This investigation was funded by a Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows (No. 19-5245).
1This study explores the use of communication tools among Japanese mothers raising children while living abroad.
2Recently, the problem of “isolated mothers” has been gaining more media and public attention in Japan. The decrease in the number of children because of the lower fertility rate has created difficulties for mothers in exchanging child-rearing information and supporting each other (Drentea and Moren-Cross, 2005). Because of reduced interaction in local communities and less frequent opportunities for mothers in local areas to meet, mothers are losing the information, advice, interaction and support that was traditionally available from informal networks (Coontz, 1997). Sociological studies have proposed that the spread of “scientific mothering” by medical experts causes disassociation among mothers (Litt, 2000). Mauthner (1995) has pointed out that mothers are losing geographic networks and are becoming increasingly isolated despite the need for social contact. The number of women staying at home while child rearing has decreased, and lower fertility has caused the loss of geographic networks and of informal support, advice and interaction among mothers.
3This situation increases the importance of the Internet in bringing mothers together. Drentea and Moren-Cross (2005) point out that it plays a significant role in uniting isolated mothers. They analysed the comments mothers posted on the Internet and revealed three types of communication in the online community: instrumental support, emotional support and building/keeping their community. Mothers can maintain social capital by using the Internet. In addition, Drentea and Moren-Cross propose three advantages of the online community: it is asynchronous, it can be accessed anywhere on the globe, and it maintains user anonymity; however, it cannot replace face-to-face communication. The question then becomes: how do young mothers combine face-to-face communication, the Internet and other communication tools to get support? For geographically heterogeneous mothers in particular, the use of communication tools, including the Internet, is more significant. Therefore, in this study, I investigate the significance of communication tools for Japanese mothers living abroad with a specific focus on the role of the Internet.
4From the 1980s, the internationalization of Japanese companies necessitated more job transfers to locations outside Japan. Consequently, women moved with their relocated husbands to foreign countries. Most of the wives had difficulties with the different language and culture, and often suffered from isolation. When they experienced childbirth and child rearing abroad, they faced further obstacles (Okifuji, 1991). It remains difficult to obtain support from family members (especially their mothers) and close friends, who are usually the support givers for new mothers. Since the end of the 1990s, innovations in information technology have enabled these mothers to use new communication tools such as the Internet. The environment around mothers raising children abroad has no doubt changed greatly. In Japan, the problem of “isolated mothers” is receiving more attention, especially in metropolitan areas, in the context of the declining birth-rate since the 1990s, and countermeasures for bringing mothers together are needed. The Internet can be a means of support for them. However, little is known about how mothers use these new online communication tools.
5In geographical studies of “cyberspace”, Kitchin (1998) argues that the interaction between cyberspace and real space is symbiotic and that cyberspace is linked to geographical space. Other studies also stress that it is important to understand the interaction between cyberspace and real space (Batty and Miller, 2000; Wilson, 2003). To gain this understanding, it is valuable to examine how mothers raising children use cyberspace or Internet communities because the information, support and networks the mothers need are often strongly connected with the local area in which they live. It may be presumed that the interaction between cyberspace and real space is more profound in the young mothers’ online community than in communities where people connect to share their hobbies. On the other hand, some mothers may desire anonymity in cyberspace when they need to share personal information that they cannot discuss with their family or friends in real space. Therefore, through analysing the communication tools used by mothers, it is possible to investigate the interaction between cyberspace and real space.
6Before taking up the main subject, I would like to explain the model of support for child-rearing mothers (Figure 1). Support is classified into instrumental support and emotional support. Instrumental support means babysitting support, and emotional support means expressions of sympathy, advice for anxiety, listening to venting, etc. In general, instrumental support is given by daycare centers, kindergartens and family members. Emotional support is given by nonfamily members such as friends. In this study, the main targets are instrumental and emotional support by informal actors.
Figure 1. The model of support for child rearing mothers
Source: Matsuda (2008), Drentea and Moren-Cross (2005)
7The following materials and methods are used in my study. First, instrumental support for Japanese mothers in real space is clarified from the results of the questionnaire and interview. Second, the role of SNS, social networking services, for mothers raising children abroad is demonstrated from the analysis of the SNS community. I use France as the study area for three reasons. First, as illustrated below, France has one of the largest Japanese expatriate population. The second reason is the language barrier. Because few Japanese people have studied French, the language barrier is higher than that for English, which most Japanese have studied in junior high school and high school as a compulsory subject. The third reason is that childcare services are well provided in France. As a study area, France is appropriate for investigating which resources give mothers formal and informal support and how they combine them, as there is less risk that they cannot choose formal support such as daycare centers simply because of a shortage of services.
Table 1. The trend of Japanese people living abroad
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan
Figure 2. Study area
Source: Insee, Les Collectivités locales en chiffres, 2009 (Urban region population)
8I have consolidated the 26 regions of France into 10 areas because of the connection between social and economic activities in each area (Figure 2). The largest population concentration is in Paris. Although the Ile-de-France area is the smallest region it has the largest population. Table 1 gives an overview of the number of Japanese living in France. In 2006 there were approximately 30,000, the third highest total in Western Europe, following the UK and Germany. Of these, 80% are permanent residents, and 45.1%, that is 12,720 Japanese, live in Paris.
9The questionnaire and interview survey were carried out in February 2009. I distributed the questionnaire via “Association Amicale des Ressortissants Japonais en France” and the private international school in Lyon, and received answers either through face-to-face conversation or by email and mail correspondence. I contacted some mothers who are not members of the association or school through other members. Table 2 shows the collected data of the respondents. They are mainly mothers, living in Paris or the Rhône-Alpes area, with children younger than three years. Most of these mothers are homemakers; that is, they raise their children at home and do not have employment. The occupations of the fathers vary, especially in mixed couples.
10Figure 3 details formal support. Around 70% of all mothers use public daycare services. Japanese couples are more likely to use Japanese babysitters (46%) than are mixed couples, who are more likely to use non-Japanese babysitters (about 28%).
11Second is support provided by family members. According to the results of the questionnaire, mothers living in France receive instrumental support from their family members. A total of 35.5% of all mothers have arranged for their Japanese mothers to come to France to help temporarily. The rate for Japanese couples is 38.5% whereas for mixed couples it is 33.3%. Of the 11 women whose mothers visited them, 10 said it concerned “childbirth” and one because of “hospitalization for injury”. According to the interview survey, the women asked their mothers to cook meals and to help with nursing the baby after childbirth.
12In addition, I investigated nonfamily support and found that 64.5% of mothers have asked friends for babysitting help (Figure 4). Among Japanese couples, around 70% ask Japanese friends living in France whereas “others”, which mainly includes parents-in-law living in France, are relatively high in mixed-marriage couples.
Table 2. The collective data of the respondents
"Japanese couple" means both of husband and wife are Japanese. "Mixed couple" means wife is Japanese and husband is non-Japanese.
Source: Questionnaire survey
Figure 3. Use of formal support%
Source: Questionnaire survey
Figure 4. Use of non-family support%
Note: “Others” in international marriage couple includes parents in law living in France
Source: Questionnaire survey
13How do Japanese mothers keep in touch with Japanese friends or Japanese families? Figure 5 shows communication tools used in different relationships. First, with friends in France, the highest rated tool is face-to-face contact. At the same time, 19.4% of mothers use SNSs to communicate with these same friends, indicating that SNSs complement existing relationships. Second, with friends and families in Japan, the highest rated tools are telephone and email. For long-distance support, telephone and email play an alternative role to overcome the distance. In addition, 32.3% of mothers have friends they have met on the Internet, one-third of whom they eventually met in person. This indicates that the relationships on the Internet develop into real-space relationships.
Figure 5. Use of communication tools%
Source: Questionnaire survey
- 1 In 2010, Mixi changed the system to registration without invitation.
14The results of the questionnaire show that SNSs are used by a significant number of Japanese mothers living in France. Therefore, this section examines one of the most popular Japanese SNSs, Mixi, and analyzes its use and role. Established in 2004, Mixi is the major SNS in Japan and the number of members has increased every year: in 2008 there were 16,300,000 Mixi users. As newcomers had to be invited to participate by a current member, the Mixi differed from a normal BBS, bulletin board system, because of its greater control over access to the community1.
- 2 This was based on a self-introduction thread in “Maman in France!”
15Interaction on Mixi is mainly within a “community” and every member is allowed to set up communities. In this study, I dealt with “Maman in France!”, the largest Mixi community among Japanese child-rearing communities in France. It began in 2005 and has 966 members on 16th June, 2009. Members who post messages on a self-introduction thread have the following characteristics.2 In total, 228 members were posting messages on a self-introduction thread. Of those posting messages, 59% were in mixed couples, 17% were in Japanese couples, and 24% were single or had no data. Those who post messages on a self-introduction thread can be interpreted as more active mothers who are acquainted with other mothers in the online community. Therefore, it is possible that the components show that women in mixed couples are more active in “Maman in France!”
16One Japanese woman I interviewed, who serves as an online community manager, explained the process of setting up her community. She moved to the countryside in the Rhône-Alpes area in 2003, where she now lives with her French husband and two children. Before using the Internet, she had difficulties meeting Japanese mothers in the countryside. To solve this problem, she set up a mothering blog where she met a Japanese mother living in Paris who invited her to join Mixi. After entering Mixi, she set up a community on lifestyle information in France. When many Japanese mothers posted messages about child rearing within this community, she realized there was a need for a community about child rearing in France as others living in the countryside had the same difficulties as she did. Table 3 indicates the residential regions where community members live. This shows that 27% live in Paris although, as I have already mentioned, the percentage of Japanese living in Paris is actually 45%. On the other hand, in this cyberspace community, the rate of those living outside Paris is higher than that of real space.
Table 3. Residential region of members in “Maman in France!”
Source: A self-introduction thread in “Maman in France!” 16th June, 2009.
17What kind of information or support do mothers need from “Maman in France!”? Table 4 shows the kind of information exchanged in the community. The most popular threads are about nonlocal information, such as medical information and the institution of family support. The second most popular threads are about sharing childbirth and childcare experiences, while the threads about babysitting and offline meetings are not popular. However, the threads that lead to face-to-face contact, such as exchange of goods and self-introduction, including in regional areas, are comparatively popular.
18I also classified the information exchanged on the community in terms of the kind of support and the degree of local proximity of the information. Figure 6 shows the characteristics of support given in “Maman in France!”. The size of the circles indicates the number of responses, with larger circles representing more responses overall. We can see that there are more responses for emotional and nonlocal support than for instrumental and local support in this community.
Table 4. Accumulated responses in thread in “Maman in France!”
Source: “Maman in France!” 16th June, 2009
Figure 6. The characteristics of support given in “Maman in France!”
19I would like to summarize the role of communication tools and the Mixi community for childrearing Japanese mothers living abroad.
20First, to get formal support, about 70% of mothers use the existing public daycare services in France. Long-distance support is provided by Japanese family members at the time of childbirth or hospitalization. Even mothers in a mixed relationship use support from their Japanese parents more than support from parents-in-law in France. More than half of the mothers receive support from Japanese friends in France. To keep in touch with friends in France, they mostly use face-to-face contact, telephone and email; about 20% of mothers use Mixi. These results indicate that the Mixi community may play a role in maintaining or strengthening existing relationships. In addition, those who have found friends on the Internet use Mixi at a rate of 32.3%, and 9.7% of mothers eventually meet in person their friends found on the Internet. These results indicate that the SNS allows them new relationships in real space. A relevant study on this topic points out that ICT plays an important role for immigrants as diasporatic peoples (Panagakos, 2003; Hiller and Franz, 2004; Parker and Song, 2006). This study adds to the existing studies the case that ICT and SNS support expatriate populations’ childrearing abroad.
21Two significant points must be emphasized about Mixi. First, it supplies important information resources and provides a forum where mothers can meet each other. Mixi is more important for mothers in a relationship with a non-Japanese partner or for those living outside Paris because they have fewer opportunities to gain support from the Japanese community than do those living in Paris or Japanese couples who can get support from Japanese companies in Paris.
22Second, the main subjects talked about on Mixi are nonlocal information and nonlocal chat, which provide mothers with opportunities to express frustration about their child and family, and this can be classified as emotional support. Joinson (2003) argues that parents who participate in support groups on BBS feel sympathy and are reassured that other parents feel childcare pressure or distress as well. He suggests the significant support role of online BBS, which has a large number of users. On Mixi, a formal introduction by an existing member was required before one starts, which ensures that members were secure in sharing feelings with each other. In addition, on BBS in communities on Mixi, members can see the list of community members and can go to every member’s top page through the links with BBS, and this feature reduces anonymity, unlike in a normal BBS (Omukai, 2006). Therefore, it is possible that more secure content than is offered on anonymous sites and the availability of a "community" linked with every post makes the users feel closer to each other and accelerates the emotional support given to each member. In addition, when it comes to Mixi. It is pointed out that many users build correspondences based on information they seek (Kawaura et al., 2005; Uchida, 2007). Uchida (2007) highlights the possibility that users make "communities of interest"(Uchida, 2007: 7) and that the community translates from real space to a virtual community. However, as is indicated in this study, Mixi users need a virtual community that is based on common interests, such as hobbies or childcare information, which translates into real space. That is to say, the function of "community" on Mixi builds a community based on common interests, and the links on the top pages of every user posting on BBS can reduce the risk of anonymity which ensures that the virtual community on Mixi can translate to communication in real space more easily than normal BBS or other internet communities.
23In conclusion, ICT and online communities on SNS supply part of the instrumental support to Japanese mothers living in France, especially information and emotional support. ICT and online communities compensate for the lack of support by national childcare institutions caused by the mothers’ expatriate situation.
24I should note that the interaction between real space and cyberspace from the perspective of child rearing abroad possibly differs between metropolitan areas and other areas (Figure 7).
25In real space, mothers obtain informal support from Japanese friends in the local area. At the same time, they also get long-distance support from their families living in Japan, for which communication tools such as telephone and email play an important role. In cyberspace (Mixi), more emotional support is provided to geographically heterogeneous mothers than instrumental support, especially for mothers living outside Paris.
Figure 7. The interworking on real space and cyber space
26We also found interaction between real space and cyberspace, especially in metropolitan areas such as Paris and Lyon, where the questionnaire and interview survey were carried out. The instances of face-to-face contact after an initial meeting on Mixi show the emergence of a real-space relationship from a cyberspace relationship. In Mixi, users can enter various communities, which may make it easier to meet other members. For example, mothers on Mixi can enter communities not only about child rearing, but also about hobbies such as knitting or cooking. They can see the communities they and other members are joining on their face pages, and can then share their interests. Therefore, they can more easily see in real space the number of Japanese mothers living near each other, and Mixi facilitates the opportunity for them to meet each other. However, there are fewer Japanese mothers outside metropolitan areas and it is more difficult for those mothers to meet each other in real space through the use of Mixi. Therefore, the role of Mixi can be more limited than in metropolitan areas. To examine this possibility further, we need a comparative study of Mixi and other sites.
27A second limitation in this study that could be addressed in future studies on this topic concerns the small number of samples used to examine the use of support and communication tools among Japanese mothers. This kind of research has inherent difficulties associated with access to the respondents of the questionnaire and interview survey because of lack of data and the problem of privacy. Therefore, conclusions about the role of SNS are still tentative. Furthermore, I analyzed one community on Mixi, "Maman in France". In Mixi, there are several communities Japanese mothers take part in; therefore, it is important to analyze these other communities and the relationship between them. However, "Maman in France" is the biggest community for Japanese mothers in France, and so its significance in this study should not be understated.