Definitions of fatherhood

Fathers and mothers starving their infants, grown children hiding the deaths of parents and living off their pensions, the elderly dying of heat stroke alone in their rooms — recently Japan has seen a wave of incidents casting doubt on the strength of family and community ties.

Particularly shocking was the discovery July 30 of the small bodies of a 3-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy abandoned by their mother in an Osaka apartment. Left with no food or drink from late June, the children were also neglected by local officials who, for reasons of bureaucratic procedure, did not enter the apartment in spite of reports from neighbors of crying children.

The case brought renewed attention to child abuse in Japan and the isolation of many young mothers. Readers of subsequent media reports on the life of this young mother, Ms. Sanae Shimomura, could also catch hints of another all-too-common family problem in Japan — that of the absentee father. It turns out that Ms. Shimomura, married at 19 and divorced some three years later, was the daughter of a well-known high school rugby coach who had divorced when she was young and seems to have devoted the majority of his time and attention to his team.

Although such devotion to one’s job has long been accepted as the norm, recently a change in consciousness seems to be occurring. There is even a new buzzword for fathers more actively involved in child-rearing, ikumen, combining the Japanese iku (child care) and the English “men.”

Many factors drive the trend — a desire for a more balanced life than that of one’s father, the financial need for both husband and wife to work, the desire of women for husbands or partners taking a more active role at home. The national government has also started an ikumen campaign in order to boost the birthrate. The welfare ministry has even put up a website asking men to declare themselves as ikumen (www.ikumen-project.jp).

Changing society’s definitions of manhood and fatherhood will be difficult, especially in a time of job insecurity, but at least it’s a beginning of a better work-life balance for the sake not just of men but of their wives and children as well.