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JAPAN: Househusbands Giving Birth To More Gender Equality

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Aug 30 2010 (IPS) - Since their first child was born 16 years ago, Hiroyuki Ozaki has taken care of the household, relinquishing his traditional role as the main breadwinner while his wife held on to her career in the travel industry.

“When we switched duties in the family, I represented a complete reverse of gender roles in Japanese society,” explained Ozaki, a 59-year-old photographer. “Our relatives and friends thought we were weird and never forgave me for becoming the homemaker.”

In the not-so-distant future, however, Ozaki might be considered a model citizen.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has joined the hitherto slow gender equality drive in Japan with its ‘Ikumen’ programme, a campaign to encourage men to take leave from work to raise their young children.

Hironobu Narisawa, a district mayor of the central Bunkyo ward in Tokyo, made headlines in April for declaring that he would be the first government leader – whether male and female – to go on parental leave, a move he hoped will help “change attitudes”. Only 1.7 percent of Japanese men take paternity leave, compared to 78 percent of men in Sweden.

Coined from ‘iku’, the Japanese word for child-raising, and the English word ‘men’, officials also hope the ‘Ikumen’ project will remedy Japan’s flagging birth rate, which currently stands at 1.2 births per woman.

“The project has two goals – one is to raise awareness in men that child rearing is not only for women,” said ministry official Mayuko Nakai. “The other is to create a family where men and women can work and also have a family, which is difficult now because men have to work long hours in the office.”

Some 550 Japanese fathers have signed the ‘Ikumen’ declaration, a statement that publicly declares their commitment to child rearing, since the launch of the campaign website in June 2010.

Japan’s revised child-care and family-care leave law, which came into effect on Jul. 30, permits fathers to take paternity leave at any time within a year of the birth of their child. Fathers with infants under three years old will also be allowed shorter six-hour working days to encourage more time spent at home with their spouses and children.

In part due to its workaholic culture, Japan saw some 253,000 cases of divorce in 2009, a whopping 60 percent increase from the 157,000 recorded in 1990. The government’s campaign to allow men more opportunity to spend at home, some observers believe, will result in happier marriages due to increased interaction within the family.

“My work started four years ago when I decided to stay at home with my kids,” said Tetsuya Ando, director of Fathering Japan, a not-for-profit organisation helping men to develop closer ties with their wives by sharing housework.

“I realised then there were a lot of men who wanted to make the same choice as myself because they felt they were losing out on family life,” explained Ando, who notes that younger fathers are more receptive to taking on household duties.

“Men, mostly in their early thirties, share the perception that they do not want to end up like their fathers who have spent their whole married life at their companies and when they retire, suddenly realised they are lonely at home,” said Ando.

Programmes like the government’s ‘Ikumen’ project are seen as a step toward chipping away at gender discrimination in Japan’s patriarchal society, where men dominate powerful public positions and women are respected for their devotion to their husbands and family.

Indeed, some Japanese are also exploring more varied lifestyle and professional options themselves these days. For instance, cooking schools and social dance studios are reporting male middle-aged retirees that have become an important clientele base in traditionally female-dominated activities.

“My male students, mostly in the sixties, have graduated from learning basic cooking skills to taking on complicated dishes,” said Miho Nakayama, who runs a small cooking school in Tokyo. “And they are proud to be able to cook at home, a major change to the time when the kitchen belonged solely to their wives.” But Prof Takayoshi Kitagawa, a sociologist at Nagoya University, urges caution in concluding that traditional gender roles in Japan are on the way out.

“The new measures seem bold, but it is too early to say Japan is moving towards gender equality. In reality, I think the reforms stem from the current economic issues or men are forced to change to pacify their wives,” said Kitagawa.

While the Ikumen project is a definite attempt by the government to bring men into family care, Kitagawa explained, it could also be a stopgap measure due to the economic consequences of the country’s low birth rate.

Labour experts predict a looming labour shortage brought on by an ageing population will force companies to rely on female workers.

A survey by the labour ministry indicates that almost 70 percent of Japanese women quit their jobs or take on part-time work when they have a child. Both men and women reported long working hours as the top reason for marrying later, and having fewer children. Genuine and sustainable gender equality, Kitagawa believes, cannot be borne solely from economic necessity, but from men and women’s realisation that equality brings personal fulfilment and allows individuals to be their best.

“Gender equality in a traditional society has to be nurtured by both genders and this takes time. Economic concerns will not bring about the solutions,” said Kitagawa.

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