A group of dads and their small kids gathered around for a step-by-step demonstration of how to make perfect French toast. Then they got busy cracking eggs and beating them, cutting the bread into small squares that they dipped in the egg and then dropped into a hot skillet to watch sizzle as a buttery scent wafted through the room. Finally, they sliced up some banana and strawberry and topped the whole thing off with whipped cream. Voila!
“In ‘Kramer versus Kramer,’ (a film about a man who is suddenly thrust into single fatherhood) Dustin Hoffman can’t make French toast,” said Tomoyuki Katayama, the event’s organizer. “But then he learns how and does it beautifully at the end.”
That little anecdote sheds light on the events that led 41-year-old Katayama to the Gender Equality Center in Nishinomiya city in Hyogo Prefecture on a Saturday morning in mid-January. He was there to help local dads bond with their kids over French toast, to give a talk on the state of single fatherhood in Japan and offer his thoughts on the way forward, as he recently had in a bunch of other cities.
Since late 2009, when he founded Single Father Japan, a Niigata-based NPO that advocates the interests of single fathers, Katayama has been raising awareness of low-income single dads and petitioning the government to get them the same benefits as single mothers. The plight of such men is quite a twist in a patriarchal culture where the short end of the stick is typically reserved for women. But with an increase in divorce and rising female independence, the number of single fathers in Japan rose from roughly 166,000 in 2005 to 204,000 in 2010, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Over a bento (packed lunch) before his lecture, Katayama, who grew up in Niigata Prefecture, shared his story. He confessed that when he got married in 1993 he never imagined he would become a single parent, much less that he would spearhead a movement to fight for single fathers’ equal rights.
When his marriage officially ended in 2005, he gained custody of his two kids — a 10-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl. At the time, he said he had little sympathy for struggling single dads because, like many people in Japan, he thought it a man’s duty to support his family on his own.
Over the next few years, he was active in an online community of single parents where he dispensed legal advice about divorce. One day in 2008, a man contacted him for guidance. He said he was unable to juggle child-rearing and his demanding job, so he quit. But he couldn’t find another job because prospective employers didn’t think a single dad with a toddler was a safe bet. When he contacted Katayama, he had used up his savings and was getting evicted from his apartment.
His dilemma: Should he kill only himself? Or would it make more sense to take his child along with him?
Katayama stayed up all night on the phone talking him out of suicide and explaining how to get help. He was outraged that this man had not been given a break and felt that not only were the unsympathetic companies to blame but also that society itself had let him down.
“That was the trigger,” he said. “It made me realize that we need support for single fathers in Japan.”
The following year, through Fathering Japan, an organization he had joined, Katayama got involved in a new charity — the French Toast Fund, which provided money for needy single fathers. Then, after the 2009 election, Katayama decided the only way to bring about legislative change was to give the government a big push. To strengthen their voices, he brought together various regional groups that support single fathers to form a unified nationwide organization — Single Father Japan.
The organization’s first order of business was to get financially strapped single dads child-care allowance, something that single moms were entitled to, but fathers were not. Once Single Father Japan had aroused media interest in the cause, the government took notice and it passed a bill granting allowances to men, which went into effect in August 2010. After six months, 59,000 single-father families were receiving it.
The next battle was to fight for bereavement benefits for fathers who have lost their wives, which with the increase of widowers after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami has become a heightened concern. The bill is currently winding its way through the legislature.
Katayama said he is driven by the desire to remove the stigma from single fatherhood in Japan, to level the playing field for single dads of today and to make sure the next generation won’t have it as hard as his did.
“What we really need,” he said, “is a safety net that stops single fathers from falling into a bottomless pit.”