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Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001

WEEKEND WISDOM

Writer ponders role of men today


Staff writer

As a youth, Masayoshi Toyoda wondered why he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father in the family business simply because he was the only son, but had no way to express his feelings.

The 34-year-old freelance writer is now the leader of Men's Lib Tokyo, a group he set up in 1995 to enable men to openly discuss the problems and anxieties of "being a man."

The group provides a place for men to recognize distress caused by gender bias and helps men solve their problems by supporting each other.

Toyoda's parents believed that as their only son, he would take on the family's seafood wholesale business when the time came -- even though he had absolutely no desire to do so.

He could not discuss his concerns and anxieties at home because his parents would only scold him, commenting, "It's shameful for a man to say such things."

After graduating from university and in an attempt to shed the restraints placed upon him by his parents, Toyoda set off for the United States in 1990 to study and work.

While working as a writer on a Japanese magazine in New York, he learned about the men's liberation movement that emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s, and also witnessed the start of homosexuals "coming out." It was then that he realized the problem that he had been struggling with for so long.

"I came to think that it was all right to just be myself. It was eye-opening." Toyoda said.

Around this time, a book titled "Yellow Cab," about Japanese women who had no qualms about having sex with Americans, began to attract attention in Japan.

Toyoda, together with Japanese women living in New York, launched a campaign protesting the book for slandering women, which led him to start thinking about gender bias against men as well as women.

After returning to Japan and continuing to ponder gender issues, Toyoda reached the conclusion that men -- who are often seen as being violent and discriminatory against women -- are themselves suffering from the pressure of having to be manly, he said.

"They can't talk about their personal problems because they believe men should not do such things," he said. "I wanted to set up a place where they can speak freely. It is also because I myself needed a forum where I could share my own distress."

Men raise various problems during Men's Lib Tokyo meetings, including those related to their families, work, partners, sexuality, violence and social withdrawal, or "hikikomori."

Toyoda has especially noted that "hikikomori" is increasing among young men in their 20s and 30s.

In many cases, social withdrawal is brought about by insufficient communication skills and little experience of failure, according to Toyoda.

The lack of these tools to navigate society makes it difficult for these men to endure the many hardships they face in the workplace, he added.

But once these men leave their jobs, they tend to stay at home, shutting themselves off from the outside world due to pressure from family and friends who criticize them for not working, Toyoda said. This pressure comes from gender bias, which dictates that men must always work and can never take a break, he maintained.

"Women can enjoy various lifestyles. Some continue to work while others leave their jobs and enter the home or study abroad," he said. "But men don't have such diverse lifestyles. They are afraid of being regarded as 'drop outs' when they quit their jobs, and have a great deal of anxiety in seeking a new life."

Toyoda added that he wants men who suffer from social withdrawal to be able to get together and discuss their problems, enabling them to look at themselves more objectively.

His group and its activities are often the target of criticism from both men and women, who charge that it is "unmanly" to be so honest about male problems, according to Toyoda.

However, he said he remains convinced that easing the pain and anguish of men through mutual support and discussion is the key to reducing violence by men.

"Men who commit domestic violence are often themselves victims of violence," he points out. "(But) there are people among them who try to solve their problems by talking about their childhood and asking for support from people who have succeeded in putting their violent streak to rest."



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