Paternity blues: Social hurdles still high for Japanese men seeking hands-on fatherhood

by Sawako Obara

Kyodo

An increasing number of Japanese fathers are taking a more active role in raising their children, but some also feel beaten down by a society that doesn’t support their efforts.

Daisuke, a 38-year-old Tokyo resident who asked to use a pseudonym, is one. He and his wife are expecting their third child, yet he feels more gloomy than excited.

The reason: He is going to take eight months of paternity leave from work because his wife, having just started a job, is unable to get child care leave. He is also having a tough time arranging for colleagues to take over his tasks while he is away.

This is not Daisuke’s first time taking parental leave. He also took a month or two off when their two other children, brothers who are now 6 and 3, were born.

He recalls the accumulated stress from taking care of his children around the clock. He remembers the lack of sleep from feeding a newborn at night.

When Daisuke tried to take a breather by bringing the two kids to local child care facilities, he felt awkward being the only father in a facility full of mothers. Occasionally he saw moms breast-feeding their babies, making him hesitant to even enter.

“I love kids, but I’m rather heavyhearted (about taking paternity leave),” he says.

Joji Sugiyama, a 37-year-old broadcast writer in Tokyo, is the main caretaker for his two daughters, aged 10 and 2. He works at home while his wife is a full-time office employee, and says he feels distressed on a daily basis.

The clash between his parental responsibilities and traditional gender roles can be a source of misunderstanding — and heartache.

For example, when Sugiyama declined a work request because he had to take his daughter for a health checkup, his client complained: “Can’t you get your wife to do that?”

“The reactions of people around us have evolved over the past two to three years,” he says, referring to how he is viewed as a father actively involved in raising his children. “But it’s really hard to get the older generation to change.”

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, just 1.89 percent of the male workforce took any child care leave during the 2012 business year, an increase of only 0.33 percent compared to a decade earlier. Some experts believe the low rate is due to Japanese society remaining unsympathetic — and even critical — of men who take it.

In a 2013 survey by Rengo (Japan Trade Union Confederation), 11.6 percent of the 525 fathers surveyed said they had been harassed at work for requesting parental leave. Some said they were not allowed to take paternity leave or had been told that doing so would hurt their career.

Fuminobu Ishikura, a doctor in charge of male menopause outpatient treatment at a clinic in Osaka, said many men complaining of poor health are those who were around aged 40 when their first child was born and had enthusiastically tried to be an involved father, only to be undone by the harsh reality of child-rearing.

“There is too much pressure from work when men try to be involved in raising children,” Ishikura said.

His advice to patients: “Don’t try too hard. It’s fine to start with just taking care of things such as cleaning the house and doing laundry.”

But Masami Ohinata, a professor at Tokyo’s Keisen University and an expert on child-rearing issues in Japan, says change is definitely occurring.

“Thirty years ago, I conducted a survey on ‘paternity blues’ but ended up not getting significant data because back then, there were so few men who were involved enough in raising children to become depressed. Times have changed,” he said.

“Unlike postpartum depression among mothers, which is related to hormonal changes, for fathers it is more of a phenomenon triggered by sociocultural factors,” Ohinata said. “I believe the burden will lessen when paternal involvement in child-raising becomes the norm and various channels are well-established through which fathers can feel free to consult or seek advice.”

  • Adam

    I’m having my first son in about two months. I originally requested to take time off to help my wife just after our baby was born due to the distance we live from her parents. My boss promptly “educated” me on the role of Japanese fathers and that I, in fact, were expected to work longer hours to support my new family, despite the fact that said longer hours would not lead to more money. I continued to push for child-care leave where my boss relented and said they would reduce my salary to force me to leave. They can’t legally fire me for requesting child-care leave. When I initially resisted, the work environment became very hostile to the point where I just left. I know there is a legal framework just for these kind of situations but it’s a very uphill battle. My answer? My family and I are now leaving Japan and returning to my home country. While there is no legal requirement for leave to help with your family like Japan, there still is a cultural understanding and flexibility.

    • phu

      Sorry to hear about your situation. It’s definitely good, though — for both you and your family — that you have the means and opportunity to relocate; too many people are financially trapped in positions with no way out from under disgusting policies like this, and too many companies and managers are happy to perpetuate them.

  • Jay

    Nihonjinron promotes the myth that Western socities are individualistically oriented, while Japan is group-centred. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I have witnessed in my 20+ years living in Japan is that in most Western countries, family comes first and work next. In Japan, everyone and everything is given the backseat for work. It is so extreme here that people I work with have been hospitalized due to issues caused by stress and overwork. Personal or family reasons is never an excuse to take time off, unless it is a sudden death, and even then only a few days. There has been some change, but not much. Many Japanese people I know continue to express awe and envy that I cook at home or stay with the kids when my wife is out. They think it extraordinary that I can take them to my country for a weeks without their mother to do all the child care. Attitudes are still stuck in a mid-20th century mindset.

  • itoshima2012

    This guy should stop winging and just get going! What support does he need!? He’s the father! Get going!! And stop asking “support”!!!