National / Media | Japan Pulse

Family dynamic shifts as schools remain closed nationwide

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing writer

Japanese dads are coming under scrutiny — again. Ever since Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi officially made ikumen (men who take an active role in child-rearing) fashionable by publicly taking two weeks off for paternity leave, fathers who let their spouses shoulder all the burden of child care have become very unpopular figures — both in terms of social media and in real life. Intriguingly, however, the discussion has shifted from whether employers should encourage their male employees to take time off after childbirth to how much fathers are actually contributing when they do stay home.

“I worked myself to near-death in my 20s and 30s but, now that I’ve become a father, I devote at least six hours a day to cooking, cleaning and dropping off and picking up my child from day care,” 45-year-old author and university lecturer Yohei Tsunemi tells the Asahi Shimbun in an interview. “While spending time with my family is very nice, there’s always an anxious feeling at the back of my mind that maybe I won’t be able to return to my career path, and will be left behind. This is probably a feeling that women have had for decades, but they’ve weathered the storm and worked really hard to maintain households and keep their jobs. We fathers don’t have the same examples. I wish that we, as men, had similar role models to look up to.”

Tsunemi describes his angst as “moya moya,” which indicates a vague sense of foreboding that he can’t quite put a finger on.

“It’s dangerous to try and analyze or air my moya moya in public because women tend to get really angry,” he says.

Tsunemi adds that many mothers in Japan tend to view men as the enemy in the family — an individual who has never lifted a finger to help out at home before and is not even much use now, despite the rise of the ikumen phenomenon.

“Instead of cutting us down as the enemy, why not look at how much progress we’ve made?” he pleads.

Fair enough, I suppose, but many mothers aren’t convinced.

Although more men are taking paternity leave than ever before and the government is considering making paternity leave obligatory instead of it merely being an option for both employers and employees, many mothers feel it’s not enough.

The duration of the leave is part of the reason. At present, most men take paternity leave of no more than a week, which is way too short to be effective, and then end up using that time for themselves.

On social media, mothers complain that many husbands spend their paternity leave “just relaxing on the sofa” or “playing games on the phone in one hand while feeding the baby with the other.”

Others have suggested that men need to be coached on the basics of housework and postnatal care before the baby is born, which would make them more useful around the home.

“They say it’s important to have a work-life balance but when it comes to maintaining a family, it’s all work and no life,” Tsunemi says. “It’s a work-work balance that never stops.”

The conversation about Japanese fathers and child care in general has come to the fore since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced school closures at the end of last month to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and companies have since instructed their employees work remotely.

Domestic news outlets have focused on the economic impact of working mothers staying home to care for their children and the subsequent monetary compensation packages that come with it.

On social media, however, these same mothers say they’re scrambling to deal with the realities of having their children — in addition to their husbands — at home.

“I thought this would at least provide an opportunity for my husband to be a better dad,” wrote one irate mother on Twitter in a post that has since been taken down. “But this hasn’t happened at all. He’s watching TV, playing video games and Skyping with his colleagues while I take the kids out to the park. The government is useless, and so, it seems, is my husband.”

Commentators on network TV shows can frequently be seen furrowing their brows over the tremendous burden mothers face following Abe’s announcement to close schools but have neglected to include fathers in the mix. One Twitter user wrote that Japan hasn’t changed in terms of work-style reforms and, in emergency situations like this, society and the government still expect mothers to come up with solutions or to just grin and bear it, while their husbands are given free rein to carry on as usual.

Perhaps, as Tsunemi says, it’s important for fathers to have role models, if only to reinforce the belief that they, too, can be relied upon to pull their weight in dire situations such as we face today. Realistically, they could do with a forum (or 10) to share their worries and experiences.

In the meantime, I’ve been seeing a few fathers out with their children in the neighborhood, hanging out in coffee shops or at local parks. They may be heavily outnumbered by moms doing the same thing but, all the same, they’re at least making some progress.

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