Marriage and Divorce in Today's Japan:
Part Five - Pregnant Brides a Growing Trend
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
In recent years more and more Japanese brides have been walking up the aisle either pregnant or with a baby in their arms. Over the last twenty years the number of women who are pregnant before their wedding day has doubled. Government statistics show that currently more than a quarter of all brides are mothers-to-be. This trend is gradually eroding the orthodox children-after-marriage model that dominated most of the last century and is consequently changing the way young people conceptualize the marital union.
For an increasing number of couples, pregnancy and childbirth are becoming key factors behind the decision to tie the marital knot. Despite the emergence of more liberal attitudes towards matrimony, the institution of marriage itself remains extremely popular. There are presently few concrete signs that marriage is losing any of its appeal and surveys indicate that the majority of people wish to marry. What is changing are the way young people form relationships, how marriage and children fit into their life course plans and the age at which people marry and have children. The current trend is for late marriage followed by late childbirth.
Nowadays it is not unusual to see an openly pregnant bride, while a decade ago such a condition would have been skillfully concealed by a well-tailored wedding dress. Children accompanying the bride and groom are also an increasingly common phenomenon. These are all signs that the social stigma which was once attached to so called "shotgun weddings" is rapidly fading.
The media has speculated about the underlying cause of the expectant bride trend. Many commentators believe that a key factor is young people postponing marriage decisions and only considering the idea once the woman is pregnant. Statistics confirm that men and women are getting married at a later age than ever before.
For women there are several strands influencing the current trend. Many women are putting off marriage to pursue higher education, a career and to search for an ideal partner. On night-time discussion shows for young people, some women complain that getting pregnant is often the only way to convince boyfriends that it is time to marry. The letters pages of women's magazines often carry pleas for advice on how to get boyfriends to pop the question.
Some sections of the media claim that young men have lost the will to propose, while others state that young men are having difficult finding partners. Clearly a complex mix of social reasons lies behind the current trend.
Akiko, not her real name, got married three years ago when she was seven months pregnant. She had been dating the same man for four years. She comments, "After going out for two years, I thought he was the right guy for me. He was kind, we had fun, but he never spoke about marriage. Maybe he was just waiting for the right moment. Anyway, I told him I was pregnant. At first he seemed stunned. Then he gradually warmed to the idea and we started planning our wedding. I didn't intend to get pregnant, but was glad I did." They are now expecting their second child at the end of September 2003.
Keiko, not her real name, gave birth to a little boy at the end of January 2003, but only married in July. She explains, "My boyfriend wanted to postpone the wedding until after he finished graduate school and settled into his new job. Perhaps it would have been better to have the wedding before the baby was born, but it was just too much hassle to arrange and money was tight. All my friends understood [our reasoning]. Our parents eventually accepted the situation as they knew we were going to marry."
Akiko and Keiko's opinions are fairly representative of many young Japanese, who no longer accepted the idea that you can only have children once you are married. It also illustrates a new trend for marrying at a convenient time regardless of pregnancy or children.
The media has also acknowledged that there has been a sharp shift in the way young people fit children into their life course. A recent example of this was a five-minute report broadcast on 3 July 2003 by the state-sponsored TV channel NHK. The feature was part of the main evening news, highlighting a new trend for holding weddings in an elegant purpose-build house. The ceremony covered in the reportage showed a bride and groom who had a ten-month old infant. The impression given was that this couple represented a fairly run-of-the-mill pair of trendsetters. This kind of news item emphasizes how much Japan has changed over the last decade.
All the above cases illustrate that the formerly rigid sequence of marriage followed by childbirth is losing its cohesive force. Significantly, despites these changes, marriage remains highly popular. However, young people are making it a more custom-made institution than it was in the past.
Marriage and Divorce in Today's Japan Series
International Marriages in Japan
Family Trends in 2003
Family Issues and Japanese Social Policy
Poor Families in Today's Japan
The Declining Birthrate in Japan