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Backlash against ‘maternity leave cookies’ in Japan

Pregnancy or childbirth should be celebrated in a society with a declining population, but the reality is different
Maternity leave cookies are gifts handed out by women going on maternity leave to their co-workers in Japan, but the practice caused a storm recently on social media over a lack of consideration.

Maternity leave cookies are gifts handed out by women going on maternity leave to their co-workers in Japan, but the practice caused a storm recently on social media. (Photo: X)

Published: May 13, 2024 11:39 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2024 11:43 AM GMT

Expectant mothers in Japan distribute cookies to their colleagues before they go on maternity leave to express gratitude. These cookies, known as the maternity leave cookies, often include playful wordplay and cute illustrations.

While many see the practice as a sweet, thoughtful gesture, others view it as insensitive to those who might be struggling with infertility or are unable to have children.

The incidents of maternity leave cookies have recently gained social media traction in Japan, where the fertility rate is one of the lowest globally. The social pressure to contribute to reversing the demographic decline indirectly feeds into the sensitivity surrounding pregnancy and childbearing.

The supporters of maternity leave cookies argued on X, where most of the debate occurred, that celebrating such a significant life event should be natural and encouraged. They emphasized the importance of recognizing and supporting pregnant colleagues, suggesting that gestures like distributing cookies can foster a supportive community spirit.

However, there were critics too. For instance, some people complained that a positive intention to inform about one’s pregnancy could inadvertently evoke pain or a feeling of exclusion among those who find the public celebration of having a baby difficult.

This highlights a key issue in low-birth-rate societies: the emotional states of women who can’t or don’t want to have babies.

Throughout history, societies across the globe have celebrated the birth of a new baby with various customs and rituals, highlighting the universal joy and significance attached to the arrival of a new life. These celebrations welcome the newborn into the community and mark the transition of parents, especially mothers, into new roles, recognizing the continuation of family and community lineage.

In Western societies, for example, baby showers and baptism ceremonies are widespread. Family and friends gather to offer gifts and blessings to the expectant mother or the newborn, symbolizing support and communal bonding. These events are characterized by joyous celebrations, gift-giving, and expressions of hope and excitement for the baby’s future.

These practices, rich in cultural significance, fortify social bonds and reaffirm the shared values of life, continuity, and community solidarity.

The birth of a child is seen not just as a personal joy but as a communal event that strengthens interpersonal connections and ensures the passage of cultural heritage and values from one generation to the next.

Now compare these long-lasting practices with the criticism that maternity leave cookies can seem like “flaunting one’s happiness and good fortune,” which might not sit well with everyone, especially those women who can’t have babies.

This perspective is particularly poignant in Japanese work culture, which often values uniformity and harmony. Consequently, the announcement of a baby in contemporary Japan is usually perceived as a disruptor of harmony.

This reflects profoundly on the nature of the society into which Japan has evolved.

Moreover, the backlash against maternity leave cookies can also reflect the broader societal issue of how fertility and childbearing are now treated as individual and personal rather than communal matters.

In societies with low birth rates, childbearing becomes almost offensive to those who don’t have babies, as they are also perceived to be accomplishing a public duty. This likely insults many Japanese women because in a culture where collective responsibility is tantamount to mandatory behavior, choosing not to be a mother can be seen as a failure to cooperate socially. This is considered a grave offense in a Confucian-influenced society like Japan, where communal harmony and adherence to societal roles are highly valued.

Ultimately, the maternity leave cookie controversy is a microcosm of the larger, almost paradoxical, challenges, faced by societies grappling with low birth rates.

In the context of a declining population, one might expect a society to cultivate a supportive environment that enhances the joy of childbearing. However, the reality is different.

The societal backdrop in Japan often compels women to approach discussions about pregnancy with caution, aware that their personal happiness could inadvertently cause offense or alienate others. This underscores the profound paradoxes and complexities involved in addressing demographic challenges.

I must emphasize that this issue extends beyond mere population decline – it represents a fundamental existential crisis.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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