An unusual change is sweeping Japan: young couples yearn for daughters rather than sons. But this has more to do with economics than a sudden awareness of gender issues.
While some of their Asian neighbours yearn for sons to carry on family names and fortunes, more and more Japanese couples want daughters – with a small but growing number turning to dubious sex selection methods to make their dream come true.
Only a generation ago Japanese society also favoured sons. Now, parents want daughters because daughters, they say, are more likely than sons to take care of them in their old age. The Japanese enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world, but the government – still reeling from the collapse of the post-World War II economic 'miracle' and subsequent recession – has only just begun setting up a comprehensive system of care for the elderly.
"One day I hope to live with my daughter and her husband after she marries," says Chika Okamoto, a 29-year-old with one daughter. "A son's wife would be like a stranger and harder to ask for help."
Japan currently provides generous pensions but little hands-on support for the elderly and infirm. The financial deduction: bread-winner sons are less important than care-giving daughters to elderly parents.
"Men cannot take time off work and cannot always live nearby and help out. Parents cannot rely on boys for 'soft' aspects of support," says Mizuho Fukushima, a member of parliament and an expert on women's issues.
A 1996 government survey reflects how the need for practical support in old age is overtaking traditional concerns. While a large majority of respondents in their seventies wanted to live with a son's family, only 37 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women in their twenties expressed the same preference. A 1982 survey showed slightly over half of Japanese couples interviewed who wanted only one child preferred a boy. A survey in 1997 found that three quarters of respondents wanted a girl.
"For parents, even if a daughter can't continue the family name, it's all right as long as she's nearby," says Fukushima.
Some couples are signing up with clinics that sell expensive sex-selection methods which promise results, but rarely deliver. One common method is for women to internally apply jellies -pink for girls, green for boys.
A spokesman for the Japan Family Planning Association (FPA) said: "There are people who use these jellies to alter the acidity levels in the body, but it's an underground thing [and] not rational. There is no proof that it helps determine sex at conception."
Couples who balk at using such invasive methods can use a recently-launched calendar which purports to determine which days of the month are best for conceiving a girl. It is produced by the France-based Selnas Club, which claims a membership of 400 couples, with over 75 per cent desiring a daughter.
A fee-based organisation, the Club runs a clinic which offers prospective parents medical consultation. Selnas Club representatives are unwilling to disclose the cost of consultations, and although they claim to publish statistical evidence that their calendar works, the FPA spokesman had never heard of the method and could not comment on its efficacy.
However, unlike its Asian neighbours India, China and Korea where son preference is strong, sex selective abortion is unheard of in Japan. Although abortion is legally available until the 23rd week of pregnancy, the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology forbids doctors to disclose the sex of a foetus before that point, due to its concern regarding sex-targeted abortions.
Although the most commonly cited ideal family size is one son and one daughter, the image of the favoured son has taken a considerable beating in recent years among the Japanese.
The economic recession has destroyed the myth of the job-for-life salaryman. Today's adult male is more often seen as an office drone, isolated from his family and anxious about the next round of corporate restructuring. Working men routinely put in 12-hour working days followed by mandatory company "leisure" – drinking with colleagues in bars and restaurants until late at night.
Many Japanese feel that despite widespread paternalism toward girls and women -who were only given the right to use birth control pills in 1999, thirty years after their sisters in Europe, North America and much of Asia -they are spared the intense pressure of joining the corporate treadmill.
"Girls aren't expected to succeed," says Fukushima, one of the country's leading feminists. "[Society says] it's okay just to give up. Boys can't do that. They walk a narrow beam. They can go further than girls but if they slip they'll be labelled as drop outs."
The preference for girls is stronger among women, who often cite the belief that they can have a more rewarding relationship with a daughter than a son. "You can have a friendship when she's older," says 30-year-old Nozomi Ohashi, who is delighted that her first child is a girl.
Because many Japanese women are house-bound and often socially isolated, they hope daughters will be an antidote to loneliness and a lifeline to the outside world. "Girls are more cheerful," believes Okamoto. "Boys have to get proper jobs; girls can live how they like and their parents and society take a more lenient view."
But the desire for mother-daughter relationships is just a different kind of sex discrimination, warns Fukushima, which springs from the assumption that girls will be at their parents' beck-and-call. "Parents are proud of a son who works hard. But since girls don't have to work, they want them to be around to help."