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Finnish diplomat pushes child-rearing for dads

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

For Finnish diplomat Mikko Koivumaa, being an ikumen (men who take an active role in ikuji, or child rearing) comes naturally.

Hailing from a country known to have a high level of gender equality, Koivumaa says ikumen is standard practice in Finland.

“In Finland, there’s a social welfare policy that enables that. Also men work short hours — especially compared with Japan — which enables an ikumen lifestyle seven days a week,” the 36-year-old said.

As the father of two children — a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter — Koivumaa took two months off work to look after his first child when his wife returned to her full-time job after maternity leave, and took care of their baby son on his own.

After being posted to Tokyo in 2010 as press and culture counselor at the Finnish Embassy, he has been taking the children to the nursery a few times each week. He spends as much time with them as possible after work and on weekends, and shares housework with his wife, who does not have a full-time job.

In Japan, the traditional perception of men as the breadwinner who seldom take part in child-rearing duties has been challenged as the number of working moms rises.

The term ikumen was coined in 2010 by a government campaign — as part the efforts to help reverse the downtrend in the nation’s fertility rate — to urge men to take a more active role in child-rearing.

Koivumaa, who arrived in Japan at about the same time, said he was surprised that a special word existed for men who participate in child-rearing, because that’s what everybody does in his country.

He has since given speeches and lectures at various occasions to introduce Finland’s ikumen lifestyle to the Japanese. He recently authored a book “Ikumen Mikko no Sekaiichi Shiawase na Kosodate” (“Finnish style: Ikumen Mikko and the World’s Happiest Child-rearing”).

The book, which he wrote in English, was translated into Japanese and was published in April.

Koivumaa said Kamakura Shunju, the publisher based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, took an interest in his insight on the issue and approached him last summer. Koivumaa immediately researched the history and the situation related to child-rearing in Finland, and wrote a book by weaving his own personal experiences with raising children. Finnish cooking recipes color the pages in between chapters.

One of the reasons men are able to take an active role in child-rearing in Finland, he said, is because the government has introduced policies to support both parents.

After the mother of a new-born child takes maternity leave, which lasts 105 days, either the mother or the father can take a 158-day period of parental leave (part of which can be taken by both parents) — with 70 to 75 percent of the salary being provided.

Fathers can legally take paternity leave of 18 days right after the baby is born — plus up to 36 days more until the newborn turns 9 months old — while receiving 70 to 75 percent of their salary.

Separately, a “daddy month” system that began in 2003 enabled men to take up to four weeks off from work for child-rearing (if the mother goes back to work before the end of the parental leave), which was expanded to six weeks in 2010.

In 2011, 80 percent of all fathers took the 18-day paternity leave period, while around 25 percent used the daddy month system, said Koivumaa. The two systems were set to be merged into one beginning this year, he added.

While many children are on waiting lists to enter nursery schools due to shortage of publicly-authorized facilities in Japan, the Finnish government in 1973 set forth a policy to make sure that all preschoolers — whether their parents work or not — receive day care service by providing subsidies to municipalities.

Koivumaa said he wants his book to be a platform for discussion for the Japanese people.

“The Japanese already know about Finnish education, equality and the social welfare system. Child-rearing is a new addition to the Nordic lifestyle theme. I want the book to be another channel for people to talk about Finland,” he said.

Koivumaa, who was born in a small town in southern Finland, moved to Helsinki when he was 3, and grew up there. He graduated from Helsinki University after studying political science, Japanese politics and modern Japanese history. During the course of his 10 years spent studying at university, he came to Japan to study at Waseda University for a year in 2003.

“I found interest in Japan since I was around 10 years old. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it may have been chanbara (samurai action drama) or anime,” Koivumaa said.

After working for a media service unit in Helsinki, he applied for the available position at the Finnish Embassy, and came to Japan with his family in November 2010.

He said writing the book did not make life easier for him, as sometimes he had to forgo some sleep to write the book.

“When I was writing the book, I had zero free time. But I didn’t take time off from my children, which would have been controversial — talking about ikumen and not being one,” he said. “Raising children is a really tough job. In Finland, we sacrifice free time for child-rearing. I could use some more free time to play football, go to movies and read more, but I’m happy with what I have,” he said.

He said he feels men of the younger generation in Japan want to spend more time with their children.

“When I go to the park on weekends, I always see more dads than moms. I think that tells something. Dads do use the opportunities they have,” he said.

“Ikumen benefits all family members. It improves the quality of life of every family member. Children grow up so quickly. People should maximize the time with their children as they can — in whatever situation they have in their life.”