Language | BILINGUAL

Where did all the Japanese fathers go?

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Aside from ikumen (イクメン, men who play a role in raising their children), Nihon no otōsan (日本のお父さん, Japanese fathers) are a pretty sad lot. The vast majority of them have been and continue to be kaya no soto (蚊帳の外, literally “outside the mosquito net,” meaning “left out”) inside their own homes — they often have no idea what their own families are up to.

Among the alarming increase in cases of shōnen hanzai (少年犯罪, juvenile crime), one fact stands out as emblematic of the state of the Nihon no katei (日本の家庭, Japanese home): The father is often nowhere to be seen. There’s even a phrase for this — chichioya fuzai (父親不在, roughly meaning that the father is missing in action).

When the 18-year-old ringleader in the recent murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kawasaki came forward to the local police, he was accompanied by two adults: his hahaoya (母親, mother) and bengoshi (弁護士, lawyer). No one commented on the whereabouts of the dad, and it seems the victim was fatherless, too.

This isn’t to say, however, that normal, happy childhoods (by Western standards) don’t happen in Japan — they do . . . I think — but in urban areas, MIA fathers are pretty much taken for granted, and have been throughout the postwar era.

Japanese dads are expected to bleed themselves out onto the floors of the kaisha (会社, company), thereby ensuring that their okusan (奥さん, wife) is comfortable and shiawase (幸せ, happy).

And what constitutes happiness for the wives of Japanese fathers? Last time I checked, it amounts to kōgai no ikkenya (郊外の一軒家, a house in the suburbs), kodomo no shiritsu gakkō kyōiku (子供の私立学校教育, private schooling for the children) and tsukiichi ranchi (月イチランチ, a monthly lunch party) with her female friends. All this is preceded by a swanky kekkonshiki (結婚式, wedding) and kaigai shinkonryokō (海外新婚旅行, overseas honeymoon) that provides endless selfie and tsūshotto (ツーショット, couples’ photo) opportunities. No wonder we’re living in the era of the bankon (晩婚, late marriage) — what young person in this teitai keizai (停滞経済, stagnant economy) can finance the trappings of holy matrimony?

As my young cousin Kazuya remarked the other day, “Otoko wa kekkonshitara okane wo suitorarete isshō fukō ni narudake” (「男は結婚したらお金を吸い取られて一生不幸になるだけ」, “A man who gets married will have all his money sucked out of him and be unhappy for the rest of his life”).

But what about true love? Kazuya looked at me with the eyes of a kottō kanteinin (骨董鑑定人, antiques appraiser) examining a dented relic from the 20th century and shrugged.

Here’s the problem: The Japanese family is defined by economics, which places all the burden of wage-earning onto the shoulders of Nihon no otōsan. The subsequent stress has ruptured relationships in the home, seemingly beyond repair.

Watakushigoto de kyōshuku desu ga (私事で恐縮ですが, Sorry, I’m afraid I’m going to get personal). I still have vivid memories of my first encounter with a non-Japanese dad. This was in the first grade, in the living room of my American friend, Mary Ellen. I was shocked to find an adult male on the premises in broad daylight, relaxing on the couch and laughing with Mary’s mom. This dad had his faults (like hankering for brownies at 3 a.m.) but always sat down to meals with the family, gave birthday presents and hugs and read bedtime stories.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around that one, and continue to marvel at dads who engage in kazoku seikatsu (家族生活, family life) with ease and aplomb.

My own father spent more than half his career in tanshinfunin (単身赴任, working a job faraway from the family) in the U.S. while my mother stayed in Japan. Not surprisingly, my brothers — though more open-minded than my father — are clueless about dealing with family. They are, at heart, the typical type of Nihon danji (日本男児, Japanese male) who would rather work their backsides off than face alone-time with their wives.

“Iindayo, kore de minna shiawasenandakara” (「いいんだよ、これで皆んな幸せなんだから」, “It’s OK, everyone is happy this way”), says my oldest brother, who sees his wife for about 10 minutes a day yet still calls his relationship a marriage.

And what does that lead to? They went through a kiki (危機, crisis) only once. This was immediately after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when my brother and other employees in his company were told to jitaku taiki (自宅待機, remain on stand-by at home) for an entire week. My sister-in-law says this almost caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and she sincerely hopes that, in the event of another earthquake, my brother will find some way to go back to work ASAP.