Masato Yamada was a typical bureaucrat. He worked late, usually missing the last train home, and sometimes put in all-nighters. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the demanding job.
That all changed in 2004 when his wife, Atsuko, also a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, told him the child she was carrying would be too much for her because she was already too exhausted from raising their twin 2-year-olds and doing her job.
Yamada realized it was his turn to care for the children.
After their third child was born that October, Yamada became the first male bureaucrat to make use of parental leave, taking a year off.
“By doing housework and looking after the three children, I understood for the first time how tough the whole thing is,” said Yamada, 42, now a former METI official and deputy mayor of Yokohama, adding it was physically tough to watch the baby and feed him during the night and mentally suffocating to spend daytime alone with the baby for the first few months.
Back in 2004, Yamada was a rare breed. Only 0.56 percent of the male workforce took parental leave, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said.
But now, after calls were made for men to participate in child-rearing and housework, this type of involvement is considered essential to boost the birthrate. It is a sign of progress.
“Men’s values are changing. More began to question whether only pursuing money and social status brought true happiness,” said Tetsuya Ando, representative director of the nonprofit organization Fathering Japan, which was founded in 2007 to increase the number of men who engage in child-rearing. “As a result, many are now turning toward their families.”
According to Ando, the first sign of change came around 2005, when several parenting magazines for fathers debuted, including FQ Japan and President Family, and more men could be seen pushing baby strollers.
“Also, after the Lehman shock in 2008, more men came to our seminars. They had more time to spend at home and wanted to learn how to communicate with their children and their wives,” said Ando, 47, a father of three.
“Many people say they want to participate in child-rearing but don’t know how. I myself was in the same situation 12 years ago when my first child was born. Most of us grew up not having fathers (doing housework) to look up to,” Ando said.
Fathering Japan holds about 150 seminars a year and workshops nationwide to teach men the joy of parenthood, offer tips on how to achieve a work-life balance, knowhow in child-rearing and housework, and an opportunity to meet and network with other fathers, Ando said.
The group that started with only 13 members now has about 120 across Japan who support and participate in the NPO’s activities.
Health minister Akira Nagatsuma also jumped on the bandwagon, pushing the buzzword “ikumen,” which was coined by the advertising agency Hakuhodo by combining “ikuji” (child-rearing) and men. He told the Diet in January he wants to spread the word.
The government is also pushing for more parental leave.
Enacted last June, the revised Child-care and Family-care Leave Law takes effect at the end of this month, enabling men to take two parental leaves, the first within eight weeks after the birth of a child and the second up until the child’s first birthday.
These efforts aside, attitudes are hard to change. The reality remains that most men do not engage in child-rearing and housework.
A health ministry survey found only 1.23 percent male workers took parental leave in 2008, compared with 90.6 percent of female workers.
A 2006 report by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry meanwhile found that men with a child under age 6 devoted only an hour a day to duties at home, including 33 minutes spent on child-rearing.
Compared with the United States, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Norway and France, this put Japan dead last.
Much of this can be blamed on the chronic long work hours men in Japan endure, as well as the wage gap between men and women, according to Yamada, who is in charge of Yokohama’s child-rearing support project. According to the internal affairs ministry, about one in five men in their 30s works more than 60 hours a week.
With such long hours, there’s no time to care for little children, Ando of Fathering Japan said. “The government must place a cap on overtime.”
Women’s wages, meanwhile, average 67.8 percent that of men, according to a 2009 report by the health ministry. Although the gap is slowly narrowing, it is still worse than in the U.S., Britain or France.
“This is why when it comes to parental leave, most couples decide the mother must volunteer,” Yamada said, “because it is economically rational.”
Another problem, Ando said, is a workplace mind-set that casts parental leave-takers in a negative light careerwise.
He said one way to dilute this attitude is to place greater positive focus on men who take parental leave.
In March, Hironobu Narisawa, the mayor of Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, drew media attention when he announced he was taking about two weeks of paternal leave in April.
Ando was behind the move.
“I personally knew the mayor. So when I heard that no ward employee had taken paternal leave before, I advised the mayor to do it,” Ando said. “I thought if the leader takes paternity leave, it will be easier for other employees to follow.”
Thanks to Ando’s advice, another ward employee announced in May he also plans to take paternal leave.
Ando suggested that the government make parental leave compulsory for both men and women and attach a guarantee that their careers will be protected.
This would ensure more men learn the difficulty of working in the home and deepen their understanding of their wives.
“I sometimes joke by saying that when there is a change in government, all Cabinet members must train for a week at a nursery school. If they do that they will know what is really important in child-rearing,” Ando said.