Laura's review of my film
and old friend of almost 20 years
How I ended up in Japan & how I first met Rionne
In March 2004 I came to Japan for the first time. I had studied Japanese for a year at university, been offered a scholarship to come and ended up at Seikei University in West Tokyo. My Japanese was basic at best but I looked at the challenge as an adventure. To cut a very long story short, in 2002 in my last year of high school I made friends with the Japanese exchange student at my high school - she was in my homeroom/roll group because my head teacher was one of the Japanese teachers. He had actually advised me to continue with Japanese in grade 9 and 10 but I declined, mostly because I was rebellious and really didn’t like him much. Plus, I was heavily involved in music and wanted to continue with music as well and couldn’t do both. Then in 2003, i didn’t get into the original course i wanted to do at university so a year doing Japanese and public relations with subjects in journalism seemed a good fit while I figured out what to do but I ended up loving it and continued on to finish my degree with majors in Japanese and Public Relations with a minor in journalism. I joke that I don’t use my degree at all but here I am writing a review of a documentary and I guess I do use PR background in my own business and I use Japanese daily so while it might not seem like I use my degree, I guess I do.
I met Rionne on one of my first days in Japan. He was from the same university but a different campus. It was not his first time here, in fact he had visited and done a working holiday here well before I met him
We actually had some hometown connections, including his sister who I did a year of primary school with back in Australia. Now, I am not going to say the first impression wasn’t great although it wasn’t - he seemed a little like he (thought he ;) ) knew it all, and I was already on the outer as the youngest person on exchange only having just turned 19 a couple weeks before I arrived. I also had next to no Japanese and most people in the program wondered how I had even ended up there.
Rionne and I got on well for the most part though - he was always good for a laugh, great for 24 (the TV show) marathons, good with tech & really good at getting around the insane garbage rules in Musashino City! His love for martial arts was very apparent as well!
Rionne was the first person I ever met (along with another exchange student) that did Aikido which was interesting to me, and he had always been interested in film. I remember he had written scripts for action movies and shorts, he was obsessed with Steven Seagal (and yes I had to google his name as I had completely forgotten!) and had watched all of his movies, I am sure. It was a thrill to hear he had started his own company a few years back doing what he enjoyed - making movies. Although now, instead of wanting to act in them he is directing. I know that for this project Rionne did more than 90% of the work, if not more.
Now, nearly 20 years since we met for the first time, not many of those who were here on exchange that year are in Japan. In fact, I am pretty sure that Rionne and I are the last ones that remain - in a sense, we are the ones left behind.
How it began - “The Ones Left Behind”
If you had asked me 10 years ago if I could imagine Rionne making a documentary about this issue, or any issue negatively impacting Japanese society, I definitely couldn’t have imagined it. I might have even scoffed at the thought.
I can’t remember exactly when Rionne told me he was starting this project about single mothers in Japan. I do remember putting him in touch with someone that might have info for him, and providing some other very basic details about what I knew about the issue but our communication was sporadic at best. I wrote about it in a few groups for him, asking single mums to get in touch with him if they were interested in being interviewed but of course, with those types of messages, you often get nothing as single mums don’t necessarily want to share their struggles, nor do they have the time.
I was so proud to see that it came to fruition but also how much traction it is getting at film festivals and in the media both here and around the world. When Rionne asked if I wanted to watch and review the movie I jumped at the chance. I had wanted to see the full thing since he released the details but I couldn’t attend the screening in December 2022 due to other commitments.
The film & underlying issues
Let me preface this by saying I am a mother but I am not a single mother - I have been relatively happily married since 2009 with three kids aged 13 and below. We are a two income family and my children don’t really want for anything - I am not saying they are spoiled (apparently I am a hardass) but I have never had to worry where their next meal is coming from or whether I can afford new shoes for them while they continue to wear through or grow out them at an alarming rate.
The pressures of working and being a mum though are there, the overwork culture that already existed in Japan long before I married was well and truly present in our family. Since the Covid-19 Pandemic though, things have actually been better for us when it comes to work life balance since my husband now also works from home full-time and I have always essentially worked from home 95% of the time. I won’t go as far to say that my husband and I do 50% of the child rearing each (cos we definitely don’t!) but we are partners in it and while it mostly falls to me say 70% of the time, there have been times when he has had to pick up the slack 100%. We also have family support, close by, which, while at times can be annoying, means that I do have a “village”.
I suppose, even though I am non Japanese, we are considered the “norm” in terms of a family unit - Two parents, one salaryman, one freelancer, two incomes and a couple of kids, living in a house in the suburbs.
I have however had contact with quite a few single mums in Japan - both Japanese and non-Japanese. I believe my first encounter was actually a mum that joined a playgroup I started in 2010 called Chiba Peanuts. A mum reached out, mentioned she was in the process of getting divorced and talked to me about how hard it was to change her daughter's name because the ex-husband had registered her with a name she never agreed to. I first knew the little girl as 1 name, later to be told it was now changed and she would be going by a different name - I believe her daughter was about 3 months old when I met her the first time. The mum worked at a hair salon, supporting her daughter on a single salary with some help from her parents. I have also known a lot of non-Japanese single mums over the years - some whose kids now are even completely grown and out of school. Some who left domestic violence situations, others who returned to domestic violence situations only to leave again (often leaving Japan) and others who simply did not want to remain married and/or had their children without ever having a 2nd parent involved.
Some of my friends who became single mothers here, stayed on for a year or two before ultimately returning to their home countries mostly because of lack of physical support but no doubt (lack of) economic support also played a part.
The documentary starts with showing how Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world (Maybe so….unless it’s banking. Cough cough) and also one of the world’s richest. But, as this film goes on to show more than half of Japan’s single mothers live below the poverty line.
Side note: I just want to say don’t think I didn't notice the little cameo at the start of the film Rionne! Glad to see you got your 5 seconds of fame!
The true fact is that the poverty rate of single mothers in Japan is the highest in any of the OECD countries. The minimum wage in Japan is approximately 1,100yen (although I see part time jobs advertised for much less) which is approximately $8USD and $12AUD. The documentary touches on the fact that the general work culture in Japan creates issues too as it is the mother’s that need to be seen doing PTA, picking up kids from after school care, attending class observation etc. It is usually the mother’s that need to make the lunches, it is the mother’s that need to do the cooking and while working full-time on minimum wage to support a family doesn’t leave room for all the other things that mother’s are expected to do, single or not.
The mental load of caring for children is great. Even for me, someone who has the financial means and support from others to not have to do it alone, the mental load of being a parent is harder than I could have ever imagined pre-kids.
1 in 7 children live below the poverty line. ONE in SEVEN. In a country as affluent as Japan this number is horrific.
The documentary touches on a wide range of issues affecting the single mother community from lack of transparency from local governments, lack of childcare or having priority for childcare, lack of education, overwork culture, looking at only a “traditional” family mold when deciding who can get welfare and who can’t and also at the culturally ingrained issue of gaman (to endure something even if it feels uncomfortable) - that is don’t be extravagant, don’t complain and don’t burden others - basically deal with it yourself, no matter how hard it is - all of these things are contributing to a long term impact on children coming from single parents homes, who will struggle to break out of the cycle. Plus pride - Japanese people are often known for being prideful but it comes back to the Japanese term of gaman, more often than not.
The documentary also briefly touches on domestic violence in Japan as another major issue - most DV crimes go unreported, and for those that are reported, the police often do nothing. Despite this, women feel they can’t leave a DV relationship and become a single mother because it’s financially impossible to put an escape plan in place. Even in relationships that break down, not because of DV, but for other reasons - Co parenting is not common in Japan. Dual custody, under the courts currently, doesn’t even exist. While child support, in essence, does exist, approximately only 10% of people pay it. There is no enforcement in place. Essentially it is very easy to bunk off from financial obligations even if you have children.
Another reviewer of the documentary, Phil Snyed wrote “Regardless of the parents’ relationships, incompatibility, or reluctance to share financial responsibility, surely the children themselves deserve better? And if the parent or even both parents fall short financially, shouldn’t there be safety nets for the children provided by the government in such an undeniably wealthy country?” and this stayed with me. Why is the Japanese government letting this happen?
One thing I didn’t know, until watching this documentary, was that single mothers living with their parents can not usually claim single mother benefits. Although now thinking back a single mum friend did kind of touch on this at one point when I asked why she didn’t move in with her parents and she said it was because it was not in the current school district and she didn’t want her kids to change schools and two, she could get more even while working, from the government if she didn’t live with them. I hadn’t understood that this was because they look at the household income of whoever lives and is working in the house so as long as her father was still working, economically it did not make sense for them to move in with them. Maybe it would have worked if she had 1 child instead of 3.
Our middle children graduate from primary school in a few weeks - she told me recently that from April they will be living with her parents as her dad is now retired and they live close enough that she can still keep her job as a daycare teacher and her youngest has already entered primary school now so she won’t have to move her to another school unless she wanted to.
Ultimately this documentary shows the amount of people that fall through the cracks. The amount of children that fall through the cracks, the amount of single parents that do. The two crimes mentioned in the film, the media bought it all back to the fact that the children that died were children of single mothers - one child left alone almost always because his mum had to work so much to support him and his 4 siblings and another, a girl, who was the victim of a murder suicide attempt gone wrong because her mother truly could not see any other out.
This amazing documentary from Rionne McAvoy - ‘The Ones Left Behind: the plight of single mothers in Japan,’ highlights a devastating but important issue, and it needs to be seen around the world. I, for one, am proud of Rionne and his team for getting it out there. Thank you Rionne, for looking out for these SOS calls for help to highlight this issue. The documentary leaves as asking how can the government do better? How can we do better? And what can we do to overhaul a system that is leaving so many desperate?