Rise of the Ikumen: Cool Japanese Fathers

The elevator rocketed skyward, taking in the sweeping arc of the city on its monorail path to the top. Below – far, far below – the eyes of the city were winking on one by one as the sunlight shed the last of its allotted effulgence. The phone in his pocket hadn’t stopped its monotonous, syncopated vibrating all day. He groped for it now, hand trembling in the gathering dusk. The face displayed on the screen was not the one he had been hoping for. He replaced the machined piece of space-age glass and plastic in his trousers. It always amazed him – the height of the building. How men had clambered up hundreds of stories, course after course, ratcheting steel and glass and concrete in ever loftier formations, sights set on the heavens. It was dizzying. Men used to wash the windows up here. It seemed like a myth. The amazingly fragile, soft-shelled human, dangling 89 stories above the curved and rotating planet, scraping a squeegee along planed glass. The gusts of wind. The creaking scaffolding. The thin-carapaced man in a plastic hardhat scuttling along the sheer verticality. He shuddered. From the thought of hanging out there or the look he had seen on his supervisor’s face he couldn’t be sure.

It had not always been this difficult. The first child was shukufuku – a blessing. The second one seemed more like… noroi. A curse. The back of a manicured hand wiped a beadlet of sweat from his eyebrow. He flung it far from the tailored suit, the one his father had bought him on his induction into the top tier of the company. It bothered the man that the inside of the left front coat pocket had a stain; not that anyone would ever see this. It seemed to him, however, that the stain betokened something sinister. A malediction on his otherwise untarnished reputation; a tarnishing of his silver, something insidiously willing his faux-metallic sheen to wear thin. A revealing of his zirconia core.

Restless, irresolute, he tapped his shoe on the carpeting. A few more floors to go. His palms radiated heat, but his mouth went ever drier. He passed his tongue across the well-formatted teeth there. Bared them at the wavering reflection in the flared glass. Pinched up his tie one final time. He blew a hot breath out through an already vibrato-timbering throat. This is what he had planned for, rehearsed. He would march in there and tell him. March in there and tell him… tell him… A scrapbook of grim, disapproving family members filled his mind. They shook their heads in dismay. His father, standing rigid in an antiseptic office, turned his squared and set jaw. Cast his gaze now far from his one and only son. Would his career ever recover? What would people say? How ready was he – how capable – to nurture a new life?

The world below slowed to a stop. The city, a gridwork of neon, halogen, and flourescent now, glared up, mute as a cipher or a lost temple. The elevator doors shuffled open with a bong.

Ah, excellent, you’re here sir. Mr. Kitahashi will see you now.

I know enough about samurai – a loose, scattershot knowledge, mind you – to appreciate a bit of the legacy left behind on Japanese soil. Words like humility, loyalty, deference, sacrifice, duty, honor come to mind, all falling under the umbrella of chivalry – bushido. (Of course, words like katana, blood, self-immolation, kamikaze come to mind as well, but are less useful in this particular blog post.) Though you might be able to find some of these concepts in play in a military setting in modern Japan, you’re more likely to find them embedded in the high-rise corporate business sphere. A sleek, urban realm, riddled with “corporate warriors” vying for the top rung. Contracts and ballpoint pens instead of oaths and swords.

Returning, again, to Globalized Fatherhood, I thumbed my way to a chapter that caught my eye: “Hiding Fatherhood in Corporate Japan” by Scott North. It was worth the hour or so read.

Here’s the gist of the paper: Despite increasingly family-friendly public policy in modern-day Japan, leave-taking from work remains at a near standstill. A point of clarification: leave-taking for the purpose of paternity leave. In the past couple of decades, corporate restructuring (due in large part to the dizzingly nightmarish complexity of the global economy) has led to massive job cuts in Japan. People – men especially – are extremely reluctant to give up a good thing. The good thing in this case is a full-time job at a large company. Not unlike myriad other foreign workforces, Japan’s masses are composed of humans willing to work absurd (perhaps “abusive” is going too far, perhaps not) number of hours, forego overtime pay, work with few (or no) benefits, forego taking paid time off. And, just to be clear, I do not side with Jeb Bush on this issue: working more hours is not going to solve anything. Well, it may solve some of the human overpopulation problem, as more and more people take their own lives or simply die from burnout, stress, depression, anxiety, pressure, hypertension, etc. (This is known as karoshi.)

The situation is particularly incendiary in Japan because of the manifold concepts of meiwaku – causing others to be inconvenienced, the “corporate warrior” mentality, and something even more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture: language.

The Japanese character for man is an amalgam of “rice paddy” and “power.” If you’re like me, you might be scratching your head. “Paddy power?” But then I remembered something I wrote about in this piece about Vietnamese men. The prescribed historical male role is that of household sustenance provider. Moreover, “fathers were called daikokubashira, the massive beam supporting the roof in the traditional architecture of the multi-generational agricultural households.” Pillars of the home indeed. There is something terrifying about cutting against the grain when it comes to cultural/linguistic mores; mostly, one wonders what sort of hemorrhaging will occur with such bold, deep cuts.

But, our problem here seems perhaps worse than the “shaking pillar” we saw in Vietnam; if a shaky central beam is bad, then taking that support away altogether is positively devastating. As men moved out of the rice paddies and into cubicles, the lexical character purporting to describe men as men became something of an archaic trinket: a nice concept, but hardly tangible, far from true.

Don’t let me go too far down the linguistics path. I might never return…

It’s not that Japanese men are suffering an existential crisis born of a sociolinguistic screw-turn:  It’s that they’re facing an existential crisis born of socioeconomic balderdash. Just like many of us in the postmodern, post-industrial world. (I plan to explore all of this in another post.)

Mostly, Japanese fathers do not take paternity leave. Like, less than 2%. And of that 2%, many have chosen to “keep a low profile.” In practice, this looks like a smuggling of paternity leave under the banner of “sick leave”, “vacation time”, and the ever-ambiguous “personal day.” In a society still tied to a warrior mentality, the thought of taking leave to wipe up drool has not gained a strong foothold.

To combat this, some bold “pioneers” have stepped forward. A “handful of articulate men” who refused to “hide fatherhood behind a corporate warrior facade.” This is perhaps nowhere more vocal or visual than in the Ikumen Project.  The Ikumen Project actively seeks to change the social climate surrounding childcare and gender roles in corporate Japan. To be precise, the project’s expressed purpose is “to change families so society will shift.” (This awkward translation probably looks and sounds much better in the original Japanese.) The Japanese appear to have a penchant for linguistic gymnastics, as the term ikumen is a play on the word ikemen – trendy slang for “a man with a perfect face.” To native Japanese speakers, “this connection between fathering and fashionable masculinity was obvious.”

I was curious to learn more about the Ikumen Project and to see if it had survived the intervening 5 years from its inception. It has. By every appearance, actually, it looks like it has gotten stronger. They’re now handing out the “Microphone Boss Award for 2015.” I read exactly zero Japanese, and I have to take Google Translate’s word for it, but the award seems to be earmarked for a particularly progressive CEO – someone energetically promoting paternal leave among the male cadre in the company. There are personal journals from newly converted stay-at-home fathers, resource guides for how to be a father, and myriad external links to help questioning men make the (right) decision to leave work for a while. There’s even a theme song. It kinda looked like there might even have been a movie. Again, my Japanese is nonexistent.

Perhaps most notably, the “ponytailed dancer husband” of a famous female pop singer symbolized the new ideal of caring fatherhood. His mug was cast on posters and advertisements all over. “Beside a photo of him holding his laughing, infant son, the posters declared, ‘Men who do not raise children will not be called dad’.” On the same ads were striking statistics: notes that reminded viewers that the “average Japanese father spent only seventeen minutes a day with his children.” Yikes.

The numbers are still a long way from ideal: Though over ⅓ of all working men have expressed interest in taking some sort of leave from work in order to parent, a 2012 survey from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare shows paternity leave-taking at a mere 1.89%. Ouch. Though this is up from 0.12% in 1996 when the survey began, at the current rate of increase, it’ll be another 252 years before ⅓ of working men are leaving the office in favor of the living room. If that sounds ridiculous, remember that cultural change can happen very, very slowly. Hell, last year there was still a segregated prom in Georgia. Glacial change. Though, like actual glaciers these days, multifaceted pressures are combining at ever-expanding rates to produce drastic results. Maybe the total liquefaction of polar ice will coincide with complete cultural overhaul in Japan. Or maybe neither will come to pass. Who knows? In the meantime, I’m personally dedicated to sculpting my own “perfect dad face.” And yes, you can put that on the Ikumen Project dad’s journal if you’d like.


North, Scott.

  1. Hiding Fatherhood in Corporate Japan.

In Globalized Fatherhood. Marcia C. Inhorn, Wendy Chavkin, and Jose-Alberto Navarro, eds. Pp. 53-77. New York: Berghahn Books.


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