Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

JAPAN: Aftershocks Hit Single Fathers

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jul 12 2011 (IPS) - In a matter of minutes on Mar. 11, 33-year-old Hiroshi Yoshida became a widower and a single father, as the massive tsunami swept over his home in Rikuzentakata in northern Japan and took away his wife and younger son.

Four months later, Yoshida is still adjusting to his new life, and struggling to work while at the same time looking after his eldest son, who is nine years old. A month ago, they finally moved to a temporary home and began to start life again.

“I am uneasy with my new role as a single father, and I miss my wife who took care of everything,” Yoshida told IPS.

Hundreds of Japanese families like Yoshida’s lost fathers or mothers – who died or went missing – in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. Now, the country is tackling the enormous task of post-disaster recovery, including the rehabilitation of these families.

Advocates say the plight of Japan’s single-father households, or “fushi-katei” in Japanese, is now finally gaining long-needed attention in a society where the gender divide has traditionally focused on single mothers.

“Many families were left without mothers, who died during the Tohoku disaster. Suddenly fathers are left to deal with a situation that has, up to now, mostly focused on support for households headed by mothers,” explained Tomoyuki Katayama, spokesperson for Single Father Japan.

Katayama says the men are usually resigned to lead a harsh and lonely life in a country where gender roles are distinct – mothers were supposed to look after the children, leaving fathers to be the main breadwinner.

“So when men lose their wives or decide to care for their families alone, society is not too sympathetic towards them,” Katayama said.

Indeed, Yoshida, who had lived a serenely happy life till the disaster turned his life upside down so brutally, says he is now working hard to create a social space that understands single fathers like himself.

“For a start, there are no clear figures from the Tohoku area about the number of families who have lost their mothers,” he said. “Once I manage to find this information, I will be organising a group of men who must look after their children alone, so we can help each other deal with issues together and also lobby for better official support.”

According to Yoshida, an initial survey in Tohoku turned up nine families who face the same future as himself. Some of those polled talked about the continuing but hidden despair, the lack of domestic help to juggle raising their children and keeping their jobs, and also the nagging insecurity from unemployment as a result of the disaster.

“Luckily, I have my own small business which makes it easier to maintain my income which a lot of single fathers cannot do because the disaster has caused many businesses to close down in the Tohoku area,” Yoshida said.

Last month, Single Father Japan, the first organisation set up in November 2009 by a group of men looking after their children alone, visited the Ministry of Health and Welfare to request for the extension of bereavement pensions for men who lost their wives during the Tohoku disaster.

“The allowance,” said Katayama, “is extended to single mothers and therefore must be extended to fathers as well.”

An official from the Ministry explained to IPS that Japanese family laws have focused on supporting single-women headed households on the basis that mothers are best at nurturing young children.

“Financial support has been extended to women because female employment rates and salaries are usually lower in comparison to men,” said the official who preferred not to be named.

But, the official pointed out, with high unemployment rates even among men, child allowances have been extended to households headed by single fathers since 2009. According to official figures there are currently more than 1.2 million households headed by single women, with half that number recorded for their male counterparts.

Katayama’s group is responsible for such change, having put pressure on the government to recognise households headed by single fathers. Katayama, who is himself a divorced father of two, says he left a regular job that demanded long hours of work.

“I just could not leave my children alone all the time. So I had to forgo a steady income in the end and live off two part-time jobs to make ends meet,” he explained.

The group he heads meets regularly to exchange information on getting more official help but also to boost their confidence which he says is crucial in Japanese society that looks down on fathers who prefer to stay at home rather than devote their lives to the company.

“It is time to define the role of fatherhood in Japan from the traditional gender divide. More men want to move away from that pressure to be the main breadwinner. Child and single family allowances must reflect the aspirations of men as individuals,” he said.

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