There’s a story about my father that my mother still likes to tell. Back when my siblings and I were small kids, Mom asked our お父さん (otōsan, father) to watch over us for a couple of hours while she ran errands. When she got back, it seemed to her that Dad had lost 10 kilograms and aged about five years. “こんなことなら仕事をしていた方がいい” (“Konna koto nara shigoto o shite-ita hō ga-ii,” “I’d much rather go to work than deal with this”), were his words.
Throughout my childhood, my father avoided contact with his kids, preferring to channel all his energy into his job and working till late. My mother was proud of her husband’s single-minded dedication and often referred to him as the typical 働き者の日本の父 (hatarakimono no Nihon no chichi, hardworking Japanese father) — which was 20th-century Japan’s most socially prized model of masculinity.
In our household, the unspoken agreement was that the less the male parent mingled with the children, the better. My dad was a 会社員 (kaishain, company man) through and through, and that meant giving his all — I mean all — to the company. Us kids never thought to question it.
If he were still around today, お父さん would have been deeply bewildered by the recent イクメンブーム (ikumen būmu), which refers to the “boom” in men who are taking an interest in 子育て (kosodate, child rearing). He never would have understood these men who blog about their families, form online パパ友の会 (papa-tomo no kai, dad-friend meetups), cook excellent パパご飯 (papa gohan, meals made by Dad) for their little ones and show up to school events. As for Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi’s 育休宣言 (ikukyū sengen, declaration to take paternity leave), that would have given my father an apoplexy.
Back in January, Koizumi made a public statement saying he planned to take two weeks leave from work to help his expectant wife, and said that he hoped that doing so might 空気を変える (kūki o kaeru, change the atmosphere [lit., “Change the air”]). The “air” he’s talking about is that still-too-common mindset when it comes to Japanese dads: イクメン are definitely a thing, but taking 育児休暇 (ikuji kyūka, child care leave) presents a psychological hurdle for many fathers — and their workplaces.
Interestingly, many Japanese parents (including mothers) dismissed Koizumi’s 空気発言 (kūki hatsugen, “air” remark) as your typical 政治家の上から発言 (seijika no ue kara hatsugen, remark from a politician that talks down to the masses).
And has the “air” changed? The short answer is: not really. Koizumi ostensibly returns to work today. In the meantime, it was business as usual for the majority of Japanese men, crowding into commuter trains and stomping the streets in their anti-virus masks. Showing up to the office every day touches upon the very core of the 日本男児 (Nihon danji, Japanese male identity).
Maybe Koizumi meant to enlarge upon the air theme by talking about the 風 (kaze, wind), as his paternity leave has been met with gusts of 逆風 (gyakufū, reverse winds) threatening to upset the social welfare boat. No doubt this is because Japan is “古くてかたい” (“furukute katai,” “antiquated and rigid”) as Koizumi described, back in September when the controversy over whether or not he would take the leave had just started: “検討していますと言っただけで賛否両論含めて騒ぎになる” (“Kentō shite-imasu to itta dake de sanpiryōron fukumete sawagi ni naru,” “I just said I was considering it [taking paternity leave] but now there’s been an uproar of [people] for and against it”).
The fact is that, for many Japanese men, paternity leave remains 絵に描いた餅 (e ni kaita mochi, pie in the sky, [lit., a drawing of a mochi]). Even those who take it can face repercussions. Last year, an employee at Kaneka Corp. was forced to transfer after returning from 育児休暇, a decision his wife blasted on social media. Two months later, an employee at Asics Corp. sued his company for パタハラ (pata-hara, paternity harassment), the male equivalent of マタハラ (mata-hara, maternity harassment), when he was treated poorly for what he believed was taking paternity leave after his sons were born. Some critics believe Japanese firms will never fully embrace paternity leave because no one in their top ranks has considered exercising that 権利 (kenri, right) themselves.
Having said that, Japan has a reasonable 福利厚生 (fukuri kōsei, welfare program) and paternity leave is a right sanctioned by law. Some fathers (though not many) have chosen to take as long as three months leave — all the while receiving the 育休手当 (ikukyū teate, child care leave allowance).
Currently, 男性の育休取得率 (dansei no ikukyū shutoku-ritsu, the percentage of men taking paternity leave) is around 6 percent in 2018, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. This is the highest since the ministry started taking surveys in 1996, but it’s still dismally low compared to approximately 80 percent of fathers taking leave in Norway and Sweden.
Still, for people like myself, the air has changed faster than we could’ve imagined. Twenty years ago you would almost never see a man pushing a baby stroller, but now they’re everywhere. The おむつ交換台 (omutsu kōkan-dai, diaper-changing table) is becoming par for the course in every public restroom regardless of gender. 古くてかたい we may be, but now a man who cannot 育児参加 (ikuji sanka, participate in child rearing) is a man who runs the risk of losing his family. And so, respectfully, I would like to say thank you to Mr. Koizumi for being a real 日本男児.