Lessons from Japan: Part 2

September 24, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about my recent trip to Japan and my reflections on what their low birth rate might mean for people facing primary and secondary infertility. I left you with a cliffhanger about something shocking that I learned. It has to do with the highest-profile infertile couple in the country.

When I was a little girl, I would imagine that I became a princess. Think Princess Diana, not Disney princess. That was never in the cards for me, but now I have discovered a new reason to be grateful that I am not royalty.

Princess Masako.

She is the wife of Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, elder son of the emperor and first in line for the throne.

In many ways, Masako represents a new breed of princess. She was born a commoner, but her pedigree would be considered outstanding in non-imperial countries. Her father is a diplomat and university professor. Masako grew up in Russia and the United States. She speaks 6 languages. She studied at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo. She became a diplomat herself until quitting her job to become the Crown Princess.

The most notable feature of her reign is that she has been unable to produce a male heir. As a result, she has experienced tremendous personal struggles and rampant criticism.

Here’s a timeline, which I find helpful for understanding her situation.

Age 29: married
Age 29 to 35: no pregnancies, even though her #1 job as Crown Princess is to produce a future Emperor; meanwhile, her brother-in-law (her husband’s only brother) and his wife give birth to their second daughter
Age 36: Masako’s first pregnancy announced in the media; soon after, the media has to retract their announcement when Masako has a miscarriage
Age 37: pregnant again, probably conceived through IVF
a few days before 38th birthday: Masako gives birth to daughter Aiko

I will pause my timeline here. For most of us, after struggling with infertility for 7 years of marriage (presumably with 7 years of TTC), the birth of a daughter would be fantastic news. And it might even be enough. But that’s not the case when having a baby boy is your official mandate.

Age 39 to 41: Media and family pressure to produce a son; Masako allegedly undergoes IVF again and experiences another miscarriage; she increasingly withdraws from public life
Age 41: Depression officially revealed to media and public
Age 41 and 42: Political movement to allow daughter Aoki to become empress, pushed forward by government-appointed panel and prime minister
Age 43: Political movement abandoned when Masako’s sister-in-law gives birth to son

And so the role of women in Japan, which as I mentioned yesterday, is less progressive than in most western countries, had a chance to accelerate forward. And then progress stalled when it became unnecessary.

Masako’s experience highlights the many pressures that infertile women deal with, but magnified tremendously.

Being in a fertility race with family members like your sister-in-law.

Nosy mothers-in-law. Masako’s mother-in-law, the Empress, reportedly demanded to know each month when Masako got her period.

Having others assign blame willy-nilly. A German newspaper got into big international trouble when they ran a picture of Naruhito with the caption “dead trousers.”

Second-guessing yourself, or being second-guessed by others. The media questioned Masako’s motivation for baby-making, when for example, she would decide to travel.

Us against the world. Naruhito made a public announcement for people to back off from Masako, then got tremendous flack from his family for speaking out and not getting the approval of the Emperor.

And so, my trip to Japan taught me about an extraordinary woman whose private pain and years of attempts to have children were broadcast to her in-laws, the media, the country, and the world. A woman for whom infertility became so emotional that she had to hide away from everyone. A woman for whom youth was initially on her side, but whose attempts to conceive took so long that time became an enemy. A woman who did everything she could to have children, and with some success and much failure. For a princess, she sure has a lot in common with the rest of us.


Lessons from Japan: Part 1

September 23, 2008

In my last post I Showed and Told you about my visit to the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo and its special wishing well (more of a wooden grate). But on my trip to Tokyo last week I had two experiences that directly pertained to fertility.

The first was hanging out with a Japanese family with one young child. I learned that the average number of children per family is not much higher than 1, and therefore the most common experience for Japanese families is to have only one child. My first thought was that this would be a relief for those dealing with secondary infertility, because there wouldn’t be the pressure to have a second child nor questions about when the next one would be coming. One child would be enough, at least for as long as it took to create the second. I drew the conclusion that Japan is better for people with secondary IF than the countries with very high birth rates where large families are the norm, or even than the countries (like the U.S.) where the birth rate is between 2 and 3 and therefore having more than one child is the most common experience.

My second thought was that Japan would be terrible for those dealing with primary infertility, because if you’re only going to have one child, you’d better get down to business. When 1 is the optimal number, 0 children is definitely not enough. My local friends confirmed that there is tremendous pressure to have a child, particularly since the role of women in Japanese society is very “traditional” (in many ways, an early-1960s version of the U.S. in terms of gender politics). Japan is a fascinating and beautiful country, but I have heard from many people, both native and gaijin (non-Japanese foreigner), that it’s a problematic place to be a woman.

As an aside, it’s funny that my first thought pertained to a situation that has nothing to do with me (secondary infertility) instead of a situation that has everything to do with me (primary). It’s not at all funny that I walk around the world viewing everything through an infertility lens.

During my trip I learned something else much more shocking about fertility in Japan — but you will have to come back tomorrow to find out what that was!

(Cue cliffhanger music: daa-da-daaaaaaaa!)