Parenting in Japan – The Journey of the Cool Japanese Dads
by Debbie Howard
In 2007, JMRN pointed out that young Japanese dads were starting to take a much more proactive role in parenting, and young moms were becoming much more independent with a deep-seated need to be recognized as autonomous individuals beyond the label Okaasan. The rising unemployment and less stable job opportunities of the ’90s may have opened the door for more flexible lifestyles. But we also felt that younger parents simply had different views than the previous generation, and we explained how this translated into fresh consumer segments. Now, over a decade later, let’s take a look at an overview of the journey of Japanese dads and their interaction with the marketplace.
Japanese dads want to spend more time with their children
Much has changed in the past 12 years. In 2008, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare discovered that 30% of the fathers it surveyed wanted to spend more time with their children. They wanted to take paternity leave but were afraid of the reactions of their bosses. In response, the Ministry launched The Ikumen Project. Ikumen is a combination of the word ikuji (childcare) and ikemen (hunk). The Ministry launched a campaign, produced a “Work-Life Balance Handbook,” and began to offer education, support, and workshops to help encourage working fathers to spend more time with their children and help out at home.
The government’s motives for Ikumen did not address the needs of Japanese parents
Of course, the government’s motives for Ikumen were clear enough. “When the husband’s share of housework and childcare is high, the couple is more willing to have the second and subsequent children and the wife more likely to continue to work.” It was trying to address the falling birthrate while simultaneously getting more women into the workplace. While this may have been a nod in the right direction, just because Japanese dads’ attitudes were changing, it didn’t mean the expectations of their workplace were.
Japanese dads were wary of taking paternal leave
For example, though Japan boasts a liberal paternity leave (up to 12 months, paid for by the government), men still didn’t feel they could take advantage of their right to childcare leave without suffering repercussions when returning to work. This gave rise to an extension of the Ikumen project, the IkuBoss Corporate Alliance. The concept of the IkuBoss Alliance is to extend the philosophy of work-life balance directly to corporate management to contribute to the changing of stubborn traditionalist attitudes from the inside out.
IkuBoss Alliance – a positive influence on managerial attitudes towards work-life balance
According to Fathering Japan, an NPO which has been the backbone of the creation and support of Ikuboss, the alliance now boasts a membership of 211 big-name companies ranging from Aeon to Mitsubishi UFG. Ikuboss companies must first make a public declaration to the initiative. Then they send top management to workshops and other events with other IkuBoss companies to share insights through learning sessions. The idea is to create a corporate culture across business alliances that normalizes changing gender roles in order to positively influence managerial attitudes towards policies such as paternity leave.
Percentage of Japanese dads taking paternal leave slowly increasing
In 2012, only 1.9% of fathers took paternity leave. By 2015 that number had risen to almost 3%, and by 2017, to 7 %. The government’s goal is for it to reach 13% by 2020. By comparison, in 2002 the figure was a mere 0.33%. So there is definitely a slight improvement. However, a 2015 survey by Fathering Japan revealed that 46% of the men surveyed admitted they took a “hidden leave” instead of asking for paternal leave. This means they used vacation or paid time off instead of exercising their right to paternal leave. Additionally, a survey of that same year by Mitsubishi Consultants reflected that 26.6% of men surveyed did NOT take paternity leave because they felt the atmosphere at work still didn’t encourage it. Thus, while the desires of young Japanese dads are changing, their fear of corporate retribution for exercising their legal rights is still fairly strong.
Parents in their 30s have a totally different mindset than those in their 50s
Makiko Tachimori, vice-chairwoman of the Women in Business Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) agrees that the mindset of younger parents has definitely shifted. “Men and women in their 30s have a totally different mindset than people in their 50s.“ During an interview with Tetsuya Ando, founder of Fathering Japan, they both pointed out that younger men are more actively involved with housework and child-rearing, but it is the resistance of older male management that is holding back gender equality in the workplace and access to work-life balance. Both Tachimori and Ando believe that creating more IkuBosses in corporate culture is the solution to freeing men so they can fully participate in their family life at home. The hope is that the current participation of big corp in the Ikuboss Alliance will begin to trend to smaller organizations allowing work-life balance to become the new norm. But corporate culture in Japan has a long way to go before this can be realized.
Companies adopt Ikumen brand strategies geared toward dads
While the Ikumen idea may not have made much of a dent in corporate attitude, its portrayal and subsequent marketing campaign of the New Cool Japanese Dad immediately took hold in the marketplace. Posters of stud dads tearing off their suits to reveal a t-shirt with various Ikumen slogans emblazoned across their chest began appearing in train stations. Magazine covers portrayed fathers and kids spending time together in matching outfits. Companies began adopting Ikumen brand strategies hoping to appeal to male tastes. Product designs for strollers and baby carriers became available in neutral colors. Baby and childcare products such as nail scissors were modified for bigger hands and labeled Papa mo ok.
Japanese dads find their own way in spite of stubborn corporate cultural norms
Author Hannah Vassallo’s “Cool Japanese Men: Studying New Masculinities at Cambridge,” is a collection of anthropological essays which explore what it means to be a ‘cool’ man in Japan today. Vassallo discovered that the fathers she interviewed actually disliked the term Ikumen. According to Vassallo, the Ikumen campaign wasn’t sensitive to the real needs of Japanese dads and did them a disservice by portraying them as hypermasculine icons who serve the nation through protecting the weak. Nevertheless, the fathers she interviewed were carving out their own individual paths in spite of slow corporate cultural change. They attend PTA meetings, share on Facebook with other parents, and enjoy spending time and bonding with their kids.
More Japanese dads feel a sense of purpose in child-rearing
Masaki Honda, Editor-in-Chief of FQ Japan, a Japanese version of Fatherly Quarterly in the UK, believes that while men may be in a transitional period, more and more Japanese dads are starting to feel a sense of purpose in child-rearing. Masaki points out that one of the most observable changes can be seen in their shopping behavior. Where they may have previously spent a considerable amount on their hobbies before having children, that behavior has now transferred over to their role as a father.
Male shoppers tend to focus on functionality and design
According to Masaki, Japanese dads are more likely to focus on functionality and design over price. They are more interested in the detailed aspects of products such as a stroller’s suspension and wheel rotation, or whether it has air tires. FQ Japan tries to feature its articles on childcare and children’s products from a man’s perspective. “Our intent at ‘FQ JAPAN’ is to create content that helps fathers deal with the childcare issues they face and to help them connect with their families with a positive mindset,” says Masaki.
Winners will anticipate the unmet needs of Japanese dads
Today’s challenge for companies is to realize that putting family first will benefit the companies as well. The data clearly supports there is a disparity between the needs and desires of Japanese dads and the reality they have to navigate on a daily basis. Companies need to ask themselves how they can reach this market directly without making potentially erroneous assumptions about it. Organizations that are aware of the cultural forces that Japanese dads deal with will have better insight into anticipating their needs and designing products and services that meet those needs.
Tap into the mindset of Japanese parents
As early as 2007, we reported that Japanese dads were online sharing parenting tips and swapping challenges. Since then, the social media space has expanded exponentially and become an integral part of daily life, Companies that can tap into their social media buzz with the sensitivity to understand their mindset will gain the leverage needed to connect with them. The best way to avoid hitting-and-missing with this evolving consumer segment is to go directly to the source, which today’s technology makes possible. Japanese dads are on a journey. Companies that learn how to travel with them will likely win the trust of this generation of Japanese dads, and those to come.
As one of four Japanese societal macro trends monitored regularly by CarterJMRN (along with Women Power, the Changing World of Work, and Internationalization), Generational Dynamics impact consumer behavior across many age groups as attitudes toward work continue to evolve in relation to lifestyle, including availability and use of personal and leisure time.
Image by Ken Yoshida.