“Changes in Masculinity” After Childcare Leave

By Mizuki Toyama / Translated by Sachi Kikuchi
Illustration by Kirie Ventura

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the rate of Japanese women who took childcare leave in 2018 was 82.2%, while the rate of men who took childcare leave was 6.16%. Although the rate of male employees taking childcare leave is increasing year by year, it can be seen that the rate of male employees taking childcare leave is still significantly lower than that of female employees.

In 2002 (when the rate of male employees taking childcare leave at that time was 0.33%), we interviewed Professor Tetsuki Tamura, who was the first man to take childcare leave at Nagoya University.

He also experienced “father-son life”  while conducting research in Australia, from January to July in 2011.

1. Please tell me why you decided to take childcare leave.

I think it was because my wife put pressure on me, in a good way, to take childcare leave.

I took childcare leave for my second child. It is not self-evident for a woman to take childcare leave just because she is a woman,  but my wife took childcare leave for a year after the birth of our first child.

It was apparently difficult to raise a child alone during the day for a year, so my wife sometimes asked me, “Why don’t you take childcare leave? It doesn’t make sense that it’s just me that has to do this.” I guess she also said, “You’re a scholar of gender theory and feminism, but you don’t take any childcare leave?”

I don’t consider myself to be the type of person who takes the initiative to do something. If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t do anything, just like the character Nobita from Doraemon. I think it’s my personality that I only act when I have to do something. (Laughs)

So, if my wife didn’t say “Why am I the only one?”, at that time, I think I probably wouldn’t have taken childcare leave because of my personality.

In the first place, the rate of male taking childcare leave was only about 0.3% at that time. Furthermore, I had just been appointed as a tenured associate professor, so I was not sure if early-careered faculty members like me can take childcare leave.

 2. Have you experienced any changes in yourself as a result of taking childcare leave?

I think that living with my wife has had a considerable effect, but I think that through the difficulty of childcare and housework not going according to plan, my own so-called “masculinity” has changed.

When I was young in twenties especially , I was a strong person with something like “toxic masculinity” in the sense-that, for example, I sticked to my point, and I got angry when I was criticized. When I was a student and went shopping with my girlfriend, now my wife, there was a time when I got grumpy and  left alone. Now I know it is really embarrasing. 

However, when we are with a child who can’t speak yet, we have to think about it from a different perspective and take the needs of others into account seriously.

Before I took childcare leave, I thought I was a fairly active and good dad, but when I was with my 11-month old second son all day long, I learned how challenging and tiring it is to care for someone all the time. 

So, it may be a little exaggerated, but I think that through the experience of caring for someone who doesn’t do what I want them to do, I have become able to let go of strong emotions that are based on my own expectations.

3. Please tell me about the reactions of your colleagues when you took childcare leave.

It was a very memorable moment, but when I consulted the dean at that time about taking childcare leave, they said, “It’s your right, so of course you can take it.”

When I said to the dean, “I need to get the approval from other teachers at the faculty meeting, right?,” he said, “It’s your right, so you don’t need the approval from others. But, if you suddenly disappear, the other faculty members  will be surprised, so I will let them know at the faculty meeting that you will be taking childcare leave. “

In reality, everyone has the right to take a leave. It is not decided by any one person. If you apply, you can take childcare leave, but I don’t think that this is very common. So, I was grateful that the dean acted as if taking childcare leave was normal. I was impressed by the law department. 

4. Professor Tamura, you took childcare leave in 2002, when the rate of male employees taking childcare leave at that time was 0.33%. I think that the workplace culture may not have been supportive toward men taking childcare leave. Please tell us how you felt and what you experienced as a result of it not being “normal” for men to take childcare leave. 

There are now many diaper changing spaces available in men’s washrooms, but in the early 2000s, those spaces were only just beginning to appear.

When I went out with my child, I had a hard time finding a place to change diapers. I once had to search downtown for a changing station for my one-year-old son and finally managed to find one that even I could use. That was difficult.

I also had a hard time because there were no places to keep my child safe in the men’s washrooms.

–It’s hard that it takes so much time to find a diaper changing space when you’re out with small children, isn’t it. Did you experience anything else?

In the early 2000s when I was raising my children, I rarely saw a father walking alone with a baby in the city.

Actually, I only received this comment once, but when I went to a shop, carrying my child, I almost lost my balance as I entered the shop. The staff person there said, “Oh, there’s no mom.” 

I don’t know exactly what those words meant, but maybe it seemed like the father, who wasn’t used to raising the child, lost his balance because he was holding the child. Or maybe, they were just wondering what a man was doing alone with such a small child.

I didn’t feel anything overtly, but I did feel very aware because men were rarely seen with small children.

5. Is there anything you were careful about when raising children because you are Professor Tamura, who studies feminism and gender studies?

From a gender theory perspective, I tried not to use the word “because you’re a boy.” I can assure you that I didn’t use words like “Because you’re a boy, you need to do your best”.

However, even if I didn’t use say “because you’re a boy”, when they were little, they liked super heroes like Kamen Rider, and I think they had many toys like that. I don’t think I was thinking about forcibly turning them into gender-neutral toys.

— You were careful about word choice, then.

Yes. Speaking of word choice, I made a point of calling my first-born by his name, instead of calling him “Oniichan” (big brother) as is common in Japanese.

— We unknowingly impose roles with the words we use, don’t we?

Yes. Even if you don’t call him “Oniichan” (older brother), they’re still an older brother and a younger brother. There will be an inevitable difference in how parents treat each of them. In addition to this unconscious difference, I didn’t want to add pressure and expectations by calling him “Oniichan”, so called him by name.

— Was there anything else that you were careful about?

I made sure the children saw me doing housework and participating in childcare. I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it, but I did these things because I needed to. I do think that part of me wanted my children to think that it was normal for fathers to do housework and childcare.

 6. What do you think is the significance of men taking childcare leave?

This is assuming that there are two people raising the children, but I think that by taking childcare leave, you can build a better relationship with your partner.

In Japan, the division of labour by gender is still very pervasive. Men are expected to work outside of the house and women do the housework and childcare. Of course, it depends on the person, but I think that the gender division of labour may have a negative effect on the marriage.

I think that things like holding a grudge due to division of labour in child-rearing often have a big impact on the family and marital relationships later-on. I think that the absence of men as fathers at the milestones of family life may affect women, as mothers. For example, imagine a situation where the husband was playing golf when his wife was in the hospital.

On the other hand, I don’t think this would have happened if they had shared family life better, including housework and childcare. Therefore, I think that in order to maintain the marriage, it is necessary for the father to be involved in child-rearing by taking childcare leave.

7. What do you think about the childcare leave system in Japan?

I think that the childcare leave institution itself has been gradually  improved since the 2000s, especially.

If there is an area that can be further improved, it is adequete income security during the leave even though it’s better than it was before. After all, I think it is a big problem that taking childcare leave significantly reduces the person’s income during that time.

Although it has been changing recently, I think that the breadwinner is still often the man/husband. In that case, I think it is difficult for the man/husband to take childcare leave especially since his income drops sharply.

Therefore, if income security during leave is improved in Japan as well, I think that the rate of male employees taking childcare leave will increase a little more.

— Certainly, if the income security for childcare leave is not sufficient, it is difficult for men to take childcare leave from an economic point-of-view.

Yes. However, I think that the shared consciousness and norms on childcare have changed considerably in the last 20 years or so. Especially for the past 10 years or so, regardless of the degree, it is natural for men to engage with childcare and to take leave when his child is born. 

Because of that, the rate of men taking childcare leave has increased significantly in the last five years. Even though it increased until the first half of the 2010s, it was still only about 1% or 2%. However, over the last five years, it has rapidly increased to 3, 4, or almost 6%. This includes the men who only take a few days or one week off at the time of child-birth, but 20 years ago, this didn’t happen.

With that in mind, I think that our way of thinking has changed, and childcare leave is being used more than before.

–Since men’s awareness of housework and childcare has changed in Japanese society, if more men actually used their childcare leave, do you think it will be easier for men to take childcare leave in the future?

In current Japanese society, it may become to be difficult to put weight on things other than work, including childcare and housework, in a different way than in the past. The reason, I think, is that while the working style has been changing from the previous Japanese working style, which was one of the factors that prevented men  from participating in childcare and housework, more meritocratic and performance-based assessment of work has become popular.

People in their 20s and 30s who are raising children are in the stage when they haveto demonstrate their skills and abilities and are exposed to the competitive evaluation within the company. During this time, I think it is very difficult or even impossible to commit and produce results effectively in a limited amount of time at work while also doing childcare and housework. The problem may be that, even if it is rare, people with high abilities appear (laughs). After all, working with children takes time, physical and mental energy.

Then a new problem in the age of individual meritocracy is that performance-based pressure in workplace can lead to refusal to raise children or do household chores.

Using housekeeping services as an alternative is of course important, but  it is difficult for me to agree with the opinion that it is seen as a trump card.

I would like to say first, I don’t mean that we need to interact with children more, or that homemade food is important. I actually want to do housework and childcare as easy as possible for me, and I use a lot of frozen foods. (Laughs)

I think the reason why I feel slightly uncomfortable with the opinion mentioned above is that I think the society which is not the work-first and where people can engage with childcare and housework without stress.

In summary, it is not necessarily inevitable that it will be easier for men to take childcare leave even if the traditional Japanese way of working, which was one of the factors that made it difficult for men to participate in childcare housework in the first place, has changed into a more meritocratic way of working. Rather, performance-based pressure can prevent men from engaging with childcare and housework, and how to deal with this is a future issue.