We've written a lot on Unseen Japan about women's rights in Japan, and how women are struggling to gain greater acceptance and support in the workforce in the face of discriminatory attitudes that date back centuries. This struggle is also occurring in the home, where, as Motoko Rich covered in an excellent New York Times piece recently, even working women find that they bare the brunt of home and child care.
It's not that nothing has changed in the 21st century. There's a general awareness that this is a problem that needs to be addressed...somehow. And, as usual, it's more common to see change among the young. Around 2000, a new word was even coined to refer to men who take a greater hand in child rearing: ikumen (イクメン), a play on ikemen, a slang word for an attractive man, and iku (育), the kanji for child-rearing.
However, as Rich's article notes, working women are still doing an average of 25 hours of housework a week, while their husbands are doing less than five. According to OECD, this is the worst imbalance of any country on Earth. And while many Japanese men hold the erroneous conception that their wives have tons of "free time," the reality, as shown in the OECD stats, is that Japanese women work slightly more than men; it's just that a larger pecentage of their work is unpaid.
The issue is that, even as women demand more participation from their husbands, cultural attitudes among men aren't changing. Instead, men find ways to avoid their spouse's demand for greater participation in their home life - for example, by refusing to head home when the work day's done.
Around 2016 or 2017, a new word cropped up to refer to this phenomenon: furariiman (フラリーマン), which refers to a salaryman, or regular office worker, who fura-furas (putters aimlessly) around the city rather than getting on the train and returning to his family. The phenomenon came about as more and more companies implemented workplace reforms that send workers home earlier so they can better tend to their households. Rather than use this time for its intended purpose, however, some men choose to hang out in bars or Internet cafes, and feed their spouses a line about a deadline or important business meeting.
There don't seem to be any firm statistics surrounding this phenomenon, so it's hard to get a sense of how widespread it actually is. The term furariiman first gained popularity in 2017 thanks to a news segment on NHK's Ohayou Nippon (Good Morning Japan) program, and has been a topic of discussion ever since. The men interviewed by the program stated their feelings plainly: They feel there's no space for them in their households, and hence "don't wanna go home".
While hard statistics might be lacking, wives and mothers who were interviewed on the topic in the wake of the NHK story insist that the furariiman phenomenon is real and widespread. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that, in these multiple "mom on the street" interviews done by newspapers and TV crews, the typical response from women is some variation on "you gotta be f*cking kidding me." As one 40-year-old woman in Saitama Prefecture put it:
Women who work reduced hours after giving birth feel small in the workplace, and are only allowed to do simple tasks. I used to work full time too, but as soon as I got pregnant, people asked, "So when are you quitting?" If a husband comes home late, it's up to his working wife to shoulder the burden of child rearing, get the kids to sleep, and then wake up afterwards to clean house. It's the same for me and the other mothers I know. Furariimen are taking advantage of women.
(JP) Link: In the Shadows of the Furariiman, The One-Woman Show: Taking a Breather vs. Taking Advantage
Changing the Psychology of Japanese Men
But what are the solutions?
The site Ie-Men, a publication dedicated to amplifying the voices of men who advocate taking on their fair share of household maintenance, argues that Japanese men who have traditionally been overworked find themselves adrift when their working hours are suddenly reduced. With few connections outside of work and few connections to the people in their neighborhood, they feel they've lost their ibasho (居場所), or the place where they belong.
Another factor is how Japanese men themselves were raised. Many were brought up with the belief that they should focus exclusively on work, and let their wives tend to the housework. However, over 70% of all married Japanese women are now working. In other words, the world these men were raised by their parents to expect no longer exists. When you put both of these factors together, it's no surprise that 70% of the people who suffer from social maladies related to loneliness - such as kodokushi (dying alone), karoushi (death from overwork), and becoming hikikomori (shut-ins) - are male.
Ie-Men suggests men handle the problem by taking responsibility for "making their own place of belonging." The magazine ran an entire series of articles containing various suggestions:
- Throw away your desk, and train yourself to shift from thinking of "your place" as in your home to being your home
- Create a "co-working space" in your house for both yourself and your wife
- Get "me" time by restructuring your schedule - e.g., by waking up early (a tactic I've used successfully for years!)
(JP) Link: Men Who Have Lost Their Place. The Three Characteristics Seen in the "Furariiman" Phenomenon
Other articles on the same topic emphasize the importance of communication. Many furariimen don't understand how truly busy their spouses are. Starting a dialogue around one another's mutual needs, and how each party can get those needs met, is more likely to yield a happy marriage than unilaterally taking time for one's self.
Ultimately, nothing will change soon unless society as a whole - through the media and, critically, the reinforcement of other men who have "seen the light" - begins putting more pressure on men to devote some of their newfound free time to taking on a share of the household burden. It'll be interesting to see how much of a societal shift occurs when the current generation of young boys - who are being raised primarily by working mothers - enters the workforce.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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