Sounds to me like the way things should be. If a child can't rely on his mother to be a symbol of permanence and security in his life, who can he rely on?

Deprived of a real life of her own...

This really takes the biscuit. Mr Liddell is telling us that daily commuting, sitting in an office and chatting round the copy machine is more of a 'real' life than raising a human being. What arrogant nonsense.

I'm not saying that Japanese mothers are perfect, but my personal observation is quite the opposite of Mr. Liddle's. I have seen far too many mothers who, far from being the alpha and omega of their children's lives, are quite happy to let the daycare centre/kindergarten/school/bukatsu/juku babysit for her while she enjoys a 'real' life earning cash, frequenting culture centres or, all too often, watching telly or drinking tea with like-minded friends. And many others who don't have the confidence to be the strong figure of authority their children need them to be.

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For a dysfunctional society, the divorce rate is still pretty low, kids still eat a lot of home cooked meals. I'd like to know what enlightened country Mr. Liddell is from, where none of these problems exist. I guess the rose-colored glasses go on in regards to his birthplace.

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talk about stereotyping, Linddell must hangout only in Shibuya, Shinjyuku and Roppongi. Even then you have to pick out the obvious few. If every worker took the last train home then JR really needs to rethink the 24 hour train system. Boys crave independence more than girls? they do? didn't know that... As for having every hour of the day accounted for, well we all know that is only for the few mothers who are just trying too hard. Most kids are playing video games, reading manga and running around in the school yard. Otherwise SegaSammy, TakaraTomy, BandaiNamco, Nintendo and all the other toy, anime and managa companies would have long gone out of business. He might as well have being talking about Italian men and their over protective mothers... or perhaps Koreans?? I for one would rather be a child of a Japanese mother than a mother busy juggling the various contradictory roles imposed on women by Western society.

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I agree with Mr.Liddell many Japanese men are so spoilt by their mothers that they don't realize how self-centered they are. Many Caucasian men, on the other hand, are so delusional that they would never, ever doubt they are anything less than perfection. They may think this as self-confidence, but I think it's more like being a self-satified p--, with lazy intellect and half-baked insights. I know both Japanese and Caucasian men and both have enough faults.

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gee, my kids mother is nothing like this. she was bought up by her father. her mother ran off when she was young. my sons mother is the best mother I have ever seen. absolutely perfect in every way. he should count his lucky stars.

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This is a humorous comedy piece right ? I think we all misunderstood this as a serious article when the author is in fact writing ironic comedy, right ?

I am insulted by this stereotyping. My Japanese wife (the nationality doesn't matter by the way), the loving mother to our two sons, has worked her butt off all of their lives to feed them, clothe them, change their nappies, take them to school, support them emotionally, help with their homework, try not to make them too soft, nurse them when they are sick, protect them from the sick people in our world etc, etc.

Liddell has clearly never met a real Japanese mother in his life, just gaining his ideas from magazines and gossip.

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Actually, I find it nothing more than an attempt at humor. I do agree that many Japanese men are spoiled by their mothers.

<strong>Moderator: All readers, please keep the discussion civil and do not insult the writer or Japan Today. If you disagree with the writer's opinions, then state your reasons in a mature way.</strong>

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Many Japanese men are less than respectful of women because laws either don't exist or are not enforced to prevent women from being objectified or discriminated against. I am pleased that women in modern economies are starting to vote with their wombs against the horrendous levels of sexism that still pervade society.

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Having met many amazing Japanese moms... and many sons of said mothers:

I am simply reminded of Mr. Higgins from My Fair Lady - namely in that Higgin's mother was so perfect, that other women had no chance for ever measuring up.

In my experience, and from hearing the experience of others, Japanese men tend - not always, but tend - to want their wives to coddle them and take care of them. This just evidences how much their mothers were amazing,not how much Kenichi hated them.

Liddell is probably just jealous.

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Younger Japanese men, say younger than 30, are not mama's boys or spoilt rotten by their mothers to the same extent as those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. But there is no doubt in my mind, after living here for more than 20 years, that Japanese mothers in general do overindulge their sons (more so than daughters). And I suspect that a lot of men become dysfunctional as a result of it.

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Liddell may think he is entertaining non-Japanese with his great analysis of Japanese culture. He may entertain the thought that Japan should be an extension of western culture. Well let me tell you, I am a westerner by birth, but I am not amused by his sarcasm and criticisms. If this is an attempt at humor, I find it a very poor attempt, and whose humor anyway?

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Mod: The comments have been quite civil. The problem lies with the content. Reminds me a lot of some books re Japan written in the 60's and 70's. Been here 20 years or so, and while I have met some of the above mentioned lads, they have been in the minority. This phenomena is universal, hence the English expression" mama's boy". Westerners avoid this label at all cost even though, at heart, they never left the nipple. I would suggest the author is in his 20's (not that there is anything wrong with that).

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I would like to add further, that a more insightful analysis of the Japanese male mind could be provided by any number of JT message board contributors. No names. You know who you are.

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As a poster stated, "mama's boys" are in a lot of Western cultures. The author must have just stepped off the plane at Narita and thinks he discovered something that's unique only to Japan. (rollyes).


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"One reason Japan is a male-dominated society is because most Japanese men have a problem relating to women properly."

Just out of curiosity, in what country do men relate to women "properly"?

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you are right Northlondon. i was at the park today with my son. My x-wife took off to Tokyo for the weekend. she said "have fun guys" and she was off. Not one phone call since. at the park the mothers there were much the same as my x-wife in respect to being kind hearted, genuine and damn good parents. The fathers there alone with their kids were much the same as me. having a fantastic time building relationships with there kids. the kids there all had the same healthy glow and spark for life that my kid has. never saw a single gestapo and never saw a kid that looked a pre programmed robot of their mother. if you ask me, The Japanese education system does it. not mothers. thats why my son goes to Montessori despite the costs.

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"Little Hiroshi-kun doesn't know it yet as his diapers get changed for the ninth time in half an hour"


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My (Japanese) wife said that while her mother wasn't like the above described mother with her or her siblings - she knows/knew plenty of mothers who were exactly as stated above.

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northlondon: Good on you. This article is a bunch of crap. Liddell should stick with the cartoons.

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Sagecat I also know lots of mothers like the ones stated above. And I know at least three men (two of whom are married) in my office who are ruled by their mothers.

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"As a poster stated, "mama's boys" are in a lot of Western cultures. The author must have just stepped off the plane at Narita and thinks he discovered something that's unique only to Japan. (rollyes).".

You will find the same dysfunction all over the world Rom3, but this type of dysfunctionality can be more pronounced in Japan. Some of the stuff I'Ve seen in Japan at friend's house and what my male friends have said about their wives has been truly mind-boggling.

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while i have my differences with the author's premise that J-mothering ruins boys, i tend to agree with the underlying point that the over-mothering j-boys receive turn them into neurotic empty suits later on in life.

where i diverge from the author is placing the blame solely on the j-mom. i contend the absence of a father or the lack of fathering in any boys life will produce in most cases an unhealthy male adult.

The more domineering and overprotective the mother coupled against the degree of father involvement in the child's life are the determining factors how well a j-boy makes his way through life as an adult.

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I take it CB Liddell here hasn't done any real research into this. Not the first crappy article he has written.

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This peice is on par with the absurd political commentary they had last time.

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I know the other mothers in my kids kindergarden fairly well and I TOTALLY AGREE with the writer of this article. On a daily basis I listen to them complain that their sons (at 5 years old) are starting to want to sleep alone but the mothers think they are still too young! They give in to their childs every whim and actively discourage the kids from having anything to do with dad on the weekend. It makes me wonder about what kind of adults they are going to turn out to be. Well done Mr Liddell

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Calling this article garbage would be an insult to trash everywhere.

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I think Mr Liddell should stick with cartoons and do more homework on the Japanese culture ' So arrogant and insensitive to say that he was lucky he was not raised by a Japanese mother ' When he mentions "being spoon fed and a domineering mother" Is he telling me that the Japanese woman is not like the rest of the mother's around the world ' You want to see spoon fed and domineering just take a look at the Queen of England '

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Im sorry but I also disagree with most of this article. The write is obviously unaware of the true nature of Japanese society. Japanese women are strong, yes, and many Japanese men have a "mazaa konpurekkusu" yes, but there are other social reasons, too. Japanese boys are overly spoilt by their mothers, and often physically abused by their fathers, hence the "jishin, kaminari, kaji oyaji" four worst fears of the Japanese. The result is a potent concoction which produces the childish, manga and school girl fantasy - obsessed mindset of the modern Japanese salaryman. That is often why so many of them retreat into their rooms and become housebound "hikikomori" victims, and that is also why so many of them become perverts on trains and stealers of women`s undergarments.

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Every year a NEW GAIJIN comes here and writes another insightful (read: crap) article much like this one. (TOKYO JOURNAL, TOKYO WEEKENDER, GAIJIN POT posters). Long-term residents may agree with me here?

I find it really telling that as a group of writers (the writing community in Japan) the articles have not really progressed, still blaming all of Japan's men's behavior on their mothers, and not on... Japanese men themselves.

Move over, Mr. Liddel: We've heard all this before. And by better writers, expressing more humility.

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All the ingredients of another Liddell 'classic' - shoot at those easy targets, slap on the arrogance, indulge your vocabulary, then claim your readers' responses prove your point and that since no-one is nearly as intelligent as you are, you are being 'misunderstood'.

Excuse me while I crawl onto dry land for the first time...

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where i diverge from the author is placing the blame solely on the j-mom. i contend the absence of a father or the lack of fathering in any boys life will produce in most cases an unhealthy male adult.

The more domineering and overprotective the mother coupled against the degree of father involvement in the child's life are the determining factors how well a j-boy makes his way through life as an adult.

I couldn't agree more.

Posters here are taking the easy way out and jumping on the "bash the author" bandwagon due to their own lack of ability to come up with a half-way decent response.

People here should think more and spew less.

Well said, VOR


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spoiling, scalding, and nagging his teachers;

I sure as hell hope that's a mistype!

Anyhow, surely most of these grotty salarymen - whether warped by their mothers or not - are a bit too old to be a product of a modern phenomenon? The situation described, although exaggerated for humor, is too recent to be to blame. Most salarymens' mothers would have had more than one child, and they would also have lived with the parents - whether his or hers. The older the salaryman, the more likely it is that his mother had to do some sort of work to help make ends meet - things weren't all rosy after WWII, and I'm sure they weren't too great during the war either.

No, the "reluctant husband and father" stereotype must have appeared before the "mother-of-one" stereotyped here, although whether he's the cause is impossible for me to guess.

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Ummm.... is this an attempt at justifying the profound emotional immaturity and instability of most Japanese males?

It hasn't worked!

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I have mixed feelings about this thread.

I notice that few of you have taken the time to substantially address the issues Mr. Liddel crudely raises. Normally, I think it valuable to engage such pieces because this crude slam on Japanese men and society takes place within a larger, important, conflict. The conflict is between the familiar tradition of Western chauvinism and the newer Western belief that all civilizations and cultures are equal, equally good, and therefore beyond reproach. Rather than engage and disarm Mr. Littell, many of you seem more than happy to simply condemn him and dismiss inane ideas.

However, the Left’s smug certainty of multiculturalism just as much a threat to rational discourse and, ultimately, the public good as the Right’s ethno-centrism.

Case and point, Japanese have problems. They are, lest you forget, humans. Japan suffers wide social problem of absentee fathers, bored and neurotic housewives, spoiled/neglected children, teenage delinquency, and on and on. In many ways these social problems are typical of advanced industrial societies, and in many other ways their expression are unique to Japan.

It does us and Japan no favors to use these typical social problems as a mallet against Japan, as Mr. Liddell’s and his ilk are wont to. Y'all got to read "Japanese really are forever young", by Mr. Liddell, from November 19, 2005,


Equally so, it does us and Japan no favors to wrap yourself in the soothing gauze of multicuralism and pretend that because Japan is different that you have no reason to judge the social problems.

There are real problems here in the way that for far too many, the old story holds about the sacred bond between mother and son and the woman who got in the way, y'know, the man's wife.

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Yes! Just because you are outside the culture does not mean you have no worthwhile observations. De Tocqueville had published some excellent observations about the fledgling US culture, many of which ring true even 200 years later - and he was from France.

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