Seven years ago, in February 1992, I became one of the
first men in Japan to take paternity leave. That was two months before
the national law on child-care leave policy took effect, establishing the
right to time off following the birth of a child for all employees, male
or female. I was, as the media somewhat breathlessly pointed out, a pioneer
of sorts. For three months I put my research job on hold while I took on
duties for which nothing in my past training experience had prepared me.
For nearly three months, I was a housebound house-husband and full-time
baby sitter to Yumi, my newborn daughter.
"Ota-san --I hear you're taking maternity leave," one
of my younger colleagues said with a grin. "What'll you do with such a
Very funny. First of all, the difference between maternity
leave and child-care leave should be self-evident. Secondly, as anyone
knows who has been through it, it is no vacation. Child-care leave is not
--believe me-- a synonym for rest and recreation. This is something many
young men in Japan fail to understand, no doubt because they have never
thought of early child-rearing as a man's responsibility. "Child care?
How can a man take care of an infant?"
My co-workers were not the only ones who wondered about
that. The media were even more curious. Newspaper reporters, magazine reporters
and TV crews came in a steady procession to cover a father who had arranged
with his employer for child-care leave two months before its legal sanction.
I was a rarity, an oddity. You'd think I was a panda or something.
And yet, when I made the decision to take paternity leave,
it never occurred to me that I was doing anything extraordinary. On the
contrary, what could be more ordinary than doing housework and taking care
of one's own child? Why send TV crews to record someone changing his baby's
Nor was there anything unusual in my motivation. First
of all, my wife and I, who were then both assistant managers at our company's
research laboratories, had been unable to find a day-care center in our
neighborhood that we thought would take proper care of an infant under
six months old. We visited many centers, including some that impressed
us, but they had a minimum age requirement. We have neither parents nor
other relatives living close by. In short, one of us --either my wife or
I-- had to take a leave of absence. We had agreed before we got married
that each would respect the other's career. That my wife would permanently
quit her job on becoming a mother was out of the question. The fact is,
my wife had not been eager to have a child, fearing precisely that conflict,
and I had assured her over and over again, "Don't worry --we'll raise the
child together." After that, I could hardly justify dumping all the burdens
of child care on her shoulders while I went blithely on with my career.
And so it was that I persuaded my employer to grant me
paternity leave two months before the Child-care Leave Law went into effect.
It was only later that I heard, from the journalists covering me, that
I was the first man in Japan ever to take paternity leave from a private
company. I still don't know if that's true or not. In any case, no earlier
examples have ever been found. Apparently a man taking time off from work
to look after his child is cause for astonishment in Japan. I had no idea
--until I myself became the object of that astonishment.
Walk in the Park Is No Walk in
Weekdays in the park remain as the most vivid memories
of my paternity leave. Imagine baby carriages lined up like cars in a parking
lot. And young mothers, throngs of them --some dandling infants on their
knees, others holding the hands of babies taking their first tottering
steps, others still, their 2- and 3-year-olds playing independently of
direct maternal supervision, talking among themselves. At the park I went
to there would be three distinct groups of mothers: one by the swings,
another by the slide, the third by the sandbox. Where would I fit in? Nowhere.
I sat on a bench, apart, alone, wracking my brains to come up with some
way of starting a conversation with someone. In vain. I dare say the mothers
were as discomfited by me as I was by them. What were they to make of this
lone father in the park among them during the daytime? I was a phenomenon
altogether beyond the range of their imaginations.
It was winter. The weather was rarely suitable for a
walk, and even when it was, there were all those journalists to deal with.
Perhaps I would have made friends at the park if I had gone more often,
but as it was, before I had a chance to become a familiar face among the
host of mothers, my leave was up. To this day, every time I think of that
park I feel lonely.
My house-husband adventures were already behind me when
I first encountered, in a child-care magazine, the expression "park debut."
For city mothers raising small children, it's a major stumbling block.
A young woman marries and moves into a new neighborhood. She knows no one;
no one knows her. At first this is scarcely a problem. She is working,
and seeing the same friends as she saw when she Was single. But after she
gives birth, her free time is intermittent at best. Confined to the house
and its immediate environs, she begins to feel the need for neighborly
companionship. Accordingly she bundles up her small child and seeks out
a likely park. She finds there young mothers like herself --but they are
all clustered in groups. How to penetrate one of these groups?
Stories about mothers trying their luck at park after
park, only to be welcomed nowhere and thrown back entirely on their own
lonely resources, have become a staple of Japanese child-care publications.
So have stories about quarrels among park mothers. The case histories are
accompanied by tips on how to avoid those pitfalls --the right clothes
to wear, the right topics of conversation and so on. My own "park debut"
I suppose I can write off as a total failure.
Something else I remember clearly about those child-care
days: my daughter and me, all alone in the house, she sleeping, me sitting
in the sunlit room, idly listening to her soft breathing and the distant
sundry noises from a carpenter's shop some distance away. It was a residential
area. Most of my neighbors were elderly. How quiet it was! How monotonous,
day after day! Of course I had known it would be like this, and the baby
was adorable, and it was senseless to complain because there was no help
for it. Still, how I longed for some distraction! To spend the better part
of every day all alone with an infant who has not a single word at her
command, with all my attention focused on fulfilling whatever need my daughter
might present --one after another-- for hours on end, is a strain of an
intensity that ultimately becomes almost cruel.
Still, I am glad I did it. The experience did me good.
My housekeeping and child-rearing skills have improved considerably. Without
that paternity leave, I would never have gained the confidence I feel with
respect to raising my daughter, now 7, and son Akira, 4. Moreover, it made
me aware of how poor the urban environment is for child-rearing. There
are so few opportunities for neighborhood parents to get to know one another,
to exchange information on such matters as the reputations of local pediatricians,
or simply to chat casually about the problems and joys of parenthood. For
my part, I had been so wrapped up in my work, so submerged in my "company
society," that I hadn't spared a thought for "the other society," the one
unfolding in my own home and community. My paternity leave taught me some
things about that "other society."
My leave ended, and I went back to work. Life was more
hectic than ever, for we had to scramble, my wife and I, to take Yumi
to the day-care center in the morning, and pick her up in the evening.
I felt as if I were juggling two jobs: one at the office, the other at
home. Still, things were going very well. I was promoted to a managerial
position. Our daughter was growing strong and healthy. What more was there
to ask for?
But my approach to work had changcd. First of all, I
gave up all unnecessary overtime. In the old days I had often been at
my desk until far into the night. No longer. Other considerations aside,
it had become physically impossible.
Second, since I had discovered life beyond my office
walls, I grew increasingly involved in it. I was active in the day-care
center's parents' association. I helped plan summer festivals, mochi-making
parties and so on. In our neighborhood there was no clubhouse where elementary
school students whose parents both worked could play after school. Seeing
the need for one, I approached other parents, and eventually a citizens'
movement took shape, with me serving as its general secretary for liaison
and coordination work. We met with city council members, negotiated with
municipal officials, and three years later we had our clubhouse. I also
became active in a group called lkujiren (Network Promoting Child-care
Hours for Men and Women), which encourages child-rearing by both parents
and pushes for flexible working hours that take employees' parental responsibilities
into account. I help produce lkujiren's Internet home page (http://www.eqg.org/index-e.html)
and compile a mailing list for people interested in these issues. At this
fall's national Men's Lib movement meeting in Tokyo, I and some other lkujiren
fathers ran a "fathers' day-care center," which, besides providing a useful
service, challenged the stereotype image of child care as women's work.
Discovering 'Another Society'
Why have I cut down my professional workload to take on
these responsibilities? Because once I realized that there was "another
society" out there beyond corporate society, I felt I owed it to myself
to be part of it. Ask most men why they work so hard, and they'll tell
you they do it for their families. Well, there should be more to working
for the sake of your family than mere bread-winning. There is housework
to do, there are children to be raised --and not only that; there is also
a neighborhood that needs the participation of its members if it is to
be a community. I thought of these things for the first time during my
paternity leave. Since then my circle of acquaintances on the other side
of my working life has grown steadily, and become increasingly important
A Ministry of Labor survey showed that a mere 0.02 percent
of young fathers took time off work to help raise their children in 1992,
the year I took my paternity leave. By mid-1996 that percentage had risen
to 0.16. This is still not a very impressive number, but it does at least
suggest that the idea is taking hold: A man who helps raise his child is
no longer the anomaly he once was. To put it another way: He is no longer
quite so rare a beast as a panda, as I had felt myself to be, but, let's
say, a hippopotamus, of which there is one at just about every zoo. Fathers
who have taken paternity leave have had many different things to say about
the experience, but one observation that strikes a chord in me is, "I realized
that I'd have absolutely no idea what went on at home while my wife was
alone with the child." One brief stint as a house-husband, and suddenly
your whole perspective on housework and child-rearing changes.
Men who have taken paternity leave fall into two broad,
admittedly somewhat arbitrary, categories. One is of men who stress the
joy of the experience, who delight in the discovery that fathers too have
a role to play in raising their chirdren. We'll call them the optimists.
The other category is made up, not neccssarily of pessimists,
but at any rate of men who stress the difficulties involved and point to
the needs for improvement from a man's point of view. Which group is right?
Both, I think. Yes, raising a child is a joy --but the difficulties are
myriad. A good father should be aware of both sides of the coin.
Over the past few years Japanese men --men in general,
not only those who take paternity leave-- have gone through a sharp awakening
as to the nature of fatherhood. The proof can be seen in the proliferation
of publications on the subject of what it means to be a father. Until very
recently, children were considered as more or less exclusively their mothers'
responsibility. No longcr. "Fathers! Get back home to serve as fathers!"
is the message of Fusei no Fukken (The Reinstatement of Fatherhood), a
1996 bestseller by the psychologist Hayashi Michiyoshi, although I do not
agree with much of what he says about the roles of men and women.
Fathers More in Evidence
More fathers nowadays turn up at elementary school, nurseIry
school and on day-care center activity days. (True, many of them seem to
come primarily to hold the video camera.) At my son's day-care center too,
the parents who come to drop off or pick up their children are often fathers.
(Neither my wife nor I took child-care leave when our second child was
born, because a new day-care center had opened nearby.) One of the
center's veteran teachers told me that until about 10 years ago she almost
never saw a father on the premises. Things have definitely changed. It
is not that fathers are suddenly all on fire to assume a responsibility
they once spurned. But, on fire or not, they are no longer spurning it.
They accept that the chore has to be done, and no longer consider it beneath
them. The parents' association too, once almost exclusively a gathering
of mothers, has been benefiting lately from the participation of fathers.
The conventional Japanese wisdom about child-rearing being woman's work
is, slowly but surely, breaking down.
Male inroads into the world of child care and day care
have their analogy in the increasing male presence in the delivery room,
at the very dawn of parenthood. Not long ago this venue was off limits
to men, and more or less taboo.Even today, it's hardly the norm for Japanese
fathers to witness the birth of their children, but it is happening more
and more. For one of my colleagues, it was a trauma he would just as soon
not talk about --he was there not because he wanted to be, but because
his wife had insisted. Others, though, brim with enthusiasm. "You absolutely
must be there!" a friend told me. I took his advice, and now I say the
same to younger men in my circle: "By all means, be there!" There is no
better initiation into fatherhood.
Paternity is seeping into government thinking as well.
The only way to turn Japan's declining birth rate around is to get fathers
involved in child-rearing --a perception renected in a white paper published
in 1998 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Its analysis attributes
young women's reluctance to have children to their unwillingness, in an
environment increasingly characterized by urban lifestyles and the nuclear
family, to bear sole responsibility for child-raising. That won't change
unless men start getting involved. Among the participants at the prime
minister's advisory panel meetings on the declining birth rate were several
child-rearing fathers, invited to share their experiences and offer suggestions.
Concept Slow to Catch On
As encouraging as these signs are, the fact remains that
mothers are by far the majority of parents who take child-care leave from
their jobs. Just only 0.16 percent of male employees whose wives have just
given birth take child-care leave, compared to 44.5 percent of eligible
female employees who do.
Why should that be?
There are four main reasons. First of all, the notion
of child-rearing as a mother's responsibility still holds firm in Japan.
Even women who are not full-time housewives from early on in marriage customarily
quit their jobs before their first child is born. That encourages men to
regard child-earing as essentially their wives' concern.
Second, in families where the husband and wife both work,
there is usually an income gap in the husband's favor. Even women working
full time earn, on average, about 60 percent of what their husbands make.
Gender-based salaries are prohibited by law, but even so, the occupations
women generally enter --or are forced into-- pay less than male-dominated
occupations. When one spouse is earning conspicuously less than another,
which one is the more likely to take child-care leave? An employee on child-care
leave receives 25 percent of his or her salary as unemployment compensation
insurance. Generally speaking, under current arrangements, it is considerably
more economical for the wife to take time off. Among the men I know who
have taken child-care leave, most are married to women earning as much
or nearly as much as they are. That was my situation, too.
The third reason concerns Japanese hiring practices.
In Japan, though job security is not nearly as assured as it once was,
company loyalty --working until retirement for the company that hired you
after graduation-- still stands as an admired tradition. Many of the comments
and questions I heard from the male journalists covering my paternity leave
suggest this. "You're very brave," they said, or, "I suppose you've given
up on being promoted, haven't you?" or, "What did your boss say when you
applied for child-care leave?" Looking back, I realized that those questions
reflected the reporters' own insecurity. "I could never have done it myself,"
they seemed to be saying. To them, it was tantamount to a total sacrifice
of professional life.
If Japanese were free to choose their elnployers with
reference to their own career goals and their own convenience, such concern
about staying in the good graces of one's employer would not be necessary.
Finally, few Japanese men know even the most basic
fundamentals of ordinary housekeeping, let alone of looking after an infant.
Even if more fathers did take patemity leave, most of them would probably
be helplessly incompetent. The comments of the young colleague I introduced
at the beginning of this story suggest that plainly enough. I myself, though
a pretty fair cook, knew absolutely nothing about cleaning and laundry
and the like. My wife had tried to teach me but I didn't improve much --until
I became a house-husband with full responsibility for running the house.
Before, working under my Wife's direction, I was "helping," not "doing."
It was not until every corner of every closet fell under my jurisdiction
that I felt that I was the boss. I learned because the boss has to.
Better Incentives Are Needed
Some members of lkujiren, the child-care network I am
involved in, believe the government should adopt an affirmative action
program toward paternity leave and house-husbandry. A possible prototype
is Nolway's "papa quota" program, which promotes extended child-care leave
for parents --fathers as Well as mothers-- by imposing a minimum duration
on their paid time off from work. Short vacations, in other words, are
One way or another, those lkujiren members maintain,
Japanese men must be given the opportunity --by force if necessary-- to
take on a fair share of the work that has to be done around the house.
Otherwise, they will never learn to regard housework and child-rearing
as their responsibilities. Of course, before an affirmative action program
can be developed, it will have to be widely discussed, and once it is,
there is bound to be heated opposition.
Japan's current policy of compensating child-care leave
with 25 percent of the employee's regular salary will not do --it is simply
not a sufficient incentive. To make it more attractive, the compensation
would have to be increased, but with Japan's social insurance system in
deep financial trouble, this will not be easy.
There is also the problem of how much official interference
individuals are prepared to accept in their private lives. I myself feel
uncomfortable with the notion of the government telling me how much leave
I must take. When I took my three months off back in 1992, I worked things
out in relation to my family's particular situation. I did not say to myself,
"This is what a man living in these times owes to the community, therefore
I'll do it."
But there is something fundamentally wrong with a situation
like Japan's, in which company employees practically live at the office
and sometimes visit their homes. My three months as a full-time house-husband
and full-time father allowed me to observe with some objectivity a state
of affairs I might not have seen without the opportunity to distance myself
from it. Work is not the sum total of a man's life. In this age of the
nuclear family, men have work to do at home too, and in their own local
communities. Each man must decide for himself just what his domestic life
should involve, striking a balance between household and professional responsibilities
so that neither makes the other impossible.