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Fathers And Change in Japan

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Westerners like to describe their Japanese colleagues as “Corporate Warriors”. The catchphrase refers to our image of Japanese men as totally devoted to their work – willingly or otherwise.

For many Japanese employees, work does not end when they leave their offices; it continues with all sorts of “social” commitments with their colleagues and bosses: all cleverly designed to maximise their output.

As in the West, Japanese women have taken to the workplace like ducks to water. And as in the West, this has undermined the clean split between breadwinner (male) and homemaker (female).

Where Western employers now pride themselves in their more relaxed attitudes to men’s family commitments, Japanese employers still rely on the much more enshrined male ethics that have to put work before family.

10 years ago Exxon-Mobil Tokyo employee Kenji Tajiri went at loggerheads with his bosses over the mere privilege of dropping his daughter off at childcare in the mornings. “My wife wished to manage both her job and housekeeping/ childcare,” he says about the time.

“However, after the [second] baby was actually born, her daily burden became very heavy. Under such circumstances, I had decided that I would do everything which could lessen her burden, whatever it might be. Bringing my child to a childcare was that.

It was a very severe burden for me since, since in order to accomplish this, I had to be late for the office every morning [by half an hour]. But, it was the only thing I could do for my wife. I am sure that my wife would have fallen ill, if she hadn’t had such help.”

With commuting times the way they are in Tokyo, Kenji had to leave home at twenty to eight on his bicycle to be at his workplace by nine. By that time he had already done the laundry and some of the housework.

He would be home again by six.

The company, however, was not pleased with his showing up late. But neither did they want to let Kenji go. So they offered him a “secret deal”. They wrote: “The company has no policy which would allow you to be late for the office for 30 minutes every morning to meet your necessity for bringing your child to a childcare.

However, as we can appreciate your difficulties, we will unofficially admit it for a six-month period as an exceptional case. This is a confidential agreement between us. “

Six months was not enough, though. Kenji needed an arrangement for the entire pre-school period. “I asked the Labour union of the company for their help. I succeeded to obtain the union’s support for continuing to be late for the office every morning, and I would do this as a strike for demanding the time for childcare.

I hoped that [through my actions] the company would eventually introduce an appropriate system.“

Kenji continued his “strike” for 4 years, until the company gave in and adopted policies covering employees who need to arrange childcare for their children.

Kenji never felt he swam against the mainstream. “No one [of my friends] said that I should not do it since I am the male and not the female parent.”, he says. “But some said that I could only do it because I was working for a multinational company.

And they added that I would never do the same if I was working for a Japanese company. One mother who did both childcare and work thought that I should not have to be in conflict with the company, like many other people are.”

He was part of a group of men called Otoko Mo Ikuji (“Men Must Care For Children, Too”) that advocated more father involvement in raising children.

The group was active in the public arena, and he believes the public at the time was looking for a male who would break out of the traditional patterns. So Kenji became a celebrity for a while with
his ‘strike’.

Even though success eventually came, it was hard won. “Frankly, I thought I might be fired, especially when the company expressed their doubt about legality of my strike.” And he says he fought his strife as much for others as for him.

“I took confidence from the fact that many young people are facing similar problems, and that kept us encouraged.”

Much of his personal support as a father comes from a group of men and women called Ikuji Ren (English name:“Childcare Hours for Men and Women Network”), which meets monthly to talk about parenting and children’s issues “from home to government” as he puts it.

In the political arena, the Japanese government realises that it has a problem. In no other country is the excess of deaths over births as big as in Japan – the country’s population is shrinking faster than in industrialised Western nations.

The government has started to believe that women’s double commitments has a lot to do with it. A media
campaign, involving a famous singer and his baby,asks fathers to be more involved with the slogan “a man who does not care for his child cannot be called a father”.

“Given Japan’s male-dominated climate, this was considered to be a very innovative campaign” says Masako Ishii Kuntz, Associate Professor for Sociology at the University of California.

“The idea of fathers ‘substituting’ or ‘helping’ their wives to care for their infant children is not yet largely accepted by the Japanese public.” Masako has done some research with involved Japanese fathers and found not all of them got away with as much peer support as Kenji.

“Some described their colleagues picking on them, because they [the Ikuji Ren men] were more involved in childcaring than their colleagues. These men, who want to get more involved in their children’s lives may face some objections from their parents and/or friends.”

But Japanese men’s legendary commit-ment to work has been wa-ning for some time: In a nationwide survey from 1989, only 8% of men considered paid work the most important aspect of their lives, down from 24% ten years before.

“In addition, the ongoing economic recession and the subsequent corporate restructuring have been slowly altering the permanent employment system that many companies promised in the past”, says Masako.” As a result, younger Japanese men are shifting their focus from that on work to families”.

A shift that may not be matched by their employers: “The biggest structural obstacle [Japanese fathers] face is perhaps the salary cut they have to endure, if they were to take childcare leave from work. [..] At a more psychological level, there is a total lack of understanding among bosses and colleagues at where many men work.”

Kenji’s commitment and actions won him a seat on the 8 member Committee of Specialists under the Council for Gender Equality set under the Cabinet Office. The Committee is charged with “promoting support for the harmonization of work with childcare and family care”

His daughters, Moe and Kae, have grown up into teenagers while their dad still works for increasing father involvement throughout Japan. Kae, now eleven, is a great fan of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. Says Kenji: “One day she wants to live in Australia and marry him.”

Next: Help For Non-Custodial Dads

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