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April 18, 2007

Murder In The Mothers Club

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Like other aspects of Japanese society, joining a mommy clique is highly ritualized. Mothers and their children first make their "park debut": Smartly dressed, they arrive at the park at the start of the week and approach other mothers and their children and give a deep bow. The other mothers do the same. After more bowing, the established mothers either welcome the new mother to stay, or she moves on to the next knot of women. Hui remembers one woman turning up every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a week before a group accepted her. Life inside the clique can be just as fraught.

Women feel intense pressure to secure their children's places in prestigious kindergartens, many of which require children as young as 2 to take entrance exams. According to social commentator Angela Pagano, "Among Tokyo's middle class, a child's education reflects back on the mother. Many women feel that their only means of expressing their self-worth is through their children." And while parents have to be wealthy to pay the high fees for top schools, the right connections are just as important.

"I think these women have simply never grown up," comments Miwako Nakajima, the author of Park Debut, a novel about Japan's mommy cliques. "In many ways, they seem to be locked in their own youths-the way they still bully through ostracism and have a 'leader' of the group."

Others argue that the clique is a valuable source of companionship. "We work like a support group for each other. Of course we'd welcome other mothers if their children wanted to play with ours," says Miyuki, a 32-year-old mother from Yokohama. "We take turns driving them to school and bringing them to swimming lessons. We're friends, and I know I can rely on them."

Indeed, many women feel like part of a nurturing network. It's the aspiring members who suffer most overtly. When Mitsuko Yamada moved from the country to Tokyo's upscale district of Bunkyo, she immediately caused a stir. Her husband was a Buddhist priest rather than a high-flying businessman, and her values seemed different from those of the other residents. Stories of Yamada's kindness were legendary-how, in the park, she'd comfort other people's children when they cried and how she once made a necklace out of acorns for a disabled girl. But she also had eclectic tastes. While other mothers pushed their children around in chic strollers, Yamada rode a green bicycle that had two seats for her children. The bike was infamous among local mothers. Its style, one resident remarked, "wasn't right for the neighborhood."

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