Japanese Children Ask, 'Where's Otosan?' Government Ads Challenge Fathers Who Spend Too Much Time at Work

Article excerpt

Satoshi Kawakami does more than most Japanese fathers, before and after work, every day: he changes his children's diapers, bathes them, or sometimes cooks for them. For the young building maintenance worker, a job is no excuse for not taking part in child-rearing.

"In our family, whoever has more time does all this," Mr. Kawakami says while feeding his two sons in his suburban Tokyo apartment on a Sunday afternoon. "I want to do a father instead of only being a father."

It's a sentiment that's rare in Japan. And the lack of child- rearing participation among men is worrisome enough that the Japanese government has now weighed in. It's sponsoring a controversial $4.1 million fatherhood campaign, attempting to nudge societal norms and encourage more fathers to be like Kawakami. On posters, and in television and radio ads, a well-known Japanese pop dancer, called "Sam," cradles his nine-month-old son in his arms and says: "You cannot call a man who doesn't care for his child a father." The campaign is sparking debate over the role of fathers and triggering outrage among Japanese males, particularly older men. "We were really surprised to receive so many letters and telephone calls, both positive and negative, about the campaign," says Masaki Matsuoka, deputy director of the Child and Family Bureau at the Health and Welfare Ministry, which sponsored the project Typical of critics are the comments of Kiichi Inoue, a member of parliament and father of three grown children. "I don't understand why the ministry is spending taxpayers' money for a campaign like this. It's the sort of thing that would make the female activist- types happy," he says. Immediately after the launch of the campaign, Mr. Inoue and a few other lawmakers filed a complaint to the ministry saying that the copy was "too extreme in tone." "Plus, the government shouldn't meddle in private affairs, pushing an ideal father like that. Different families have different circumstances," he says. Championing fatherhood is a new role for the government. It is a move prompted ostensibly by last year's record-low birth rate of 1.38 children per woman. Fewer babies, concluded ministry officials, will lead to fewer consumers, fewer workers, and less economic prosperity. Mr. Matsuoka also explains that the recent rise in school violence, delinquency, and child abuse (by stressed mothers) cannot be discussed without referring to the absence of fathers from the home. …