As if the pressures on working women in Japan weren’t enough, state broadcaster NHK is upping the stakes with its programme Karisumama, which translates as Charismatic Mums.
Apparently, it’s not enough for mothers to get everyone dressed and out the door in the morning – they now have to do it while dressed like a model with a decorative home-cooked packed lunch thrown in. The makers say the programme is aimed at working mothers who don't want to give up on fashion, beauty and, most of all, the kawaii (cute) element in their life.
The show, which airs twice a month, is fronted by two women: comedian Nahomi Matsushima and Megumi, both mothers. It has a curiously combative format, pitting mothers against each other in competitions covering everything from who can make the cheapest, tastiest bento lunch boxes to who has the best make-up, as well as mother-and-child fashion and even interior decoration. The Karisumama committee passes judgement and the winners are named MVPs.
Mothers are given makeovers; drab and tired before, wide-eyed and super cute afterwards. NHK is currently running a special exhibition for the Karisumama show at its Tokyo headquarters, running clips and showing photos of particularly imaginative children’s lunches. TV talent, regular guest and mother of three Ako Hina, who has the look of an anime character brought to life, gets her own cardboard cut-out at the exhibition. She’s an MVP and her winning mother-and-child outfits are on show.
Any mother who is simply trying to get out of the house with their clothes on the right way round might feel intimidated by the Karisumama gang but the show sees itself as a support to mothers. The same goes for magazines such as Sakura and Saita, which do their bit to promote the concept of the bi-mama or beautiful mum with pages filled with gorgeous mama models, who are known as mamamo. The most notorious of the lot was I Love Mama magazine, which was shifting 200,000 copies a month in its heyday and featured a roster of Shibuya-girl mother models who barely looked out of their teens. Ako Hina herself was a favourite at I Love Mama, though it has been on a hiatus since its May issue.
Women’s roles in Japan are often misleadingly stereotyped but there are mixed messages at work – and not only in the media. In the same week that Shinzo Abe again pledged to do more to get Japanese women into the workforce, a survey by the Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness revealed that around 40 per cent of Japanese men and women in their 20s to 40s believe that women should stay at home while their husbands work full-time.
It’s a complicated picture and Karisumama clearly has an audience in Japan. Although how working mothers have the time to hold down full-time jobs and make convincing pandas out of rice and a sheet of seaweed is beyond me.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.