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Just so you know, it’s a bad time to be male in Japan. Even my brothers say the supermacho, sports-obsessed, chauvinist faux-samurai kanchigai (勘違い, have it all wrong). They say that society is so hard on men that if they were given the choice between a man or woman’s life, “onna-no hōga ii (女の方がいい, I’d prefer being a woman).”

Nani ga okottano (何が起こったの, What happened here)? Suffice to say, Japanese men are feeling the pressure of a centuries-old traditional belief that says “Otoko-wa otokorashiku (男は男らしく, Men should be manly).” Let me break the otokorashisa thing down to its main components. Japanese males should:

  1. Be ready to die for the organization they belong to, be it family, company or country. If they can’t die, they should at least make huge personal sacrifices.
  2. Express no emotion.
  3. Drink like whales after 6 p.m.
  4. Have wives and girlfriends, but not spend any time with them.
  5. Be able to perform a sports activity at the drop of a hat, and keep at it until their ribs fracture.

That’s the short list — okinodoku desu! (お気の毒です!, I feel your pain!) To think they’ve been carrying this burden for roughly 900 years, ever since Minamoto no Yoritomo established the Kamakura Bakufu (鎌倉幕府, Kamakura Shogunate) in the late 12th century and decreed that the nation should be run by chauvinist, power-hungry bushi (武士, samurai/warriors). To everyone else, Minamoto apparently said “Makaseta (任せた, Deal with it)” — and here we are today.

It was better to work with these males than raise objections that would have led to all kinds of misery. Besides, there’s nothing more mendōkusai (面倒くさい, a major hassle) than trying to make a Japanese male see reason. So the bushi (later replaced by elite bureaucrats and salarymen) oversaw each level of society, while women were expected to clean up whatever mess they made.

World War II, however, blew a big hole in the fortress of Japan’s fuken shakai (父権社会, patriarchal society). The traditional Japanese male took a mega-beating, his crimes were ruthlessly exposed and the whole nation was reduced to ash and rubble. After many centuries of kashizuki (かしずき, appeasing and serving) the Japanese male, women woke up to the fact that they went way too far with the servility.

Sengo, yowakunattanowa otoko, tsuyoku nattanowa onna-to sutokkingu (戦後、弱くなったのは男、強くなったのは女とストッキング, After the war, men weakened while women and stockings became stronger),” went a common saying in the 1960s. With each decade that went by, an increasing number of women began to assert themselves. They moved into the workplace, they got themselves diplomas and, most of all, they began to demand more from men and society: More kyōryoku (協力, cooperation), mikaeri (見返り, compensation), hogo (保護, protection) and sonkei (尊敬, respect). The Nihon danshi (日本男子, Japanese men) couldn’t keep up, and remained in the same spot — i.e., the spot that prevented them and everyone else from pursuing personal happiness.

But now we’ve come to a crossroads in the history of Japanese society; the Japanese man can no longer survive — either at work or at home — unless he mutes the ōbōna (横暴な, oppressive), traditionally Japanese-male side of himself and go with the flow of being a monowakari no ii hito (物わかりのいい人, a person who understands things).

Japanese society doesn’t need alpha males now so much as good, solid citizens. As my recently divorced friend Yoshimi says about her ex-husband: “Ningentoshite mondai ga atta (人間として問題があった, As a human being, he had problems),” — that’s why she left.

Enter the ikumen, (イクメン, short for ‘ikuji men,’ meaning men who have a hand in raising their kids) — a new breed of Japanese male who take time off from work to change diapers, do the chores and spend time with the family. Only a decade ago, a man who stayed home was an object of pity; now he has a whole other job description that includes helping his wife further her career, raising his children to be contributing members of society and also make sure his own job remains intact, in spite of the fact that he’s no longer free to put in the marathon hours deemed necessary to keep that job.

Once upon a time, all that was expected of Nihon danshi was to work hard and bring home the money. Now, he’s expected to be Wonder Woman in a salaryman suit. “Shōganai yo, (しょうがないよ, Nothing can be done about it),” says my friend Yoshimi. “Imamade sanzan onna-ga yattekita kotodakara (いままでさんざん女がやってきたことだから, Women have been doing this for a long time),” she says, implying that it’s about time. She’s probably right. Still, it’s hard to witness their growing pains.

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