In the dynamic and rapidly changing Japanese lifestyle, ‘Ikumen’ are in the spotlight now in Japan, reflecting the increasing need of fathers’ support for childcare. Iku in ‘Ikumen’ stands for ‘Ikuji’ which means ‘childrearing’ in Japanese. So we call men ‘Ikumen’ who are take part in childrearing positively and actively, taking paternity leave, for example. In this post, I would like to discuss the background of birth of Ikumen and examine how Ikumen have influenced to the hegemonic masculinity and gender equality.
Emerging of Ikumen
Strict gender division in the household has been socially and traditionally formed in Japan. Typically, fathers have been commonly thought to be breadwinners and remain bystanders to household chores, while mothers are supposed to stay inside the house, doing all housework including childbearing. As the theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ introduced by Connell (2005) shows, there has been subordination of women by these binary gender roles in Japanese society. However, as times change, more women are now in work and the number of dual-income households has been increasing in last few decades. Therefore, as traditional gender roles in the household outlined above are becoming outdated now, the inequalities in the distribution of housework are being revealed, which has been a crucial matter for women to balance between working and childrearing. As the BBC reports, working mothers’ situation is very harsh: ‘Women who are having children are not working. Women who are working are not having children’. In these situation, Ikumen raise hope in contributing toward reducing women’s burden and achieving gender equalities in Japan, encouraged by ‘Wimenomics which is a higher-priority manifesto of current government.
Upsides of Ikumen / How has it change Japanese hegemonic masculinity?
The emergence of “Ikumen” stirred up the Japanese traditional gender roles and questioned old-fashioned hegemonic masculinity in both individual and social level. On an individual level, many Ikumen-husbands have reflected on their attitude towards families and childcare, and also their working style. For instance, an Ikumen says that he came to respect working mothers after he took paternity leave, and that he wants to be a role model of Ikumen for other working fathers (Ikumen Project: a). At the social level, the movement of Ikumen has encouraged companies to popularise and allow the paternity leave for their employees. Actually, an Ikumen reports that his paternity leave changed the attitude of colleagues toward men’s child-care (ibid: b). Thus, it is highly probable that the emergence of Ikumen has pushed us to sensitise the hegemonic masculinity and the gender distinction about childrearing which is hardly fit for modern society. Considering that hegemonic masculinity can be socially constructed, Ikumen have the potential to change this construct and promote gender equality.
Limitation of Ikumen
On the other hand, the idea of Ikumen has limitations to change the hegemonic masculinity and gender transformation. First, Ikumen may have difficulty in getting rid of the structure of hegemonic masculinity as long as the concept of Ikumen itself is dominantly constructed by men. Not only is Ikumen encouraged on a large scale through the ‘Ikumen Project’, which is promoted by a male-dominated government, but also there is little input and perspective of women in the conceptualisation of Ikumen. In fact, there is no mention of ‘women’ in the definition of Ikumen by the Ikumen Project, which defines that ‘Ikumen is men who enjoy childrearing and grow up themselves’ (ibid: c, my English translation from Japanese). Surely, it is men who do Ikumen. However, the lack of women’s views on Ikumen can remain hegemonic masculinity.
Second, the distribution of childrearing by Ikumen does not necessarily promote gender transformation. Even if mothers could be emancipated from the burden of child-care by the support of Ikumen, they are not guaranteed to be economically present, that is working in high positions on equal salary to their husbands. Greig (2011) criticises this phenomenon as being only a “romance of female social advancement”, expressing that the liberation of women is ‘dependent on a complementary romance of male domestic responsibility’. Moreover, it seems possible that the discussion of Ikumen has shifted attention from institutional responsibilities to domestic responsibilities of child-care. Actually, the discussion of how to improve the working environment for working mothers has not reached tangible conclusions. Therefore, the idea of Ikumen has a risk of making women’s salient struggle more unvisible.
Conclusion / Can Ikumen promote be gender equality?
Certainly, Ikumen have been a trigger to rethinking about hegemonic masculinity in Japan. It has played an important role in encouraging society to actively reshape the concept of hegemonic masculinity as well. Yet, it does not necessarily lead to gender equality because of its inability to address problems of women’s advancement in economic activities, even if the burden of child caring has been reduced by Ikumen. Now it might be time to reanalyse fundamental social structure of gender inequality, which are revealed by the emergence of Ikumen.
Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005) ‘Hegemonic masculinity: rethinking the concept’ in Gender and Society, 19(6), pp.829-859.
Greig, A. (2011) ‘Anxious States and Directions for Masculinities Work with Men’, in Cornwall, A., Edstrom, J. and Greig, A (eds.) Men and development: politicising masculinities. London: Zed Books, pp.219-236.
Ikumen Project: a, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/ikumen_experience/index.php?q=%E3%83%AD%E3%83%BC%E3%83%AB%E3%83%A2%E3%83%87%E3%83%AB&id=&a=0&p=0 (Accessed 10 December 2014)
Ikumen Project: b, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/ikumen_experience/index.php?q=%E8%81%B7%E5%A0%B4&id=&a=0&p=0 (Accessed 10 December 2014)
Ikumen Project: c, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/project/index.php (Accessed 10 December 2014)
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes. (2013) “Japan: The worst developed country for working mothers?” BBC News. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21880124> (27 Oct. 2014)
U.S.-Japan Council. (2014) ‘Powerful Voices Join USJC-ACCJ Women in Business Summit to Advocate Growing Role of Women in Japan’. Available from: http://www.usjapancouncil.org/powerful_voices_join_usjc_accj_women_in_business_summit_to_advocate_growing_role_of_women_in_japan (Accessed 27 October 2014)