Japan’s “Ikumen” Mister Moms: Image Versus Reality

Society Lifestyle Family

The Japanese term ikumen evokes an ideal image of fathers engaged in child-rearing, but data indicates minimal actual increases in male participation. How can this be rectified?

In 2010, the word ikumen, describing men who raise children, was included among the top ten buzzwords for the year, and many people felt society was on the verge of major change.

Almost 10 years have passed since, and the word is used less frequently now. Is it because awareness of men sharing child-rearing responsibilities has grown to the point where it is considered the norm? Professor Tsutsui Jun’ya, a specialist in quantitative sociology and sociology of the family at Ritsumeikan University, discussed the vicissitudes of ikumen.

A Changed Ideal of Fatherhood

Tsutsui offers an explanation for the genesis of the term ikumen. “Changes in Japan’s working environment since the late 1990s have seen a rise in the number of households that can no longer manage on the sole income of the husband. The number of dual-income families has risen and, outside the workplace, a shift in attitudes has resulted in a greater expectation for both partners to share household and child-rearing responsibilities.

“The word ikumen was created in response to this, in an attempt to further increase a proactive approach to housework and child-rearing among men,” says Tsutsui. The term is a play on words combining ikemen,—itself a buzzword, used to describe a handsome guy—with iku, referring to childcare.

“Words have the power to evoke a concrete image in our minds,” notes Tsutsui. “Thanks to the term ikumen, people can envisage fathers involved in child-rearing, which surely makes it a positive phenomenon. The popular notion of fatherhood has come a long way since the Shōwa era [1926–89], when the concept of the father as teishu kanpaku—a domineering head of the family—was the norm.”

Little Real Change in the Ikumen Era

However, there is little data that proves a substantial change in the role of fathers.

Results of the Japanese government’s five-yearly Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities indicate a gradual rise in the time that fathers devote to child-rearing, but only by a few minutes between surveys. In 2006, fathers of children aged up to five spent an average of 33 minutes a day on childcare duties. This crept up just 6 minutes, to 39 minutes, in the 2011 survey, and an additional 10 minutes, to 49 minutes, in 2016. Says Tsutsui, “From a quantitative sociological perspective, we cannot yet consider that men are significantly involved in child-raising.”

The average time spent by men on their young ones may be increasing, but the rate of this change is minimal. The popularity of the ikumen concept may have had some impact, notes Tsutsui, but it is not quantitatively significant.

In contrast, women spend substantially more time raising children. In 2006, there was a 5.7-fold discrepancy between women (189 minutes a day) and the men’s 33 minutes. While this gap shrank somewhat to 4.5-fold in 2016, women were in fact spending longer on childcare than before, with 225 minutes to the men’s 49-minute average.

“Changes to legislation regarding childcare and caregiver leave appear to be a major factor in the increase in time spent by women on child-rearing,” explains Tsutsui. “Previously, the reduction of scheduled working hours for childcare only applied to workers with a child under one year of age, but in 2002, this was raised to cover children under three. Limitations on overtime work were also revised in 2002 for workers caring for a child prior to their commencement at elementary school.”

On a global level, Tsutsui stresses, the expansion of childcare leave is considered to have the potential to perpetuate the conventional division of roles between men and women. “Women actively take advantage of the greater access to childcare leave, leaving men free to continue to commit fully to work after a child is born.”

Even in Sweden, where over 90% of men now take childcare leave, concerns were raised when, initially, the uptake rate of childcare leave only rose for women. There, notes Tsutsui, “The solution adopted was to make childcare leave mandatory for men. Debate has emerged in Japan regarding compulsory leave, where the uptake of childcare leave by men is still less than 10 percent. If implemented, men could share greater responsibility for housework and childrearing with women, which would radically alter the image of fatherhood.”

Reducing the Burden for Women

If childcare leave was made compulsory for male workers, it would likely result in a significant rise in the time that men spend on housework and child-rearing. But without a change in the attitude of Japan’s men, they will still be far from the ideal.

“Japanese men tend to believe that they are competent at housework and child-raising, even when they are not actively engaged in either,” says Tsutsui. “In reality, it’s tougher than they assume. For example, when preparing meals, men are prone to immediately go shopping for ingredients rather than checking the contents of the refrigerator and only buying what is needed. As with any job, it takes experience to become adept at housekeeping and child-rearing.”

The government’s Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities indicates that even though men dedicated more time to these activities, there was no decrease in the time spent by women. Couples with a child under six years old spent more time each day on childcare and housework in 2016 compared with 2006, rising from 60 to 83 minutes for men, and 447 to 454 minutes for women.

Tsutsui goes on: “The data indicates that men are not making a significant difference. If husbands participate in housework and child-rearing it ought to reduce the burden upon the wife, but this is not the case. Sharing of responsibilities is only meaningful if we consider how to reduce the wife’s burden.”

Compulsory childcare leave would be an important factor in changing the attitudes of men, Tsutsui says. “It would most likely have a significant impact, because Japanese people tend to implement something when a framework is put in place.

“Perhaps the fading of ikumen as a buzzword is a good sign,” he continues. “If it becomes the norm for men to participate in household chores and child-rearing, the term may vanish altogether.”

Japanese society is changing its approach to childcare, as seen in the ikumen phenomenon. Awareness surrounding men’s involvement in child-rearing is growing, but the reality is still not keeping pace, due to systemic issues. Mandatory childcare leave is a pressing issue for Japan, but rather than simply waiting for legal reform, people should consider what is within their power to change. Men who do so will certainly improve their marital and family relations.

Professor Tsutsui Jun’ya

Sociologist and professor at Ritsumeikan University. Completed his doctoral studies in the social sciences at Hitotsubashi University, earning a PhD in sociology. His major areas of research include quantitative sociology, sociology of the family, and work-life balance. Writings include Kekkon to kazoku no korekara—Tomobataraki shakai no genkai (Marriage and the Family: Limits of the Dual-Income Society) and Shigoto to kazoku: Nihon wa naze hatarakizuraku, uminikui no ka (Work and Family: What Makes It Hard to Work and Give Birth in Japan?). His blog (in Japanese) is
http://jtsutsui.hatenablog.com/.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on November 20, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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