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Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

New breed of single fathers should be a model for men across Japan


Special to The Japan Times

He is a much maligned creature at home and abroad. Some call him good for nothing; others say he is good for only one thing: bringing home the bacon ... and, in recent years, a most lean bacon it has become. On the weekends his primary pastime is gorone, to wit, snoozing in his clothes during daytime hours.

Someone once claimed that he speaks an average of 14 words to his wife in a 24-hour span. The first three are "beer," "bath" and "towel," respectively. The remaining 11 vary, depending upon whether he has been married to his wife for more than six months.

Well, you guessed it. He is Pater Japonicus — the Japanese father.

But, this description may be outdated, for the genus seems to have mutated over the past generation into a new variety of parent. Look at single fathers in this country today and I think you will realize that the old type of Japanese father is a dying breed. It may be time to redefine the species.

Take Osaka resident Shuhei Yamamoto, who at age 29 became a single father.

"Until my divorce two months after the birth of my daughter, I hadn't lifted a finger to do housework. I mean, where do you buy those bags they put in the vacuum cleaner?"

By the time his daughter, Aiju, was 4, he was getting up before 5 a.m. to prepare her lunchbox meal and clean the house. His apartment is strewn with damp laundry, some of it hanging off the fax machine.

"I finally realized how tough it is to be a housewife," he said.

But then there is Shinya Matsuo in Nagasaki. Age 38, he is a single father who has been looking after his 7-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son for the past seven years.

"A new life started for me after separating from my wife when my daughter was 5 months old," he said.

Matsuo had to give up his job as foreman on construction sites due to the demanding hours. At times he was at the end of his tether.

"I even thought," he confessed, "that I would drive my car into the sea and kill us all. But then I decided to dedicate myself to my children."

Matsuo reinvented himself as the principal of a preschool and kindergarten. Hoikuen Tonton, founded in Nagasaki in March 2007, is a 24-hour school and child-care center, one of Japan's few fully accredited home-style kindergartens. He manages to look after his children and run a successful business at the same time.

"I am not a mother," he said, "but I want to give my children a mother's love."

According to the National Population Census taken in 2010, single mothers overwhelmingly outnumber single fathers by a factor of 9 to 1. Yet, that still leaves about 122,000 single fathers who are obliged to be dual role models if their children are to thrive into adulthood.

Single-parent households present problems that complicate and exacerbate the issues faced by households with two parents, particularly when it comes to the education of the children.

There is a higher rate of delinquency in paying school fees in Japan's single-parent households. Due to financial and social hardships in the family, children leave school earlier, with advancement to tertiary education markedly lower than for children who have the benefit of both parents in the home. Behavioral problems show up more frequently in single-parent households, no doubt as a result of decreased supervision by a mother or father having to cope with both roles.

There is a great deal more research on, interest in and concern for single mothers in Japan than for single fathers. This may be natural, considering both the number and the lesser income of the former. The average income of a single father is ¥4.2 million a year. The average for single mothers is only a little more than half that, at ¥2.13 million. Welfare payments for single parents are means tested, however. Consequently, single mothers benefit from more substantial government aid than single fathers.

"The government doesn't realize the mental pressure that single fathers are under due to the stagnating economy and the pressure on them to put raising their children ahead of their careers," reported the Sankei Shimbun on Jan. 12, 2011. "If a child suddenly falls ill, a single mother gets much more consideration from a workplace than a single father."

Tomoyuki Katayama, head of Zenfushiren (Single Father Japan), a national support group, was himself left with two small children to care for after his divorce.

"My boss told me," he said, " 'Just get married again to anyone.' But I was under a lot of pressure and I suffered from insomnia and depression. A lot of dads have no choice but to quit their jobs, given the demands of overtime, early starts and business trips."

The appearance in the past decade of support organizations for single fathers is an indication of just how serious the new generation of fathers is about becoming dedicated single parents.

Zenfushiren's motto is: "We want to defend the smiles of fathers and children." With its headquarters in Niigata Prefecture, the group conducts fundraising drives, holds symposia and sponsors research in conjunction with other NPOs and government organs. It states as its goals, "The bringing together of individuals and organizations, the redressing of the aid gap between single-mother and single-father households ... and the expanding of the safety net for all fathers." Just last month they even opened up a pub in Niigata called PaPa's Dining F-Plus, where "F" stands for father, family, friends, future and food.

Other NPOs for single fathers active on a prefectural or national level include Fathering Japan and the French Toast Foundation. The former runs a school to help single fathers raise their children.

Single Parent Magazine in the U.S. reports that "single father homes are the fastest growing type of family situation" in that country. They have grown by 60 percent in the past decade. But, despite the handicaps, single parents — be they mothers or fathers — must not lose hope. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton never knew his father, who died in a car accident before he was born; and President Barack Obama was brought up by his grandparents. Even George Washington was raised, after age 11, by a single mother. When it comes to children brought up by a single parent, their attitude should be "Yes I Can!"

The Japanese dad who is fortunate enough to be in a stable marriage should take a leaf out of the new breed of single fathers' book. These men, gathering together and creating positive networks in support of each other for the welfare of their children, are a symbol of the very best qualities of the new Japanese father. They deserve recognition and full support from the populace, the media and the government.

Dozing off on the couch on a lazy weekend is not an option for single fathers.

It shouldn't be one for any father from now on.



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