Back in 2016, Pause and Select did a video analysis of Sweetness and Lightning and the nature of how it displayed fatherhood. In it, he examines the social conceptions surrounding the nature of cooking and the creation of bentos in relation to the changing image of fatherhood. The nature of fatherhood in Japan is a concept I’ve wanted to write about for a while, and it’s taken me longer than expected to really put together my thoughts on this issue. The research spans years, decades even, going back to Confucianism and pre-Meiji-era thought forms and culture. Pause and Select’s video is comprehensive in it’s analysis of the different kinds of representations of both masculinity and fatherhood in manga and anime, but I want to dig a little deeper. How did this perception change? What can we see in both the politics and wider culture of Japan that points to a changing sense of family and fatherhood? And how is this displayed in current media?
Just recently back in November of last year, Japan Times ran a story about a single father who was bringing a paternity harassment case against Mitsubishi. In the article, the father alleges that he faced harassment in the workplace after taking paternity leave to care for his newborn child. Even as Japan leads many developed nations with the amount of paternity leave available to their employees (up to 52 weeks, second only to South Korea), many men still feel hesitant to take it, with only 2 to 3 percent of men actually opting to apply for leave. The Quartz article I linked in the last sentence points to peer pressure or the perception of the negative view of paternity leave as a driving factor in why many men don’t apply for it. I think it’s also further reinforced by this quote from the man in the above Japan Times article (quoted from Forbes): “He said of his firm: ‘I can remember in meetings the management complaining about women who got pregnant. They’d say: ‘What’s the matter with her? She’s having a baby? Do women just come to this company just to get knocked up?’ Having a child was looked at as a betrayal of the company. I didn’t realize that someday I’d be the one they were complaining about, for trying to balance work and family.’”
This perception of negativity, in my view, comes from a long history of traditional values that emphasize the the need for loyalty to one’s company as well as the influence of almost two decades of economic recession, something that has leaked into the current media representation of absent fatherhood in Japan. But that perception is slowly changing, and with it comes a change in how parenting and fatherhood shows up in media such as anime and manga.
Saori Yasomoto points out some interesting observations in their analysis of the display of fatherhood across time in cartoon strips, saying that “The mage of the Japanese father was reinvented every twenty years.” (26) They display this conclusion through the changing ways fathers are talked about in popular phrases of the time. Before the 1970’s, the phrase was “earthquake, fire, thunder, and father”. After the 1970’s, it became: “A father is most appreciated when he is healthy and out of the home”. In the late 1990’s, as Japan’s declining birth rate became more pronounced, it changed to: “A man who does not raise his children can not be called a father”. Yasomoto makes a point that this last phrase was not spread as a way to encourage more paternal involvement in child-rearing, but instead to encourage more women to have children. In these three phrases we see a fairly traditional and even negative view of fathers in Japanese culture.
Historically speaking, we can trace a lot of these traditional views of parenting roles to both pre-Meiji era Confucian principles and post-Meiji spread of Western values throughout Japan that became more pronounced after the end of WWII. In his book Fathers across Cultures, Roopnarine tells us that “confucianism emphasized kou (filial piety), and parents adhered to Genpu Jibo (strict father and gentle mother) parenting style in which fathers guided their children strictly and mothers gave protective nurturing care.” (307) The Meiji era ended around 1868, and it was around this time as well that a new way of looking at fatherhood was being spread around Japan. As Roopnarine notes in his book, it was at this time that the concept that a father must go out and work and a mother’s job was to stay home with the children began to become established. (307) We see this become even more entrenched after the end of World War II when Confucian values and religion were separated from the political system and all of Japan moved into the era of high-intensity work ethic commonly termed Japan, Inc. “From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the Japanese work system prioritized work over home life” as the nation recovered from the devastation of WWII. (Roopnarine 308)
Obviously I’m glossing over a lot of details here, because I want to get into the recent history of the last couple decades. It’s here that we see the most change as the recession, also termed the “Lost Decade” or “Lost Score”, from 1992 to around 2010 forced many families into dual income households. But the work ethics surrounding the structure of Japan, Inc. were already in place before this shift in family dynamics, meaning even as more women were moving into the workforce, men were still expected to work long hours and be the primary breadwinners of the family. In her book Precarious Japan, Anne Allison describes the structure of Japan Inc in this way: “Given a family wage to have and support a family, workers were taken care of but also wedded to the workplace–a dynamic that extracted labor from male workers and also their unpaid wives in managing the household, the children, and any attached elderly so that the breadwinner could give all to his job.”(10-11)
Allison also has another interesting book from earlier in 1994, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, that details the thoughts and culture of white-collar workers and their wives in the 80’s and 90’s through the lense of corporate drinking parties at hostess clubs. Some of the quotes from this book can be especially telling, such as: ”I was repeatedly told during my discussions with Japanese men, it is the man’s duty to his family that motivates him to stay with a company for life, work hard, and do nothing to jeopardize his career (such as coming home early to play with the kids).” (101) and “The removed husband/father is a fact of life; for some, it’s even preferred.” (107) I especially loved this custom one wife described to Allison: ”Equally symbolic is the custom of setting a place at the dinner table for the absent father. According to one of my interviewees, the mother points to the plate and reminds her children that it is because their father is working so hard for them at a job that he can’t join them for dinner at home.” (109) The symbolic place setting becoming a metaphor for the absent father or the view during this time that the father’s place in a family was at the periphery, a figure of support, but not directly included in their day-to-day lives.
However, that’s all changing as more and more families are beginning to be headed by single fathers, and more attention is being placed on the father’s role in the family and in raising children. Japan Times noted that 204,000 families were headed by a single father in 2010, up sharply from 166,000 in 2005. But there were only 90,000 cases in which the children were living exclusively with their father, in a household with no other relatives such as grandparents. The Japanese Government’s view of single fatherhood and fatherhood in general is also changing, with child-rearing allowances becoming available for single-father families, and goals being set by the government in 2014 that included: (1) the rate of the company workers working more than 60 hours per week would decrease from 10% in 2010 to 5%; (2) the time fathers spend with their children younger than 6 would increase from 60 minutes to 150 minutes. (Roopnarine 318) Quartz also mentions through their study of paternity leave that “while a vast majority of men in the 1980s still believed that ‘men make houses, women make homes,’ the researchers said studies show that norm had lost widespread support by the 2000s.” And I think this is something we’re seeing reflected in the current media coming out of Japan.
Nanami Momozono’s father up and skips town, leaving his daughter homeless and shouldered with all his debts in Kamisama Kiss. Gon travels the world and becomes a Hunter in order to find his vagabond father in Hunter x Hunter. Maria begins to believe her father hates her and is only able to communicate with him through phone and email in Skip Beat. All of these shows and many more display the absent father trope, the disappeared dad, that seems to plague many anime and manga characters. Commonly used as a way to give their high-school age protagonists more freedom from parental supervision, it also points to a wider cultural issue with the prevalence and visibility of fathers in family life. The salaryman father who is always at work, the dead-beat father traveling the world, or the other dead-beat father who ditches his family, leaving them with his debts, can be seen in many forms and in many different shows. Just last season we saw the dead-beat dad variety in Citrus with Mei and Yuzu’s father who only appeared for a sum total of one or two episodes, leaving soon after to go travel the world. His absence became the root of Mei’s psychological issues, and she becomes closed off, unable to really relate to people anymore. While this trope may still be prevalent in current works still being published, I am seeing more of a rise in a focus on family, especially single-father families.
In 1996, we can see a change in the way that fathers began interacting with their children in a genre that has been beleaguered by disappeared dads for years: the magical girl genre. I’m of course talking about Cardcaptor Sakura. You really can’t talk about the positive display of single fatherhood without talking about how Sakura’s father, Fujitaka, takes care of and interacts with his family. After the death of his wife, Fujitaka takes over all parental duties for Sakura, and while he is not always present in her life, we see him around enough to notice the types of responsibilities he takes charge of. Cooking, student events, caring for her while she’s sick, are all responsibilities commonly attributed to traditional motherhood roles. Take episode 10 of the original series, the sports festival episode. Fujitaka is shown as working hard doing lectures at the college, but he still makes time to come to her sports event later in the day. With him he brings home-made desserts and even participates in the sports events, lamenting the fact he had to miss her cheerleading performance. In fact, if we were to apply the disappeared dad trope to this series, it would probably fit better with Tomoyo’s mother than anyone else. Episode 10 is the first episode we get to meet her mother, and Sakura even says this is her first time as well despite being friends with her since childhood. In some ways, Cardcaptor Sakura flips a lot of tropes on their head, including that of parental roles.
If we look at a more recent manga, Gokushufudou: The Way of the House Husband, we can see more of this flipping of tropes and more emphasis put on men performing commonly female or motherly tasks. What I like about this manga though, is that it pairs these traditionally feminine tasks with a pretty masculine spin. Tatsu is a self-described house husband and former Yakuza member. In the first few pages of Chapter 1, we see Tatsu getting ready for his day all decked out in Yakuza tattoos, putting together a cute lunchbox for his wife who is rushing off to work. He does the laundry, goes shopping for groceries, and generally takes care of the household chores. He refers to himself as an ikumen, a term that is more and more being used to refer to men who are getting increasingly involved in house work and child-rearing. I love this manga’s representation of Tatsu as it doesn’t just feminize him through his housework actions, but actually masculinizes them by giving them a Yakuza spin. It almost recreate what can be considered masculine through how it displays these chores, effectively saying house husbands shouldn’t be considered feminine for becoming ikumen.
Then there’s the manga Father and Son, that also takes the absent father trope and flips it to become that absent mother. It’s an episodic, almost four-koma manga, where the father, You-san, takes care of his son while his wife is off somewhere across the world. They play this twist in trope off for comedic effect, showing his wife as bumbling and generally unable to understand directions. She’s so bad that she winds up across the world on different continents while trying to find her way home after what should be simple outings to the convenience store. This then paints You-san as the competent one, taking care of household chores and raising their son, Shou. It may be presented as a comedy, but You-san’s role in raising Shou is never downplayed and he is never really pictured as a replacement for his wife. In fact, we are led to believe that his wife would probably be too irresponsible to be a primary caretaker of Shou, and that You’s role in their relationship has always been the responsible one.
Sweetness and Lightning, is probably one of the most comprehensive looks at single fatherhood in Japan. Both the anime and the manga do a great job of displaying the life of a single father in a positive light. He may have troubles in raising Tumugi after his wife passed, but Kohei takes an active role, taking on household chores and learning to cook. It’s here that I think is the most important and telling aspect of motherhood that we can use to talk about the changing role of father involvement in child-rearing: cooking. Pause and Select talks about it a lot in the video I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but I think this aspect is repeated time and time again in many single-father animes that I shouldn’t gloss over it. Cooking and the creation of bento’s can be seen as a traditionally feminine role in Japan. We often see female characters, especially high school girls, obsessing over making bento’s for their love interests because it is essentially a representation of their femininity and eligibility as a good partner. It also comes off as nurturing as parents or suiters will often try and include a person’s favorite foods, especially for special days like field trips or days when they might need that extra positive pick-me-up.
It’s through cooking that we see Kohei come into his own as a father. Him learning what Tsumugi likes and how to cook her favorite foods, isn’t necessarily him taking over the role as mother to his daughter, but connecting with his daughter and learning to care for her by himself. We definitely see cooking being connected to his wife, as both Kohei and Tsumugi miss her specific recipes, but through learning to cook himself, Kohei crafts his own and is able to give comfort to his daughter. Cooking here isn’t so much a feminine activity as it is a parental one, a way to show a certain sense of caring towards their children. We see it in Kotori’s mother as well, who also represents this flipped “disappeared dad” trope, as Kotori herself struggles to learn how to cook but still looks to her mother’s recipes for guidance. For Kotori, cooking almost became a way for her mother to teach her a sense of independence as she herself takes on the mantle of teacher.
Obviously what is put into comics and works of media is not a one-to-one comparison of what is happening in real life, but I think the importance of examining media is to take a look at the conversations going on surrounding these issues. Saori Yasomoto makes a good point when they say, “Many scholars…have claimed that comic strips are a reflection of society.”(7) Comics, and art in general, are a way for people to express their thoughts and values, and manga is really no different. I really do think we can learn a lot about cultural ideals from these kinds of media. In the process of putting this article together, I hoped to take a look at what was being said in manga and anime related to fatherhood, and compare that to the conversation that is happening outside of the media bubble as well as provide some background for looking at the cultural issues surrounding fatherhood in Japan. Single fathers are becoming more and more visible in the wider culture while the Japanese government begins to emphasize more paternal involvement in child-rearing and the necessity of paternity leave. Culturally and politically, Japan is still at a point of change when it comes to the conversation around the declining birth rate as well as the roles fathers play in raising their children. It’s an interesting thing to keep an eye on for the future and I’d love to see more of this cultural shift represented in manga especially with more stories like Sweetness and Lighting and Gokushufudou.
Let me know in the comments below what you thought of this article. It took me a lot longer than I thought to put it together with the research and underestimating how long it would take me to actually sit down and write out the whole thing. This was going to go up yesterday, too, but to avoid any weirdness that came with publishing this article on Mother’s Day, I decided to push it back one more day. I really hope I managed to make sense with this one, and I’ll be moving onto my next long-form article shortly which will probably end up being about Violet Evergarden. Also see below for the book resources I used and some article you can look at for some further reading on the issue.
~~As always: Thanks for reading!~~
- Fathers across Cultures: The Importance, Roles, and Diverse Practices of Dads ed. By Jaipaul L. Roopnarine (2015)
- Precarious Japan by Anne Allison (2013)
- Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison (1994)
- “Fathers and Change in Japan” by Harald Breiding-Buss
- “Culture: In Japan, They’re Now Making Room for Daddy: Absent workaholics no more, many younger fathers are trying to strike a balance between their jobs and family life.” by Teresa Watanabe for the LA Times.
- This Reddit thread from r/Japan has a lot of discussions on the reasons behind Japan’s falling birth rate and Japanese work culture.
- “A Look at Gender Expectations in Japanese Society” by Japan Powered
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