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Work-life harmony, not balance, the answer for this Japanese single dad

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

Juggling work and life as a parent is never easy, but how does a father who keeps irregular hours due to his successful acting career deal with the magnitude of challenges that come with being a single dad?

Ryuichi Oura will not lie. He admits the reality of solo parenting is no picnic but says his seemingly lopsided lifestyle — which he took on by choice — feels manageable now because he traded work-life balance for work-life harmony.

“I don’t go out at night, so I started reading books. But I realized my life is already a novel. There’s no story better than mine,” Oura said in a recent interview.

“I used to tell people the best SF (science fiction) stories are my kind of SF (single father). Every day there’s drama. Every day is fantasy.”

Oura, whose real name is Yasuhiro Kajiura, is an actor, singer and author living in Tokyo. In 2014 he played the commanding officer of the Ultra Party Guardians in an Ultraman TV series, a role that made him famous.

In his seventh year as a single dad, Oura said that when he gets home he no longer stops to think before taking on a pile of dirty dishes or full laundry basket instead of collapsing on the sofa, because at the end of the day “my son’s smile makes everything worthwhile.”

The 49-year-old Oura and his former partner had an amicable divorce when their son, Sunowa, was 3. At first, the boy lived with his mother, but a traumatic incident during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011 proved the catalyst for the couple to change his living arrangements.

His ex-wife moved to Kyushu and Oura remained in Tokyo to begin his journey as a single parent. Luckily for him, the process did not involve a messy custody battle or legal dispute.

There is no shared custody in Japan. The mother almost invariably wins sole custody of any children, which is why many are cut off from their fathers.

In this case, Oura said his son was always more attached to him than his mother and it was only natural for him to become the primary parent. Sunowa sees his mother every two months or so.

Oura is the product of a divorced couple himself. His parents split when he was 17, and he said he did not want his son to have the same experience.

“A lot of my relatives are divorced, too, and I felt that I had to stop that negative spiral, but I couldn’t,” Oura said.

When he was given the choice regarding child custody in 2011, Oura said he imagined himself having a father-son talk with a grown-up, 20-year-old Sunowa. He then asked himself whether he wanted to play a major part in his child’s life or take a back seat for the next 13 years.

“My son was 7 and I was about 40 at the time, at the peak of my career. Taking him meant I could possibly lose my job, or have to take time off work. It was a huge risk. But I asked myself, the risk of losing a child or losing a job — which do I take?”

In Japan, that decision meant he was putting himself in a minority. Just one out of every seven single-parent households see the father raising the children.

But it did not take long for Oura to establish himself as a “single-papa talent,” appearing on variety shows with his son. Day-in-the-life videos filmed in his little dwelling won the hearts of audiences. He even wrote a book on the topic.

He said it was the only way he survived the chaotic transition from being part of a traditional two-parent family.

“I used to consider the workplace a war zone. I broke a taboo by taking my kid there, but I had no choice,” Oura said.

“I was lucky because I’m in show business, but I know this doesn’t work for everyone. I did try to look for other jobs but couldn’t find flexible work arrangements with family-friendly policies.”

Oura’s decision to stay in the entertainment industry paid off, as being on TV with his son freed him from his two biggest worries — finding child care and getting a paycheck.

It even came with an added bonus of family travel time, something he could not afford. Audiences loved seeing the hard-working father making Mickey Mouse bento lunches for his son or the two on their first climbing trip in Japan’s Northern Alps.

“I wouldn’t say it was easy. It’s so much easier to work alone, but I continued that work style until my son finished elementary school,” he said.

Now 14 years old and having made the transition from darling child to surly teen, Sunowa has reached the stage where the parent-child relationship has become more complicated. Oura said there have been times father-son arguments have escalated.

“People only see the good side (of our life on TV), but it’s no fairy tale. He can look like a gremlin at times, he can get so evil. But I’m all he has. I gotta do what I gotta do.”

Oura has been through enough to laugh off most of his son’s issues. “Yup, he’s no longer the saint he used to be,” he said, “yup, he punched holes in the wall,” but when he recently received news that the boy had fainted at a train station, it was no joking matter.

It was bad enough seeing his son on an IV drip when he finally arrived at the hospital after wrapping up a late-night gig. But Oura said it was worse when he realized the doctors were asking so many questions because they suspected the boy was being neglected.

“He lacked nutrition, he lacked sleep and he lacked love. I knew he was sleep-deprived because he was spending so much time on his smartphone,” Oura said.

“But what I didn’t realize is that he was doing that because the smartphone gave him the attention he was dying for. An iPhone doesn’t betray you. It’s always there when you want to play with it. Whoa. It was a wake-up call for me.”

How does a single parent cope with isolation, loneliness and solitude? Oura said he has tried getting back into the dating game but quickly learned that finding a new partner when there is a kid in the mix can be a tricky proposition.

“I realized I was trying to find someone who would make my son’s life easier, someone convenient for the both of us. It wasn’t a man and a woman thing. I felt even lonelier when a new relationship would end in failure because I didn’t know how to get this other person to understand me,” Oura said.

“It’s one thing if your friend or co-worker can’t relate to your situation, but it’s another if you cannot connect with someone who is important to you, and is as close as family, on a deep level. That’s loneliness.”

Still single, Oura has learned to gain peace of mind, even for only a few hours a week, and knows that in parenthood — whether single or not — the more you give, the more you get back.

“Let’s face it. It gets old, this child-rearing and house chore thing. You do the same thing day in and day out. You’re in the same place repeating the same routine and that gets to you. But if you give up, you lose.”

Oura knows he cannot play the dual roles of father and mother, and he does not even try. As a man, he feels like he is allowed to cheat by taking his son to eat out rather than cooking, but he says he can get away with it in Japan where gender roles are still traditionally defined — nobody expects him to be a homemaker.

“A mother sees a child as a child and her love is the embracing kind, but a father approaches them as equals, which is what causes conflict. I don’t have maternal instincts. We make more mistakes.”