At-home dads

Japan's househusbands are few in number, but they may be a social shake-up in the making

by Yoko Hani

Kazuyuki Yamamura is a tall, good-looking man in his 30s, who was also good at his job. In fact, not so long ago he bought a house for himself, his wife and their kindergarten-age daughter in a leafy suburb of Tokyo. Then, unexpectedly, his company found itself in choppy financial waters — and he was thrown overboard in the name of “restructuring.”

Now, Yamamura stays home. While he dons an apron and busies himself in the kitchen, sweats over the cleaning and does battle with the rudiments of cooking, his wife Miki spends most of her days in meetings or staring at a computer screen at the publishing house where she’s started to work.

Though Yamamura is struggling to master his new duties as a househusband, he has no complaints about that — and only slightly mixed feelings about his wife’s lively work-life. In fact, besides so far failing to find a new job for himself, his major difficulty appears to be being accepted into a circle of housewives he’s constantly bumping into.

Gradually, though, with the help of Yusuke Sugio, an experienced househusband neighbor, he’s learning the skills of his new trade — as well as those of being an “at-home daddy.”

Now, when his mother-in-law drops by and cynically declares, “I don’t know if it’s good that you are getting better at domestic work,” Yamamura, skillfully gutting shrimps for the family’s dinner, casually replies: “I am still seriously looking for a job — no need to worry.”

Yamamura is a character in “At-Home Dad,” a television series that ran earlier this year. It focused on the lives of two househusbands in their 30s, played by Hiroshi Abe, a model-turned-actor, and Hiroyuki Miyasako, a comedian/actor.

The groundbreaking Tuesday-night drama from Kansai Telecasting Corp. proved so popular that the station broadcast a special extra installment at the end of September.

Following hot on the heels of the series, a book titled “Shufu no Tashinami (Wisdom of Househusbands”); Bunkasha), was also published — billed as a “handbook for househusbands.”

Between the book’s covers, readers are introduced to many novel approaches to domestic activities — from cooking, washing and shopping, to how best to communicate with neighbors — through questions to and answers from a veteran househusband.

A typical exchange goes like this.

Q: How can I chop onions without crying?

A: I was bad at chopping onions at first, too. I am a Kyushu man who was always told not to cry in front of other people, but chopping onions made me shed so many tears in front of my daughter that I felt ashamed. Now I have learned that to avoid this, I should dip the skinned onions in water before chopping them.

With the book’s popularity steadily growing, it is increasingly becoming a talking point, as the TV show did, thanks to its use of humor in describing the lives of housewives and working husbands in a role-reversed situation.

But why is this topic coming to the fore just now?

Toshio Tsukuda, an editor of the book, believes that both it and the TV program responded to a feeling that people’s views on stereotyped gender roles were gradually becoming more flexible, so the issue of househusbands would not simply be rejected as zany or irrelevant.

“In addition,” he says, “being dismissed like Yamamura due to company restructuring is no longer something that just happens fictionally or to a minority.”

Also, Tsukuda says, in a general sense nowadays “more men have started to question the belief that their happiness comes from a set course in life” — i.e. graduating from a good university, then being promoted at a big company and getting more money to take care of the family. Instead, he feels that “more people have begun to re-evaluate their whole way of living.”

Added to this, he is in no doubt that in the TV series, “viewers enjoyed seeing Yamamura and Sugio doing really well at home.

“But the TV program and book were not made to praise househusbands or housewives,” he stresses. “They are there to give people a chance to rethink stereotyped ideas about gender roles and to suggest that there are various ways to pursue your own happiness, such as having a closer and deeper relationship with the family, as Yamamura experienced in the story.”

Meanwhile, Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology at Keisen University in Tokyo who is an expert on child-care issues, says she believes that the TV drama became popular because it showed a married couple’s lifestyle that goes “half a step ahead of the times.”

“In the story, the main character becomes a househusband, but it was not his intention to do so. That is important, and that is why I said ‘half a step ahead’ of the times. Viewers find the plot interesting because it is not too far from their reality.”

Also, Ohinata says, the casting of Hiroshi Abe greatly contributed to the show’s popularity.

“He is an actor who represents masculinity. Also, he appears to symbolize a ‘sanko’ man,” she says, referring to the three (san) high (ko) male attributes that women often prize in a potential partner. These are height (se ga takai, since the kanji for takai can also be read ko); ko gakureki (high education); and koshunyu (high income).

“This type of man, in the story, has to become a househusband, and through this he gradually finds meaning in his life other than work,” Ohinata explains. “I think this aspect attracted a lot of attention among both women and men, as it seemed to be a lifestyle half a step ahead.”

In other words, Ohinata points out, reality is still trailing the small-screen world.

Indeed, Japan’s enduring male-dominated, corporate culture continues to ensure that the vast majority of people conform to conventional gender roles — especially after a couple have had children. This is apparent in many ways, but particularly through the very small number of men who take child-care leave. In fact, a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found that in 2002, only 0.33 percent of men compared with 64 percent of women did so.

But on the other hand, the number of husbands doing the domestic work while their wives go out to work is increasing little by little. According to the Social Insurance Agency, the number of men who made “insured No. 3″ pension contributions (the category dominated by housewives who are financially supported by salaried company-worker or public-servant spouses) topped 80,000 in 2003 — double the 1996 figure. Conversely, the number of women making “insured No. 3″ contributions has been steadily falling for the past 10 years — from 12,110,000 in 1993 to 11,010,000 in 2003.

Also reflecting these slight signs of emerging social flexibility over gender roles, another government report, finalized in June, said that the number of working women was set to rise sharply by 2020 and that “househusbands will become less unusual” around that time.

Among those leading the charge into a brave new, socially fluid Japan is 36-year-old Hiroshi Inomata, a resident of Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Until about five years ago, Inomata worked at an advertisement company in Tokyo. Then he went freelance, working mainly in travel-business advertising from his own office in Ginza, where he often had to slave away through the night.

In April last year, though, his wife Mariko gave birth to their son, Mizuki, and Inomata stopped working in order to take care of his child — just as he had always hoped he would be able to do.

“I don’t have many memories of playing with and being with my father when I was a child because he was very busy at work as an oil-industry engineer,” Inomata explains. “So I always thought that if I had a child, I would like to be with him or her as much as possible.

“When my wife was pregnant, I thought about the idea again. I was worried about money, of course, but I knew that if I continued working I would not see my baby much because I was very busy at the time. So I made up my mind just before my son was born, and from then on declined all offers of work.”

A few months after Mizuki was born, Mariko started to work as an infant-massage instructor, and from that time, Inomata fed Mizuki, changed his nappies, took him out in his baby carriage and did all the other things that mums normally do. Inomata didn’t find it hard to be doing all that, as he firmly believes that child-care is a job for both mother and father. In fact, he says he just felt so happy to spend more time with his family.

“But sometimes I did wonder whether I could continue working as a househusband for good,” he says.

“Ideally, both the mother and the father should engage in child-care and work outside, because caring for a child and working are equally important.”

Right now, Inomata is preparing to start his advertising work again — though mainly from home, and at a slower pace, he says.

Meanwhile, Kosuke Abe, 30, who works in the accounting section of Sony Corp., is another kind of pioneer — having taken child-care leave, which ended in March, for his second child. He stresses that any fathers working in companies can take similar breaks if they try — though in reality he believes it will be a considerable time before the number doing so increases dramatically.

Abe took child-care leave when his wife went back to her job as a local-government employee. It most definitely was not “usual” — he was one of the first men in his section to do so — but Abe’s boss supported him.

His parents, however, were a little worried and asked him why he had to take leave when, in this society, few men ever do.

But Abe was not to be swayed. “For me, it was only natural to go on leave to take care of my daughter,” he says. “Thinking about my life as a whole, I believe I made the right decision to spend a lot of time with my children, wife, parents and the rest of my family.”

As a pioneer at-home dad, though, Abe says that the hardest part for him was facing the fact that he had few at-home-dad friends to share similar experiences with, which made him feel socially isolated.

In addition, he recalls that when he walked in the street with two children — his now 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter — he often felt that people were looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

“If you are in town with one child, people probably think you are a nice husband taking part in child-care.

“But if you are out with two children occupying your right arm and left hand, people seem to look at you with a kind of pity in their eyes. Probably they think I must have lost my job, and be in a difficult situation taking care of two kids.

“But out of consideration, they never asked me why I was alone with them.”

Abe says he can’t see his lifestyle choice coming to be regarded as normal in Japanese society until many more husbands start taking an active part in child-care and become more visible in the streets, parks and else.

“I think the number of men taking child-care leave will increase slightly, but I’m not sure it will rise dramatically,” he says — “unless large numbers of men were so impressed by [the actor] Hiroshi Abe on TV that they decide that they want to try it for themselves.”

In contrast, Ohinata of Keisen University expects that in the near future there will definitely be many more couples in which both father and mother work outside the home. So the role of the mother as sole child-rearer will become less central.

“In the coming era, spending one’s entire life doing only housework and having no job outside the home will not be considered a balanced way of living, whether for men or for women,” Ohinata says. “Nor will it be realistic from a financial point of view to remain a housewife or a househusband for good. Married couples will have to share domestic work, sometimes by taking leave in turns, as the character in ‘At-Home Dad’ did.”

The timing and popularity of that TV series indicates, she says, that “Japan is now at a turning point.”

“In this area of life, it will be very interesting to see which direction Japanese society goes in from here.”