Content Warning: Parental abuse, intimate partner abuse, sexism
Spoilers for All My Darling Daughters
All My Darling Daughters is like a letter addressed to girls and women about the world around them. Each chapter of the manga features the experiences of women who know each other as close relatives, friends, or people they know tangentially. Despite having different circumstances and personalities, all of the women find themselves needing to navigate through restrictive societal norms and expectations.
The story that left the deepest impression on me was the melancholic chapter focusing on the outcomes of three friends’ childhood dreams: Kisaragi Yukiko, Saeki Tomoe, and Makimura Yuko. As teenagers, the three talked about their futures as working women, discussing the importance of pursuing careers and expressing frustration at how society views women. As adults, each woman obtains varying levels of success and failure in their attempts to enter the workforce: Makimura gives up working entirely, seeking refuge as a housewife; Saeki fails to become a government employee and ends up at a job rife with sexism; and Kisaragi is the only one who fulfills her dream of entering and staying in the workforce, though she struggles with subtle gendered expectations in her marriage.
The chapter isn’t the most uplifting, but just as inspirational stories of women who achieve their goals are necessary, stories of those who are forced to relinquish them are equally important. Success stories are empowering, but in a vacuum they may unintentionally insinuate that failure also rests entirely on effort, laying the blame on women themselves rather than the disadvantages they face as a result of gender inequality.
By contrasting the three women’s rocky pathway to adulthood, mangaka Yoshinaga Fumi not only casts a sympathetic lens on women who give into societal gender roles, but also emphasizes the importance of seeing women continue to stay in the workforce, despite its challenges.
From Ambition to Learned Helplessness
Although Saeki is the point-of-view character, the true protagonist of the chapter is Makimura, who represents how even the most ambitious young women can end up surrendering to societal norms. As the two go through their adolescence, Saeki watches in confusion as Makmimura lowers her standards for herself over and over, dropping out of high school and losing her ambitions, bit by bit, until she seems to fully embrace her learned helplessness.
Makimura’s middle school self was sharply aware of women’s “roles” in society, and its negative effects. She observes that wives who enter the workforce are still expected to manage household chores entirely, increasing their workload more than ever. Men are also considered the default gender for the most prestigious careers, going unmarked while women in the same category are marked, such as being called “female lawyers.” In the early 1990’s, when the story takes place, Makimura’s ideas would generally be considered “aggressive” and “impertinent,” as Saeki puts it, but her outspokenness about them facilitates conversations amongst Saeki and Kisaragi. The encouraging discussions keep the friends challenging the status quo and maintaining a critical eye on how gendered expectations impacted their lives.
Alongside this, Makimura is incredibly ambitious. She wishes to pave the way for gender equality in the workforce by working specifically in the private sector, where discrimination is the most rampant, as an editor. Strong-willed and principled, Makimura’s future success seems imminent.
However, contrary to those expectations, Makimura’s life trajectory goes in the opposite direction. Every time she and Saeki catch up, her goal posts shift to adjust to her current situation. She talks about taking the high school equivalency exam to get her degree after dropping out of school, or writing a novel as a means to return to the publishing industry. None of these ever come to fruition though, and, coupled with the dismissive way Makimura comes to describe them, they begin to come off as empty promises rather than actual attempts to improve her situation.
Before long, Makimura’s initial positive and hopeful attitude sours into an increasingly bitter outlook. Meanwhile, Saeki is attending college and studying with the goal of becoming a government employee. With Makimura and Saeki’s lives diverging despite starting from the same ideals, Makimura’s downward spiral appears to be her own fault. Compared to Saeki, Makmiura simply isn’t putting enough effort.
As the story is mostly told from Saeki’s perspective, it centers her frustrations toward Makimura’s increasingly regressive outlook on her own potential. The Makimura she knew in middle school was passionate and driven, so Saeki is disappointed in her friend for losing those qualities and for unfulfilling those expectations. If Makimura had only fought harder she’d have made it. She sees her friend’s failure to achieve her dreams a result of her own self-sabotage and lack of effort. Saeki assumes Makimura has complete control over her situation and becomes frustrated with her choices, paralleling the experience of blaming fellow women when they end up giving into societal views.
Though Saeki ultimately wants the best for friend, her tendency to judge Makimura for not being on the “right” path blinds her from realizing the actual reason behind Makimura’s choices for the majority of the story;Makimura is often forced to prioritize her own survival over her own dreams, because her father is physically and sexually abusive. So when Makimura struggles to achieve both at the same time, she becomes increasingly pessimistic.
When Saeki offers her a position at a publishing company that she plans on leaving, Makimura rejects the offer, essentially throwing away her last chance at becoming an editor. At her lowest point in her life, Makimura even desperately considers getting pregnant in hopes of trapping her terrible boyfriend into marriage. Makimura, who used to advise her friends to find husbands who respect them, is now bent on salvaging a relationship with a man who calls her a harlot and leaves all the housework to her even when he stays at her place. Her bad experiences culminate with her believing that the only way to stay afloat is through the tried and true “safe” choice that society touts–becoming a housewife. Makimura is in such a deep state of learned helplessness that she doesn’t believe a path outside of societal norms is possible. Resigned to that dangerous mindset, she ends up making self-destructive choices.
Eventually, Saeki realizes that Makimura’s circumstances were her friend’s main obstacles to her success and disheartening transformation. When Saeki’s female colleagues speculate that one of their coworkers may be dealing with domestic abuse, Saeki finally makes the connection between the injuries her friend had growing up and her animosity toward her father. Makimura’s seemingly self-sabotaging decisions were actually done to completely remove herself from a physically and sexually abusive father. It becomes evident that Makimura had fewer options growing up than Saeki and Kisaragi, both of whom come from supportive, loving families.
By explicitly revealing Makimura’s home life as the climax of the story, Yoshinaga pushes the audience to explore the privilege and assumptions encoded in believing that women only need to put in effort to succeed in the workplace. The emphasis on effort implicitly ignores all the other barriers to success–the circumstances and inequalities a woman may be facing–and instead unfairly places all responsibility onto women when they fail. It assumes a world of equal opportunity when that’s far from the reality. And the most unfortunate part of it all, even women who desire change–like Saeki–are susceptible to mistakenly passing judgments onto their own peers, even if unintentionally.
When Saeki and Makimura later meet again, Saeki finds out that Makimura has now become a housewife, though with a better man than the one she had previously described.
It’s a heartbreaking, yet understandable resolution. Makimura had few opportunities to take steps toward her own dreams, as the abuse she experienced at home forced her to seek financial independence at a young age. Yet, when she fails to achieve her ambitions, she perceives that as a reflection of her own inadequacy. Societal norms dictate that women are best suited as housewives, so it reinforces the notion that the fault lies with her, as indicated by her saying she “used to talk big, but it turned out [she’s] not suited to working.” Through Makimura, Yoshinaga paints a sympathetic portrayal of women who come to believe societal norms as truth. They aren’t hindrances to gender equality, but rather victims of gender inequality.
So unlike before, Saeki doesn’t feel disappointment toward her friend’s choices. Though it’s at the cost of Makimura relinquishing her dreams completely, she’s glad that her friend’s life has stabilized.
Difficulty In Achieving “Moderate Dreams”
Though Saeki comes from a more supportive family and attends college, she struggles in her own ways to achieve her goal of working a government job where she would receive equal benefits to her male colleagues. She instead ends up at a small publishing firm as a temporary employee for a decade. Much like middle school Makimura’s predictions about sexism in the private sector, Saeki’s workplace culture is toxic. Her colleagues comment and evaluate her based on her looks. As a woman, she doesn’t get taken seriously, and it’s hard enough that she considers leaving. Saeki’s failure to achieve her ambitions despite coming from a more privileged and educated background indicates that even with better circumstances, it doesn’t guarantee success in the workforce for women.
One day, Saeki hears back from Kisaragi, who she had lost contact with after middle school. Kisaragi has made it to the workforce with plans to stay. Deeply affected by the conversations they had in middle school, Kisaragi continues to hold the ideals they had back then to this day. While Makimura doesn’t succeed in her initial ambitions, it’s evident that she left a positive, lasting influence on her friend.
Kisaragi’s news washes away Saeki’s worries temporarily.The chapter ends with Saeki feeling glad that “at least one of [them] fulfilled her modest dreams”. Whether Saeki ends up staying or leaving the workforce is open-ended, but her relief highlights the importance of knowing people like Kisaragi are out there. With Makimura giving up and Saeki’s own dismal situation, it can feel like having ambitions outside of being a housewife truly is futile. Kisaragi represents a concrete potential for change, even if it’s one small step at a time.
Though working women have now become more common in Japan, gender inequality still remains an issue. For instance, in 2018, it was revealed that Tokyo Medical University “routinely lowered the scores of all female applicants,” thereby unfairly favoring its male applicants over its female applicants, even those who were less qualified. Women also held “less than 8% of management positions in corporate Japan” in 2020, lagging far behind the government’s target of reaching 30% by that year. The government itself also isn’t close to that percentage, with only “10% of [female] members in Japan’s lower house.” As career advancement toward top level positions tends to be more difficult for women, female voices–and thereby concerns–are rarely heard. For example, women resuming their initial careers after taking a break to give birth and care for their child is unlikely. Instead, they tend to end up at “part-time or low-paying jobs, if they find a job at all.” Unlike their male peers, if women want to start families, they’ll have to be prepared to give up careers they’ve cultivated for years.
As employers and the government don’t provide enough support for female employees, equal success in the workplace is still a work-in-progress. Difficulty in the workplace remains a reality for many women, so stories like All My Darling Daughters are important in reflecting that struggle and reminding us that changes still need to be made.
By breaking down the circumstances behind women who are forced to give up their dreams, Yoshinaga encourages her readers to have a sympathetic, rather than a reprimanding, outlook on those who resign to societal views. This makes it all the more important to see women who do succeed–they serve as tangible proof of possibilities, bringing hope that even amidst gender inequality, women can achieve their modest dreams.
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