On my first day, working as a housekeeper for a Japanese family of four, a husband and wife and their two sons, the mom requested I prepare dinner for them after I finished tidying up and doing the laundry. “Should I prepare dinner for four?” I asked. “No, just three,” she replied. “My husband doesn’t come home till midnight. It’s usually just me and the kids for dinner.”
She then proceeded to show me around their apartment. “This is my husband’s room.” I noted some men’s shirts, several pairs of pants and a pair of pajamas on the bed and a golf bag leaning against the closet. “Just make the bed and vacuum.” We went down the hallway, past the bathroom, kitchen and dining area and into what was obviously the kid’s room. There was a bunk bed, toy bins, and shelves of picture books. “The kids don’t like to use the bunk bed so I sleep with them on the floor,” she pointed to the futon. It took me a second to absorb the fact that she did not sleep with her husband. I also learned later on that her husband plays golf every weekend with his work colleagues. I wondered how often he gets to see and spend time with his family.
My housekeeping stint sensitized me to the seeming absence of Japanese husbands and fathers in family life. I had an English student, a Japanese woman in her early fifties and a mother of two, whose husband lives in a different city. They see each other once or twice a month. She prefers to go on vacation with her friends from work rather than her husband and she insists she is perfectly happy with this arrangement. Another Japanese friend shared that her dad and mom live in different cities and there were times when her mom would visit the city where her dad lives and works but wouldn’t inform him that she’s there. Like my English student, my friend’s parents are, to her knowledge, content leading separate lives.
It doesn’t help that the Japanese work ethic and work environment is very punitive. I often joke that I married a Japanese disguised as an American. My husband (who is the boss in his organization) considers coming home at 8 p.m. early, too early in fact, since a number of his staff are still at the office and stay as late as 11 p.m.
I grew up in a household in which dinner was an important (and the only) time to regroup and share about each other’s day. It is a tough culture to change—even when my husband urged one of his staff, who is a fairly new dad, to take time off or to go home early to care for his daughter, the latter didn’t. The reason may not be as simple as he didn’t want to.
Perhaps the deep gender chasm is to blame. In Kaori Shoji’s article “Ensnared in the office, dads increasingly remote,” she describes the enduring stereotype of the Japanese husband and dad. His principal, if not only, role is to work and provide for the family.
As for Japanese Moms, they were taught by their own mothers that once a woman was married and ensconced in parenthood, it was better that her husband was tassha de rusu (alive, well and absent from the home).
Motherhood changes the lives of Japanese women completely. Once they have kids, they are no longer “woman” or “wife” but “mother,” and that invariably affects marital relations. It is not surprising that Japan ranks lowest in terms of sexual frequency. Moreover, Kaori Shoji writes:
For Japanese parents, too many hours spent in each other’s company invariably led to relationship analysis and the surfacing of discontent. To maintain peace in the household, better to limit things to the innocuous, like a simple exchange of greetings.
So estranged are the dads from the family that when my husband once asked his daughter’s friends what their dads did and where they worked, they did not have the faintest idea. I think it is not fair for women to complain (not that Japanese women do; quite the opposite, they rarely talk about their problems almost to the extent that they seem to be leading perfect lives) about bearing the bulk of childcare when they assume that their husbands know absolutely nothing about childrearing and childcare and cannot be entrusted with the kids for more than short periods of time. Who can blame the husbands when they eventually come to believe that they are ill-equipped to care for their own kids? Some men reason they will just spend time and bond with their kids when they are older. Sometimes, that time never comes.
As a full time mom and homemaker, I honestly don’t know how I’d manage without the support and the “breaks” provided by my husband. After a long day with the kids, I look forward to his coming home to play with them or take them out for a walk so I could have some quiet time. Thanks to my husband, I was able to attend several out-of-town and out-of-the-country symposiums and conferences, some as long as an entire week. He took care of our less than a year old daughter and brought her to work with him. But more than his help in childcare, I appreciate him as a partner, someone I could spend hours just talking with. He was the one who pushed me to pursue writing and all the opportunities that take me away from homemaking.
Things are changing though. In my old neighborhood in Tokyo, there’s a stay-at-home Japanese dad (a very rare sight!) who comes to our community playgroup. He says that being a stay-at-home dad made him realize how difficult women’s work is. The government also recently launched a campaign—the Ikumen Project (“iku” from “ikuji” meaing “child-rearing”)—to encourage men to spend more time with their kids and take a more active role in parenting. A change that will, no doubt, be welcomed by the kids.