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Salisbury Report: Challenging Japan’s Low Birthrate: How Japanese Nonprofit Organizations Focused on Fathering Are Affecting Men’s Performances of Masculinity

By Evan Koike, University of British Columbia (Winner of the 2016 Salisbury Award)

In twenty-first-century Japan, mounting demographic pressures, the needs of heterosexual, married parents of young children, and nonprofit organizations’ outreach efforts are slowly changing the meaning of Japanese fatherhood. Collectively, these factors are spurring the development of hybrid masculinities, which blur the boundaries between hegemonic masculinity and the practices and values associated customarily with femininities and subordinate masculinities (Bridges and Pascoe 2014). Men’s shift toward greater engagement in their families began in the early 1990s, when the Japanese government recognized that societal changes were necessary to prevent the nation’s social and economic decline (Roberts 2002). The 2010s witnessed renewed societal panic over Japan’s rapidly aging population and low birthrate, which in 2019 was 1.43 births per woman (World Bank 2019), well below the 2.08 births necessary to sustain Japan’s population (Allison 2013). In response, the government made efforts to encourage men’s participation in child rearing based on the survey-supported conclusion that fathers’ involvement in their families could help raise Japan’s fertility rate. According to Japanese research, when men contribute to chores and child care, women no longer bear sole responsibility for these tasks and would likely be more willing to have children, thus helping to reverse Japan’s population decline (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2013; Sakatsume 2007).  

However, structural barriers—inside and outside the home—have tempered the government initiatives’ effectiveness. Many Japanese women continue to struggle with a “double shift”: they work part- or full-time outside the home because most families require two incomes (Poole 2016). Women must also serve simultaneously as primary caretakers of children and often as caregivers for elderly family members. In addition, Japanese women are usually responsible for coordinating and executing most tasks within their households (Mun and Brinton 2015; Tokuhiro 2010). Moreover, such policies as the former Prime Minister Abe’s high-profile Womenomics—which encourages women’s participation in the labor force—have not only exemplified male policymakers’ again determining women’s best interests (Dalton 2017), but they have also revealed Japan’s lack of day-care services and society’s entrenched beliefs about appropriate gender roles.

Recognizing and filling these gaps in policymakers’ knowledge about gender disparities are nonprofit organizations like Fathering Japan, which identifies and raises awareness about the obstacles to creating and maintaining healthy, happy families. Fathering Japan and similar nonprofits attempt to tap Japanese parents’ lived experiences, generating insights that these groups use in seminars, workshops, and social media that influence public discourse.

Funded in part by CASCA’s Salisbury Award, I spent 13 months in the Greater Tokyo Area conducting ethnographic research at gatherings sponsored by Fathering Japan and several other organizations concerned with parenting issues. In addition to attending events that were open to the public, I conducted numerous interviews with Japanese parents currently raising young children. Most of the Japanese men who were participating in these groups expressed to me their desire to become more actively invested in their children’s lives. These fathers see their children as intrinsic to their own masculine identities and as changing their purpose for living. These sentiments diverge from those of the sararīman or “salaryman”—the archetype of Japanese hegemonic masculinity—who achieved dominance during the country’s high-growth period following World War II. Typically a white-collar worker employed at a medium- to large-sized company, the sararīman was and continues to be encouraged by his employer to devote himself wholeheartedly to his work, usually at the expense of time spent with family.

In contrast to the sararīman, the Japanese men with whom I spoke emphasized the need for greater gender equality in the household. Although demanding work hours and the gap between practice and principle sometimes caused the men’s wives to voice dissatisfaction with their husbands’ levels of participation in child care and chores, these fathers were demonstrating hybrid masculinities: they merged the practices of Japanese hegemonic masculinity with those traditionally associated with Japanese femininity. Nevertheless, the danger remains that such hybrid masculinities will appropriate gender performances selectively from a continued position of privilege, thereby reproducing existing power structures (Bridges and Pascoe 2014; Randles 2018). In other words, men might choose to engage only in those family-related tasks and performances that they select for themselves.

Although involved fathers of young children are still a minority within Japanese society, those interviewed claimed that their growing numbers and the fathering groups’ effective use of news and social media are slowly altering Japanese men’s awareness of gender issues. One factor contributing to this awareness is the prevalence of the term ikumen, which combines the character iku from the Japanese word for “child care” with the English word men. The word ikumen refers to fathers who actively contribute to child care, sometimes at the cost of work promotions, which Japanese men traditionally have valued as markers of social worth (Dasgupta 2003; Hirayama 2011). Fathering organizations advocate for ikumen, and fathers who attempt to embody this concept have recently attracted significant attention in the Japanese media as so-called “new men” who are rethinking what it means to be masculine. However, like other so-called “new men” paradigms in the United States and elsewhere (Anderson 2009; Edwards 2006; Kimmel 2011), the ikumen ideal has fallen short of fomenting a revolution in Japanese gender relations.

Interestingly, many fathers at my field sites reject the ikumen label. Some fathering organization participants suggested that identifying as an ikumen is essentially boasting about one’s proficiency at child care. Because the media feature images of ikumen as young, “hip” men pushing designer strollers, other participants asserted that claiming to be an ikumen amounts to proclaiming that one looks cool. Another set of participants said that caring for one’s own children is only natural, so categorizing engaged fathers as ikumen—as exceptional—is crass. Still others, criticizing the existence of “fake-ikumen,” said that only a mother can award the label accurately to her spouse.

Despite the questionable value of the term ikumen, the masculinities of many Japanese men are integrating active fatherhood, thanks partly to the efforts of such nonprofit organizations as Fathering Japan, the Japanese government’s support, and individuals’ growing willingness to pivot from workplace to family. Nevertheless, Japanese economic, social, and educational structures need to value the family and to prioritize gender equality as their highest priorities if Japan is to thrive in the future.


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