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The changing face of fatherhood in Japan

by Michael Hoffman

My maiden brush with paternity in Japan was in 1982. New to the country and new to my job, I said to my boss, “My wife is expecting a baby on such-and-such a day and I’ll want that day off.”

He looked at me with the most perfect, genuine, unfeigned, wide-eyed astonishment and said, “What for?”

What for?

I suppose to him I was the decadent West incarnate, too soft and immature to know that business was business and private life quite beside the point. No wonder Japan was rising and the West sinking.

Fortunately, with admirable tact, the baby chose to be born on a weekend, and a potentially awkward culture clash went no further.

A year or so later the American news magazine Time put out a special issue on rising Japan. One story, titled “A Hard Day’s Night,” introduced Kotaro Nohmura, a 37-year-old executive at an Osaka tent manufacturer. Here was typical salarymanhood personified: “As soon as (he) arrives home from work at nearly midnight, he looks in on his four children. They are asleep, just as they were when he left for work at 7:30 that morning. A few fond glances are usually the only contact Nohmura has with his two sons (7 and 4 months) and two daughters (5 and 9) during the week.”

Nohmura and my old boss would be in their 60s now. It would be fun to show them the current issue of the quarterly magazine FQ — “the essential dad magazine,” “the child-raising man’s bible” — and say, “What do you think of this, now?”

FQ Japan, offshoot of a British parent publication, debuted in 2005. Its theme: fatherhood is cool. You don’t have to apologize for it anymore. Brad Pitt is a dad. David Beckham is a dad. Look how cool they are! Cool paternity in Japan is called “papanity.” FQ overflows with images of males neither shaven nor bearded, their hair professionally mussed up, their dress expensively down-at-heels — with the little one(s) in tow. Where to? The park, the zoo, the aquarium, Africa …

Africa?

Meet Toshimasa Ota. When his son was born 10 years ago, Ota, as a company employee, worked hours that rivaled Nohmura’s, but Japan’s “rise” was over by then and attitudes had softened. Ota thought, “A child is a child for only a few years. Miss those years and you’ll regret it all your life.” He quit his job, became a freelance writer and nurtured a dream. When the child turned 10 he would take him to Africa. Why 10? Why Africa? “Ten is the age when a person’s identity emerges,” he explains. “Today’s children will be tomorrow’s citizens of the world.” Where better to expand a budding world citizen’s horizons than Africa, “the cradle of the human race”?

Freelance writing is not the stablest of livelihoods, but Ota managed to accumulate the necessary funds, and on the boy’s 10th birthday he announced, “You and I are going to Africa.”

“What?” said the boy.

“It’s been my dream for years,” said papa.

And so there they were among the cheetahs and the gazelles and the Masai tribespeople of Kenya — “a land unchanged through tens of thousands of years!” It was only nine days, but epic adventure makes nonsense of chronological time.

Closer to home, FQ introduces us to some of Japan’s celebrity dads — two-time kickboxing world champion Masato and actor Takatoshi Keneko, for instance. “I can’t express the joy in words,” says Masato. Kaneko tried — he wrote a book about it. Masato recalls his pre-papanity life as though it belonged to another person. His total absorption in his sport left him no time for domestic drudgery. “It must have been hard on her,” he says, meaning of course his wife — but “I’m repaying her now.” Their daughter is 3 and as much his charge as her mother’s. He finds himself understanding his own parents better now, as young parents so often do. He recalls his parents’ bitter opposition to his chosen profession; now he says, “As a parent, I’d be against it too. I couldn’t stand to see a child of mine getting punched and battered.”

Kaneko, equal-time caregiver to his 3-year-old son Sora (another child is on the way), had a similar epiphany. His parents divorced, and from age 10 to 16 he lived with his dad, who was well intentioned but so busy he often forgot to do things like laundry, leaving young Takatoshi with no clean clothes for school. The elder Kaneko wasn’t much of a cook either. “He did try though,” Takatoshi says with the sympathy engendered by responsibility. “He did take me places.”

“Making memories” is his way of describing his time with Sora. They’ll both grow older and each in his different way will find the memories a precious resource — if they do it right.

A new generation of fathers is learning what many of their own fathers never knew except in financial terms — the joys and hardships of raising children. It’s not all fun, games and fashion shows. Fashion shows? Yes, there are those too. There was one, for example, last Father’s Day at the Isetan department store in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, the dads looking great in their designer jeans and papanity hair. The infants looked pretty neat too. Not all fun and games, however, and FQ devotes two pages to calisthenics tailored to developing the muscles you’ll need to keep up with your rambunctious little bundle of boundless energy.

The trouble is, not everybody is a celebrity and not everybody can quit a company job and go freelance as Ota did. Two years ago the government set a goal to raise the proportion of men taking paternity leave from just over 1 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2020. But long working hours, and obligatory after-hours business socializing, remain entrenched. “The government must place a cap on overtime,” Tetsuya Ando, representative director of the nonprofit paternity support group Fathering Japan, told this newspaper in 2010. The mere fact that the group exists is significant. It couldn’t have in Nohmura’s day. But even in sinking Japan, Nohmura’s working hours are not a thing of the past.