The man in the traditional kimono is having difficulty with the breasts. The weight of the belly strains his back. Simply walking around the room—a party room in a Tokyo condo building—is more like lumbering. Lying down and getting up again is a struggle. The rest of the men in the Ikumen class laugh as he tries to adjust to the new reality. But then we all have to try on the pregnancy suit ourselves, and one by one, we come to the same conclusion: It’s hard to be a woman.
The class is sort of like the prenatal ones I attended when my wife was pregnant—except that none of my classmates is actually a father or father-to-be. Some of them aren’t even dating. Many of them will list their attendance in this class on their dating profiles with the aim of attracting a partner. The young women they’re hoping to interest want to see some fatherhood credentials up front.
Ikumen is a portmanteau of the Japanese word ikuji—meaning “child-rearing”—and the English word men. Though the term has been around for years, the divide between work and home in Japan remains nearly absolute. Mothers still tend to shoulder almost all domestic responsibilities—an imbalance that can be miserable, as Masako Ishii-Kuntz, a sociology professor, hears wherever she goes. “I just gave a talk this morning, and my audience [was] all younger mothers,” she told me in her office at Ochanomizu University. “Many of them were talking about ‘Oh, my husband is just simply not interested in housework or child care.’ That’s not rare at all.”
Needless to say, this state of affairs has not helped either women’s success in the workforce or the country’s critically low birth rate, two major sources of economic drag. Which is where Ikumen classes come in. They are part of a burgeoning effort to redefine Japanese fatherhood. An organization called Fathering Japan was started in 2006, for example, to help fathers be more involved; it provides courses, and a sense of community. Yet men who forgo work to care for their kids remain outliers.
Back at our Ikumen class, the instructor lectures about Japan’s demographic crisis, the social consequences of the declining birth rate, and why men should consider child care a national duty. Everybody nods along. But besides trying on a pregnancy suit, what can men do to help?
For starters, the teacher recommends, compliment your wife. Instead of saying things like “Why did you sleep in so late?,” men could offer words of praise: “This is delicious.” “Your hair is set nice.” “Your outfit looks cute today!”
After the lecture, we learn how to bathe an infant. (I nearly fail the lesson, even though I’ve helped raise two babies and kept them both pretty damn clean.) Though the skills being taught are basic, I can’t help but admire the students for trying to train themselves, in advance, to take care of a child. Something has to give in Japan. You can’t promote gender equality in the workforce and raise the birth rate without doing something just as revolutionary: transforming society’s attitudes toward men, specifically fathers.
Bringing women into the workplace is one thing; bringing men fully into the household will be quite another.
This article appears in the July/August 2018 print edition with the headline “Big In … Japan: Dad Classes for the Single Guy.”