Japanese children ask, 'Where's otosan?'

Government ads challenge fathers who spend too much time at work .

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. "It's time to bring them back home," he says. "We simply want to give all members of society - especially fathers who've devoted all their time to their jobs - an opportunity to stop and think about their family, society, and most important, themselves."

Before World War II, when the social structure centered around small family businesses or agriculture, Japanese fathers stayed close to home. Families were large, often including three or more generations under one roof.

But to rebuild in the postwar period, Japan turned itself into a corporate-centered society, producing the "corporate warriors," who put their work before their families. This change in the social structure eventually left the housework and child rearing in the hands of wives.

Today, the average Japanese father spends 17 minutes each day on child care (wives average 2.5 hours), according to a survey conducted by the Management and Coordination Agency.

Asahi Shimbun, one of the country's leading newspapers, recently ran a series entitled, "Fathers Not Here." While some interviewed showed sympathy for the long hours put in by Japanese fathers as providers, most women and children were critical of husbands and fathers who they said came home late for a bath, drank sake, and went to bed.

One housewife with two teenage daughters says that her children have stopped calling their father otosan (dad) several years ago. Instead, they call him by some fictitious name when he isn't around.

Hideki Watanabe, a sociologist at Tokyo's Keio University, says that in the long run the fatherhood campaign will benefit society. At the time when the prolonged economic recession is causing corporate restructuring and bankruptcies of reputable companies, more Japanese men are being forced to think about their life and values. "Japan is going through a major change. It's a good time to think about husband and wife, parent-child relations - about what family should be like," he says.

Still, Mr. Inoue, the veteran politician, says that this campaign won't help to redress the declining birthrate. And he argues that women are generally better at giving affection and child rearing. Men are better at disciplining and giving advice. When his children were growing up, Inoue couldn't help out around the house much because he came home late every day, just before midnight.

Asked if he has any regrets about parenting, he says, "I wish I had more time to communicate with my children."

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