Japan’s Frustrated Fathers

JEFF KINGSTON – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
June 16, 2006
It’s tough being a dad in Japan, at least as far as tucking in the kids on their futons every night. Corporate Japan conspires against their best fatherly intentions: grueling working hours, lengthy commutes, and the practice of tanshin funin — the relocation of husbands, minus their families, to distant branch offices for years at a time — have made absentee fatherhood an epidemic over the past few decades.
However, there are signs that attitudes are changing, and that a younger generation wants to adopt a more hands-on role in child-raising than their fathers did. Naturally, Japanese wives — like wives all over the world — want their husbands to do more around the home than crack a beer, watch the game, and head to bed, and they approve of this development.
At Tokyo daycare centers, seeing dads dropping off and picking up their kids is now a relatively common sight, as is seeing men riding bikes with kiddy seats. Even in television dramas, the image of fathers as stern and unsmiling disciplinarians is giving way to a more nurturing and friendly father figure — one who cooks and appears concerned with the kids’ lives. At a recent graduation ceremony at our university, I saw more than a few young fathers carrying kids “papoose style.” A dad told me that baby gear is now made more appealing for guys, meaning muted colors that “don’t make me feel like a total twit.”
The sensitive Japanese dad, however, remains a largely mythical creation. European and American conceptions of a work-life balance are getting more attention in Japanese media, and a small number of corporations have developed family-friendly policies, but few men here seem to be benefiting. A recent government survey reports that one-third of men want to reduce their working hours after their first baby is born, but only 10% have done so. Two-thirds of men reply that they want to balance work and family life, but only one out of three feels that he has done so. The government has acted as a cheerleader, encouraging Japanese companies to develop policies that would raise the number of husbands taking paternity leave. But the plan has produced dismal results: less than 1% of men eligible for paternity leave take it.
It is a sad commentary on the state of Japanese fatherhood that the plague of suicides besetting Japan — more than 30,000 per year — mostly involve middle-age men, many of whom calculate that the best contribution they can make to their family’s welfare is a life-insurance payout.
Japanese women, too, have long been resigned to do-nothing dads. But as the nation’s birth rate continues to freefall — it is now 1.25 children per couple — and labor shortages emerge, corporate Japan is coming under increasing pressure from the government to help solve the problem. It is assumed that women who get some help raising kids are more likely to have more.
One of the reasons that one can see increasing numbers of young dads pitching in with parenting is that the breadwinner model — where husbands work and wives stay at home — is no longer bringing in enough bread for Japanese families. In more than two-thirds of Japanese households, both parents work. Out of necessity, husbands are taking on roles that their fathers never contemplated.
Another reason for changing this tradition is that employment growth since the mid-1990s has been concentrated in part-time jobs, reducing income but increasing flexibility for working parents. There has also been a diversification of lifestyles and greater exposure to parenting practices overseas, where being an engaged father is considered normal and desirable.
For many young men, their own childhood, involving limited contact with their fathers, is an inspiration to buck prescribed gender roles. The story of Ichiro, the widely-admired baseball player, features a strong father who adjusted his work so that he could spend time helping his son hone the skills that made him an athletic success.
Change is in the air, if only because boys know what girls want to hear and know that they better play the game or risk living in patriarchal solitude. Judging from what my students say in class and write in their journals, college-age Japanese men seem aware that much as they might yearn for the “wife as all-purpose maid” approach to marriage they saw growing up, young women want no part of this drudgery. The imagined meek and submissive Japanese wives of yore have given way to a more cosmopolitan style with much less emphasis on self-sacrifice, deference and denial. Modern women have less and less time and patience for stodgy patriarchy. Aspiring husbands and fathers know this.
Treating wives on Mother’s Day has become a new tradition in Japan. Father’s Day has not taken root to such a degree — perhaps because many women see it as superfluous in a country where men have it their way in every way. But this is not for want of reminders at stores trying to cash in on yet another imported custom.
Mr. Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan.

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