When the Japanese media started to harp on about the fatigue emerging among ikumen — men who help their wives with child-rearing and other domestic duties — I just had to laugh. Being a Japanese sake brewer’s husband, I was confident that I was streets ahead of these trendy men bragging about their remarkable deeds as dutiful husbands.
While it must be every working mother’s ardent wish to have a partner committed to family duties, the existence of ikumen is a fairly new phenomenon in Japan. The trend has been depicted as representing a big shift in traditionally patriarchal Japanese society, where men ruled the roost. Back in the day, samurai never questioned whose job is was to cook dinner or do the dishes — this was all women’s work. Then came this new breed of men. Needless to say, they were almost unanimously welcomed, and “ikumen” became a buzzword to praise fathers who took on an active role around the house.
But were these men doing this for real or just going through the motions? Would they last? Unless what they are doing is genuinely out of necessity, they’d soon burn out, I thought.
If what I have read in books is true, it is in men’s nature to need praise and rewards to stay motivated. On the other hand, the majority of women, I believe, wouldn’t even think about getting something in return for their daily chores. And hence the fatigue, I thought — I was convinced that this would happen sooner or later.
Would you mind your wife staying away from home for days, leaving your 1-year-old child behind with you? Would you mind watching your wife grow stronger by the day (both physically and mentally) as her workload piles up? Can you imagine yourself having supper with your mother-in-law, whining together about how busy your wife is, and how she is never there? (I bet this is rare.) And, to be brutally frank, could you go without sex for months, because your wife is too tired for romance? If you can relate to all of these things and can proudly say, “I dig that!” then you have what it takes to be a sake brewer’s husband.
Female sake brewers are still a rarity. A brewer’s job is physically demanding, and women were traditionally forbidden to take part in sake making. Brewers work around the clock for half a year intensively from late autumn to spring, right through the coldest time of the year. But while women account for only 2 percent of master sake brewers, they’ve been punching well above their weight in the business, producing some of the finest sake on the market.
Having been a husband of one of these women for more than 10 years, I see it as a good thing that a growing number of our men are mucking in with household duties. However, I strongly believe that, like freshly fermented sake, this trend has yet to mature — both societally and, I admit, for me on a personal level.
Mikko Koivumaa, a diplomat at the Embassy of Finland in Tokyo, recently published a book in Japanese about the Finnish way of child-rearing. Besides all the comparisons he made with how gender equality was secured and maintained in Finland, what struck me most were the following words: “At first I was surprised to learn about the word ‘ikumen,’ because it is a completely normal thing for Finnish men to take part in child-rearing.”
This made me feel totally embarrassed. “What are our people fussing about?” I thought. And the worst offender was none other than myself, trying to condescendingly set myself apart from the rest of the ikumen.
God knows how long it will take for the term “ikumen” to disappear from our news headlines. However, my hope is that, someday, Japanese society will mature to the point that it no longer needs ikumen. Either the term will vanish or the exhausted ikumen themselves will, with society swinging back to its male-dominated past. For working women’s sake, let’s hope it’s the former.
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