Japanese fathers are undergoing an image makeover.

Traditional gender roles in Japan have meant many men are devoted to their jobs, almost at the expense of everything else – even their health. But now things are changing. Men are being encouraged to connect with their emotions and develop their paternal sides.

The government-backed Ikumen Project has a goal of balancing work and child-rearing responsibilities between men and women. In particular, it wants 13% of fathers to take advantage of improved paternity leave rights by the year 2020. It has even launched awards to recognize the efforts of employers to support this shift. Japanese fathers are entitled to up to 52 weeks of paternity leave, according to the OECD.

However, in 2012, just 1.9% of fathers took paternity leave. By 2015 that had risen to almost 3%, and to 7% by 2017. So although progress is being made there is clearly still some work to be done. When compared with one of the leading lights of global gender equality, Sweden; Japan lags a long way behind. In Sweden, fathers currently take around a quarter of all parental leave (of up to 480 days of leave following the birth of a child).

Japan ranks 114th out of 144 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Recent estimates suggest that gender parity could add an additional US$550 billion to Japan’s GDP.

Gender equality in Japan: an improving picture
Image: World Economic Forum

The phenomenon of the ikumen father was initially promoted by an advertising campaign in the early 2000s. This image of a young, handsome man spending his time being actively involved in his children’s lives is now a staple of many marketing campaigns and he is the antithesis of the traditional salaryman.

Famed for working long hours and being deeply embedded in a culture of after-hours drinking sessions, the salaryman delegates all child-rearing responsibilities to his wife. Unlike the warm, affectionate and attractive ikumen, the Japanese Times has characterised the salaryman as dishevelled, suffering from the aftereffects of too much alcohol, and emitting a terrible body odour – something that is even regarded as a badge of honour among these dedicated workers.

This very stark division of responsibilities along gender lines has been blamed as leading to the falling Japanese birth rate. It was only in 1986 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Law meant women were able to pursue fulfilling careers with protection from discrimination. But faced with the prospect of giving up their career to support the lifestyle of their salaryman husband, many women have been putting off getting married until later in life.

Japan now has the fastest-falling population of any developed nation, and it will fall by a third to 85 million by 2100.

But while the motivation – to redress some of the imbalance and reframe the idea of what it means to be a working father – is laudable, it is encountering a little resistance. Particularly from women.

According to Hannah Vassallo, one of the co-authors of a book called Cool Japanese Men, published by the University of Cambridge, some Japanese women think: “Let’s slow down a bit and see how much we should be holding these fathers up on a pedestal here.”