Japanese dads struggle to reform fatherhood

Statistically speaking, for every baby born in Japan, two people pass away. The country’s rapidly shrinking population is, according to Japanese officials, a “national emergency” threatening its future prosperity and entire way of life. They’re struggling to reverse this trend but some believe fixing this problem calls for a revolution in Japanese fatherhood. The World’s Patrick Winn reports with Aya Asakura in Tokyo.

The World

The Kurodas aren’t your average couple. 

Yuko Kuroda and her husband, Takashi Kuroda, live in a modest, two-story home in Tokyo’s outskirts. Both in their early 40s, Yuko Kuroda works at a daycare center, while Takashi Kuroda has a white-collar job: statistical analysis.

“Yeah, I’d say we’re both pretty weird,” Yuko Kuroda said.

She refers to the fact that having five children is a rarity in today’s Japan. Just a few generations ago, in the years after World War II, the average Japanese woman gave birth to five children, just like Yuko Kuroda, but nowadays, that is nowhere near the case.

In contemporary Japan, roughly one-third of women under the age of 50 do not have children. Couples who choose to raise kids usually stop at one.

“I know we’re doing a crazy thing,” Takashi Kuroda said. 

Takashi Kuroda, his face streaked with black marker, just emerged from a rolling-on-the-floor play session with his son and daughter, aged 3 and 6, on a Sunday afternoon. The children drew whiskers on his cheeks while shouting, “Neko! Neko!” (Japanese for “cat”). 

Takashi Kuroda’s son painting whiskers with a black market in his face.Patrick Winn/The World

“I really recommend this lifestyle,” he said. “Raising five kids is fun.”

Japan’s officialdom would rejoice if more couples agreed to have children. The country’s low birth rate has become a “national emergency,” according to the government. 

New data shows that for every baby born, two people pass away. Officials warn that if the birth rate doesn’t rise, Japan could become unrecognizable in decades to come: less affluent, less vibrant and less powerful.

What currently is deterring couples from raising children is being associated with overwork and sky-high housing prices. 

But one of the major factors concerns dads “doing too little around the house,” according to Mary Brinton, a Harvard University sociologist who has studied Japanese demographics for decades and has even advised Japanese officials.

Traditionally, when Japanese couples have children, “women do most the housework and child care,” Brinton said, and for working moms, the idea of holding down what is essentially a second, unpaid full-time job is “not very attractive.”

According to her research, many Japanese women simply refuse to have a second or third child.

Among the world’s high-income countries, including the US, fathers average more than two hours of daily housework and child care. In Japan, the average is only about 40 minutes. 

But what erased Yuko Kuroda’s reluctance in raising five kids was that Takashi Kuroda wasn’t afraid to wipe a butt or wash a dish. 

“If one of the kids falls ill, he’ll immediately ask for a day off from work,” she said. “He won’t even hesitate.”

The Kuroda family posing for a family picture.Courtesy of the Kuroda family

Takashi Kuroda believes raising Japan’s birth rate requires a revolution in fatherhood. More than a decade ago, the government launched a social engineering campaign urging fathers to become ikumen, a Japanese word that loosely translates to “super dads.” 

Through public service announcements, namely posters, websites and online videos, Japan promoted this ideal of fatherhood. The ikumeneagerly burp babies, change diapers and walk toddlers to the park. The imagery, Brinton said, usually showed a “quite-attractive man with a baby strapped to his chest. It’s an effort to say, ‘This is masculinity too.’”

Fathering Japan, a nonprofit organization, contracted with the government to promote an “ikumen boom” and teach fathers, through in-person classes, how to care for kids and do chores. 

Manabu Tsukagoshi, a director with the group, believes it has successfully shifted fathers’ mindsets across Japan. But workplace culture is much harder to change. 

Plenty of dads now want to live as ikumen, Tsukagoshi said, but — especially in white-collar jobs — they might toil for old-fashioned bosses who pressure workers to stay late and, after hours, bond over beer and sake. 

Japan’s paternity leave policies are now among the best in the world, but too many fathers fear taking time off work and risking the disapproval of their bosses or colleagues.

“I’m actually a bit ashamed of our Japanese men,” Tsukagoshi said. “As employees, we have rights, but men hesitate to break from the norm. If other guys in the office aren’t taking paternity leave, they won’t feel keen to be the first.”

But Takashi Kuroda is hopeful. He believes the revolution in fatherhood — in which dads stand up to corporations and put family first — is on the horizon. 

Fifteen years ago, the rate of fathers taking paternity leave was almost zero. Only in recent years, it’s edged up to roughly 15% while by the decade’s end, Japan’s government hopes to up the rate to 85%.

“I think we’ve hit a turning point. Younger Japanese dads don’t feel like they have to belong to one company. So, they’re not terrified of their bosses … and will stand up for themselves.”

Takashi Kuroda, Japanese father

“I think we’ve hit a turning point,” Takashi Kuroda said. 

He credits Gen Z fathers for helping redefine what it means to be an attentive dad, unlike their own fathers, who often stuck with a corporation their entire working lives.

“Younger Japanese dads don’t feel like they have to belong to one company. So, they’re not so terrified of their bosses … and will stand up for themselves,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which saw more parents working at home, spurred a higher number of fathers to refocus on family, Takashi Kuroda said. 

He’s among the fathers who not only demanded paternity leave but took an entire year off for his third child, also insisting on remote work.

By any measure, Takashi Kuroda is an ikumen. Yet, he recoils at the term.

“That’s a peculiar word to me,” he said.

Yuko Kuroda noted the absurdity of men exalted about just raising their own children: “No one gives women a word for taking care of kids. Why only men?”

By late afternoon, Yuko Kuroda read to her children from a storybook while Takashi Kuroda was in the kitchen, elbows deep in dirty dishes. The sink was full of bowls used for breakfast, and water-logged noodles swirled around the drain. He looked silly — the cat whiskers remaining on his face — as he radiated joy.

“I’m very, very, very happy,” he said.

When asked if he’d be happy to have a sixth child, he answered maybe, as Yuko Kuroda popped in to end the questioning.

“No way,” she said. “Our car only seats seven people. This is it.”

Aya Asakura contributed to this report.

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