• Kyodo, Staff report

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Friday marks International Men's Day, which focuses on gender equality and gender roles through the eyes of men.

While women's issues remain key in considerations around gender equality, experts point out that men can also feel frustrated due to stereotypical expectations from society and that this is often overlooked.

While women can go through a phase of juggling work and domestic responsibilities after giving birth to a child, men also face societal expectations to be the family breadwinner and endure long hours at work, says Toshiyuki Tanaka, an associate professor of men's studies at Taisho University.

"It's two sides of the same coin,” Tanaka said. “If society becomes fair for women, it'll be fair for men, too."

International Men's Day is thought to have begun in 1999 in Trinidad and Tobago, with the goal of promoting healthy lifestyles and gender equality.

On Nov. 19 each year, countries in Europe and Africa hold various events to celebrate the occasion. Japan has followed suit in recent years and started hosting similar events.

Men's studies kicked off in the late 1980s with the aim of rethinking gender roles and the expectations associated with them.

In Japan, traditional roles where men go to work while women stay home to take care of domestic affairs were formed during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. It became a man's job to support the family as a full-time worker through retirement.

"To be a good breadwinner, it was necessary to be economically successful," Tanaka said. "They faced fierce competition at work and long working hours were taken for granted. They were not allowed to get off that track, and wives took care of their children and other domestic responsibilities."

Toshiyuki Tanaka | KYODO
Toshiyuki Tanaka | KYODO

After the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Japan went through a prolonged economic downturn, which brought about drastic changes to the employment landscape.

In the 2010s, more women continued to work full time even after giving birth. But still, the traditional gender roles remained for men and women, Tanaka said.

A 2019 survey conducted by Lean In Tokyo, a female empowerment group, showed that among 309 male respondents up to age 69, 17% said they often feel uncomfortable with expectations that they play the male gender role at school, work and home, while 34% said they were somewhat uncomfortable.

Among reasons for that was that many felt pressured to be the breadwinner of the family, or were embarrassed to show their vulnerabilities and worries to others, the survey showed.

The wage gap between men and women, who tend to take home about 70% of what men earn, also remains an issue.

Even though the government is encouraging more men to take paternity leave, it's unlikely to bear fruit if there is a wage gap, Tanaka said.

Currently, many families choose to have the husband with his higher income work while the wife takes maternity leave to take care of the child, given that it would be harder for women to support the family with their lower incomes.

Society at present is designed so that men have an advantage over women, he said.

"It is one option for men to continue on that path. But with life expectancy nearing 100, it is extremely difficult to keep winning" in the workforce, Tanaka said. "That's going to be difficult for everyone."

One of the reasons there has been little progress on gender equality in Japan, Tanaka points out, is that men often consider it someone else's problem rather than their own.

"Resolving systematic discrimination and disadvantages against women, and creating a fair environment will make life easier for both sides."

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