Modern Fatherhood, Nationhood, and Globalization in Japan


A review of Gender, Family, and New Styles of Fatherhood: Modernization and Globalization in Japan, by Atsuko Oyama.

Atsuko Oyama’s dissertation provides multidisciplinary insight into contemporary Japanese fatherhood. Chapter 1, the introduction, positions the dissertation as addressing a gap in understanding about recently changing notions of fatherhood in Japan, specifically what Oyama refers to as the “ikumen movement.” Ikumen—literally “child-rearing men”—is a recent coinage that has emerged in the context of changing parental norms, buoyed by positive connotations through its semiotic linkage with ikemen, another recently popular term meaning “good-looking man” (p. 32). While various social and economic aspects of fatherhood—chiefly with reference to the professional life course of the Japanese salaryman—have been well studied in previous scholarship, such as that of Hiroshi Wagatsuma, there has been less focus on understanding notions of ikumen fatherhood in the context of a shift towards a gender-equal society. By considering the language and discourse of ikumen fatherhood, Oyama leverages fieldwork interviews and participant observations, supplemented by media sources to address the historical roots of the notion of ikumen and its political and economic impact on Japanese society.

Chapter 2, based on a broad literature review, opens by tracing the roots of the ikumen movement to the 1960s and 1970s and postwar fathers’ desire for more involvement in childcare. At the level of policy, however, a shift to actively change norms about fatherhood first emerged following the 1989 “1.57 shock” over Japan’s declining birthrates. This perceived crisis prompted a series of government campaigns that promoted alternative images of fatherhood, as well as fathers’ active involvement in childrearing through various policy mechanisms such as parental leave for fathers. Against this backdrop, the term ikumen was coined in 2006 and championed first by non-profit organizations, then endorsed by the government’s official Ikumen Project. A growing presence in the media led to the promotion of consumer goods, such as diaper bags, designed specifically for fathers. This chapter then situates the emergence of ikumen fathers in the context of recent demographic and social changes that have affected marriage and career patterns, fertility rates, and notions of parenting. Oyama argues the case for ikumen as a new and emergent hegemony within which are embedded the notions of a gender-equal society and work-life balance, yet which also builds on existing gender ideology and reinforces the notion of a “standard life course” that requires family and children.

In Chapter 3, building on Miyako Inoue’s insight that social realities reflect historical contingencies, Oyama situates the emergence of notions of fatherhood and motherhood as historical processes, surveying Japanese history from the Edo period through the contemporary era. The first section traces the role of the state and processes of political economy, notably modernization and industrialization, in shaping and, indeed, institutionalizing the ideology of the family, first during the Meiji period and again in the post-war nuclear family associated with the salaryman model of masculinity. The second section discusses the emergence of alternative notions of fatherhood in response to problems inherent in the hegemonic discourse of salaryman masculinity, including an increased presence in the home and the sanctioning of “feminine” aspects of male behavior. The chapter concludes by arguing that contemporary Japan’s political economy and demography, principally the extremely low birth-rate and a shift towards gender equality, present the most convincing factors to explain why such alternative notions of fatherhood have coalesced around the ikumen model of fatherhood.

Chapter 4, a shorter chapter discussing childrearing and fatherhood discourse in Japan, draws on Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia to analyze how the author’s informants’ juxtapositions of the Japanese past (mukashi) and present (ima) on one hand and of Japan versus the West on the other inform their ideas of fatherhood. The chapter argues that while such dichotomies contextualize present-day notions of fatherhood within broader discourses, they simultaneously obscure the actual origins of current practice, thereby engendering an ongoing need for updates to existing ideas of fatherhood.

In Chapter 5, the term ikumen is unpacked from semiotic, metrical, and discursive perspectives. The term ikumen is shown to be associated with being “cool” and modern, amounting to a cultural appropriation of aspects of modernity and Western culture. After a discussion of studies on the time actually spent by fathers on childcare, Oyama points out that whether a father is considered ikumen will be determined subjectively within the family, not least by the wife. Indeed, she argues that having an ikumen husband can be a source of social capital (in the sense used by Pierre Bourdieu) for wives in their relations with other women. These socially grounded notions of ikumen are contrasted with another sense, connoted by alternative ways of writing ikumen and related terms like ikuji (child-raising) that could be interpreted to refer to self-cultivation, emphasizing in particular the discovery of an authentic self.

Chapter 6 discusses the ways in which fatherhood is being introduced into local community spaces and media that have typically been the domain of mothers. Oyama shows how, while the limited involvement of fathers in community gatherings for mothers can be highly appreciated, it is also resisted to some degree. On the other hand, father-oriented events and communities can be difficult to initiate, and indeed mothers often mediate fathers’ involvement. An analysis of alternative terms used in popular media for “father,” such as “papa,” highlights another means of facilitating paternal involvement, as novel terms allow the media to define new roles. Though new images of fatherhood have been catalyzed by the use of new terms, the appeal to traditional images of masculinity (like having big hands) have also been deployed to encourage fathers’ involvement in childcare and to create a sense of community. To illustrate this, Oyama analyzes representations of fathers in mother-focused magazines. Fathers are presented as supplementary to mothers, typically in happier moments of childcare, with traditional male stereotypes (such as technological adeptness) being used to link fathers to childcare products. The chapter concludes by arguing that new forms of fatherhood are still introduced and developed within strongly naturalized and persistently gender-differentiated norms of parenting behavior.

Chapter 7 focuses on the consumption of ikumen-related goods, specifically baby carriers, and follows Ray Oldenburg in characterizing the spaces in which this consumption takes place, such as shopping malls, as “third places” oriented to families with small children. As spaces of weekend leisure activity, the chapter argues that malls are increasingly a site for fathers to perform childcare. In her discussion of baby carriers, Oyama notes that ikumen fathers tend to adopt frontally positioned baby carriers which are associated with modernity and the West, thereby providing a sense of participating in a “global” style of parenting, in contrast to piggybacking slings that are associated with old-fashioned childrearing practices. Western brands of baby products connote class, whiteness, and urbanity, visibly positioning ikumen fathers as modern subjects within a new hegemony of fatherhood. Oyama, while recognizing that actual childrearing practices vary widely, nevertheless argues that this aspect of performance creates an imagined community of ikumen through visual reference points.

The semiotic and discursive processes by which ideology becomes embedded in the very terms of parental address are discussed in Chapter 8, which links these processes to historical shifts in Japan’s political economy. Building on a well-researched survey of previous work, Oyama explains how terms of reference for parents vary according to—and are reproduced by—social class and related factors. Oyama documents how the terms okāsan and otōsan came to be institutionalized and then widely during the Meiji period through media. In contrast, imported Western terms such as “papa” and “mama,” initially attractive to a few due to their foreignness, have more recently found broader usage amongst younger, urban families, suggesting a modern subjectivity. Within the ikumen movement there has been a shift from otōsan to “papa” and recently, though more in the media than in daily usage, “dad” and “daddy” (p. 340). Oyama demonstrates how these new terms of reference for parents are strongly rooted in social ideologies that reflect historical contingencies and the imperatives of political economy, becoming entangled with class, race, and globalization. Even so, argues Oyama, these aspects do not emerge into the foreground for those using the terms, as they are concealed under a “fantasy” (p. 411) of globalism and consumption.

The concluding chapter draws together arguments for the social construction of ikumen within a persistent and naturalized gender ideology that privileges a gendered division of labor. The ikumen phenomenon emerged on the strength of an idealized “work-life balance” in a “gender-equal society,” but came to be positioned as another means for fathers to become more “authentically” masculine along “modern” lines. The social construction of ikumen discourse, as supported by Oyama’s linguistic, historical, media, and fieldwork evidence, points to an association with modernity and notions of Western fatherhood that stand in contrast to the hegemonic model of fatherhood entailed by the Japanese salaryman. Oyama concludes that the ikumen movement can be understood as reflecting a long-running Japanese aim for (Western) modernity, contemporary social pressures—notably an aging population and low birth rate—and the present situation of Japan’s political economy. Ikumen reconstruct parenthood, and thereby continue to support the development of Japanese nationhood.

In summary, through a variety of methods centered on language and terminology, Japan’s ikumen movement and its underlying ideology are brought into perspective. With its focus on the historical development of the concept and its relation to Japan’s political economy, this dissertation contributes to our understanding of the novel phenomenon of ikumen fatherhood, and more generally of male involvement in the domestic sphere, an issue relatively understudied in the existing literature.

Hiroko Umegaki Costantini
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources

Interviews: Twenty-three recorded interviews, with one to five respondents at a time.
Participant observation
Media resources, including Tamago Kurabu, Hiyoko Kurabu, Baby-mo, Ohayō Akachan and AERA with Baby
Japanese government public policies, including The Angel Plan, The New Angel Plan, The Basic Law for a Gender-Equal-Society

Dissertation Information

University of Arizona. 2014. 466 pp. Primary Advisor: Professor. Kimberly Jones.

Image: Photo by Author.

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