The Ikumen Project and Ikubosses

Nov. 25, 2016


On November 25th, members and guests attended the latest BCCJ Diversity & Inclusion session, led by Dr. Florian Kohlbacher of The Economist, to gain insights into the situation for working fathers in Japan, the rise of the concept of 'ikumen', and the benefits reaped by companies with 'ikubosses' leading by example.

The concept of ikumen

Dr. Kohlbacher opened the session by providing some background on the concept of ikumen. The phrase was originally coined by the Japanese PR corporation, Hakuhodo, the "iku" meaning child-rearing and "men" from the English to refer to men who are actively engaged in child rearing.

The speaker illustrated the how the concept of working fathers, once referred to using the rather less glamorous term, "family service", boomed in 2010. Suddenly, glossy magazines, newspapers, and TV were featuring ikumen in a positive and fashionable light. An image change was underway, and the number of reports covering these issues increased manifold.

"It soon came to light, however, that real working men didn't identify with the glamorous image being sold by the media. Japanese fathers felt that with the pressures they were under at work, they could not aspire to become the model ikumen they were expected to be."

Theory vs. practice

Indeed, Dr. Kohlbacher revealed through his research that the engagement of fathers involved in child-rearing in Japan still indicated a clear division of labour with the father taking over the more pleasant child-rearing tasks such as playing with the children or bathing them, while the mother is still responsible for the more arduous tasks such as changing nappies, getting up at night, and the household. "There are still large gaps between ideals and reality. It is also important to highlight that stereotypes do not just come from men, but from women who believe it is their role to do certain things."

In terms of Japanese society, research shows, that for the last few decades, the belief that a husband should go to work and the wife should take care of the household is decreasing, the speaker said. At the same time, studies have revealed that the more time men contribute to child-rearing, the higher the chance of a second child - a highly relevant finding, considering the problems associated with the declining birthrate in Japan.

Ikumen and business

Dr. Kohlback continued to address the relevance of the ikumen boom for business. From 2010, the business world also began to recognise the potential of this new target group. Firms began to utilise the phenomenon in their branding strategies and new ikumen goods were created; baby and childcare products were modified to appeal to fathers and to be more father-friendly such as baby carriers with more "masculine" designs, or equipment designed to be used by both men and women (e.g. bigger grips on products for larger male hands). The emergence of events for fathers such as birthing classes, pregnancy-empathy training, and parenting advice also became more visible and popular in the 2010s.

Market research shows significant changes in the products and services being purchased by parents as well as spending patterns. Ikumen fathers, for example, are far more likely to be consulted by their wives on consumption decisions.

Japanese working culture

Dr. Kohlbacher pointed out that "Japan has one of the world’s most liberal sets of parental leave laws: Men and women are entitled to 52 weeks off, generally retaining 60% of their salary on average throughout, after the birth of a child. No other OECD country lets new fathers take that much time off, at that level of compensation. Despite this, only about 3% of new fathers in Japan took paternity leave last year."

Source: OECD Family Database 2015

There are many factors contributing to this situation. There is a prevailing attitude at Japanese companies that long hours prove hard work and therefore result in promotion. Pressure from colleagues to "be there for the team" can be intense. Certainly at many larger or traditional Japanese corporations, taking leave or holidays is regarded as a selfish act. In general, there is still a strong expectation to work long hours to prove one's worth. According to government data, about 22% of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16% of US workers and 11% in France and Germany.

In March 2016, there were reports that the government was considering reducing the upper limits of overtime allowed for workers, with companies currently permitted to request up to 45 hours of overtime a month, providing a labour-management agreement is in place.

This follows the proposal last year of new laws to force workers to go on holiday, after it emerged that the nation’s workforce took less than half of its official holiday entitlement (only 10 days in comparison to the UK's 20) in 2013.

The ikuboss

Dr. Kohlbacher emphasised, "the working culture has to change and the government must reward parent-friendly company policies. But at the same time, change must be driven within organisations, which can be difficult when management level is often occupied by those of the older generation, who are unwilling to make such changes."

"An increasing number of companies are therefore now encouraging their senior managers to demonstrate their skills as an ikuboss and to lead by example. By securing a more family-friendly workplace from the top down, there is a better chance of change."

In the subsequent Q&A session, BCCJ members and guests discussed the necessity for work-life balance initiatives, if need be with obligatory measures such as a "lights out" policy which has recently been introduced by some bigger Japanese corporations, or insisting employees take their full paid and parental leave.

Some members gave examples from their own companies and experiences which included the introduction of Ikumen Awards, actively changing policy and raising awareness, examining successful policies such as those introduced in Scandinavian countries, and empowering the group by proactively combatting peer pressure by instilling a culture of acceptance and encouragement.

One guest spoke of his own experience as an ikumen and told the audience that he had been the second man in the company's entire 49-year history to take paternity leave. He emphasised the importance of investing time in "human relations" at work, suggesting that conversations and exchange can sometimes be more effective than policy. He spoke of his success in "lobbying" his colleagues as well as clients, talking to them well in advance about his plans, and that this had resulted in a positive and supportive response.

Dr. Kohlbacher concluded the session by highlighting the fact that there is still very little research being done and that more data is needed in order to better understand and address these pressing issues. In the mean time, he said, "changing the working culture, introducing more flexible working conditions, and addressing gender stereotypes" are key to ensuring that Japanese men take a more active and balanced role in parenting.

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