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Culture : In Japan, They’re Now Making Room for Daddy : Absent workaholics no more, many younger fathers are trying to strike a balance between their jobs and family life.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As caricatures go, he is as enduring as the samurai and sumo wrestler: the workaholic Japanese father. Chained to his company, he rarely eats dinner with his family. He works on Saturday, plays golf on Sunday--or is so exhausted he sleeps away his one day home.

He spends less time with his children, commands less respect and exerts weaker moral leadership in the home than his overseas counterparts--or so government surveys show.

So what’s Yoshiro Murakami, 39, doing home on a Monday afternoon sticking a bottle in his baby daughter’s mouth as he plans the day’s dinner menu?

Why does Naoki Inouye, 38, head straight home after work to eat and bathe with his children while his fellow bureaucrats in their 50s go out for mah-jongg and beer?

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Why on Earth are Tokyo Gas, Citizen Watch, Kao Corp. and other firms featuring dads and kids in their ad campaigns? Who is reading all the how-to-dad books popping up on the market? And why is pop culture, ranging from comic books to toys, promoting images of dad as Family Man?

Don’t look now, but the Japanese father is starting to come home.

Thanks to shorter working hours, more working mothers and values that are slowly but surely changing, Japan’s “thirtysomethings” are leading the way in redefining fatherhood. The infamous chichioya fuzai--absentee dad--is slowly giving way to younger fathers trying to balance work and home lives.

They are starting to come home earlier, spend weekends with their families and even, good gracious, help out with the household chores. They are learning the creativity of cooking and the joys of child-rearing, two tasks their fathers shunned as women’s work.

A new law enacted last year giving both parents the right to take child-care leave has even prompted a handful of men to sign up as “house husbands.” And for the first time, beginning next April, all high school boys will be required to take home economics.

“In our fathers’ generation, what was most important to the family was a father who worked hard and brought a lot of money home,” said Mutsumi Ota, 34, an NEC Corp. computer researcher who was one of the first men to take paternity leave and later wrote a book about it. “But what is most important to families today isn’t only money. It’s something else.”

For a growing number of younger parents, raised amid affluence, that “something else” seems to be greater family intimacy.

In a survey of 300 Tokyo families last November, the advertising firm Dentsu Inc. found that fathers in their 30s were far more apt than those in their 50s to value family outings, celebrate family birthdays and enjoy a variety of family leisure activities.

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Dentsu concluded that the 1990s are bringing new household styles, with more interdependent families or those who act more as friends. It’s a far cry from the old model of authoritarian, emotionally distant fathers, often dismissed by their wives as sodai gomi (“big garbage”) or nureochiba (“wet leaves,” which, like hapless hubby, stick uselessly to brooms no matter how hard you try to sweep them out).

The trend is reflected in popular culture. Licca, the Barbie-style doll of Japan, was introduced in 1967 with a mother, two sisters and a boyfriend--but no dad. The doll-maker, Takara Co., felt that girls who rarely saw their dads wouldn’t know what to do with a papa doll. But as real dads began to spend more time at home, Takara followed the trend and produced a father doll in 1989.

In the world of comics, Japanese fathers were maligned in such strips as “Dame Oyaji” (“Good-for-Nothing Dad”). But now Dame Oyaji has turned into a good guy, bringing his son on trips with him. The latest comics promote new images in “Living with Papa,” “My Home Papa” and “Trendy Papa.”

Books and videos on fatherhood are suddenly surfacing, from Ota’s book on paternity leave to “How to Dad,” “Father’s Fishing Class” and “Child-Rearing Book for Men.” The fishing book has sold 25,000 copies and 5,000 videos, while “Child-Rearing” has sold 10,000. Publishers say both are surprisingly successful for books of that genre.

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And magazines are heralding stories on their covers such as “Dual-Income Families: I Want to Be Strong in Housework and Become a Wonderful Husband,” carried in the May issue of Nikkei Anthropos, a monthly business magazine with a 200,000 circulation aimed at men in their 30s.

Kimihiko and Yukiko Shiratori, both “thirtysomethings,” recently launched an entire business based on the dad boom. Their firm, Dadway, makes baby holders and other gear in browns and navy blues to meet the demand from fathers too embarrassed to be seen in the maternal pastels that dominate the market.

Turn on the tube: A plethora of dad ads are hitting the airwaves. Kao Corp. has steered from the standard homemaker for a detergent ad and instead features a dad rubbing down his children with towels after a bath. An ad for a curry maker shows a dad at his computer with his young daughter, while Ajinomoto features two children going to greet their dad at the train station.

“The ads started last year,” said Kazuo Sunago, a Dentsu marketing official. “At first glance, it would seem to be related to the economy--how the decrease in overtime and shortened work hours have changed the father’s activities. But I think there is also a fundamental change in lifestyle itself, the creation of new values.”

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To be sure, values are slow to shift. But rapid economic changes are prompting new family relationships out of sheer necessity. As women continue to enter the work force in record numbers, dual-income households outstripped single-earners for the first time last year.

At the same time, the lingering recession has prompted firms to scale back overtime and entertainment expenses, cutting down on after-work drinking bouts. And the government has launched a deliberate campaign to shorten work hours in the face of international criticism.

The so-called “1.57 shock,” Japan’s lowest birthrate in history, has also set off national cries to ease the burden of child-care on mothers. Some people say the low rate points to a “quiet rebellion” by overburdened women.

All told, the effect is that more husbands come home earlier and face growing requests, often demands, from their working wives to pitch in. One survey, for instance, showed the percentage of women supporting traditional gender roles in the home dropping from 36.6% in 1987 to 9.3% in 1992.

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NEC’s Ota, for one, had to bargain with his wife for a child. He wanted one; she didn’t if it meant being burdened with all the housework on top of her job as a fellow NEC researcher. Not only did he agree to help out, he also took two months paternity leave.

A true researcher, Ota helped while away the time between feedings and housework by analyzing his baby’s movements: eight flips on the right side for every three on the left.

Even before he married her, Murakami, a translator for a German law firm, was told by Noriko that she intended to work after childbirth, so he had to share the chores. He sulked at first but adapted when he saw she wasn’t going to change her mind.

“I knew in my head I had to help out, but as I was doing the chores I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ” Murakami confessed.

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Now, after the birth of their second child, Murakami has decided to take paternity leave two days a week for several months. And he has come to enjoy cooking, baking his own bread from wheat he grows himself.

His powerful role model is already shaping his son’s values. Tetsuro, 10, bustles around serving tea to visitors and says he intends to be just like dad. “I like housework and cooking. It’s my hobby,” Tetsuro says, running to display the spices he uses to make his favorite curry dish.

But “house husbands” are still extremely rare. “All of my colleagues were amused and interested when I took paternity leave, but when I told them they should do it, they all fled,” Ota said.

He added that while colleagues of his generation are all family men, they feel constrained from talking openly about it at work for fear of being ostracized as unmanly. They conduct furtive conversations among themselves, swapping notes on cold remedies and good nursery schools.

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But Kazuo Nakayama, a middle-manager at a Tokyo-based petroleum firm, says he represents a new breed: the man who openly refuses overtime in favor of family life and can still get promoted.

Although he initially feared challenging the status quo, a stint in the United States, where he met many men enjoying their families and helping at home, “liberated me,” he says. He returned to Japan, shunned overtime, launched a fathers’ support group--and still managed to climb up the career ladder.

More typical, perhaps, is Inouye, the bureaucrat with the Science and Technology Agency. He is not an activist. He’s never taken paternity leave. He doesn’t hold forth in the kitchen and at one point was so overworked he was hospitalized.

He simply enjoys his family and treasures his time with them.

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Most days he tries to be home by 7 p.m. for dinner and bonds with his daughters, 6 and 8, with evening baths together. On weekends, he plays ball with them, takes them shopping and takes them out to eat.

Inouye said there were striking generational differences within his own government agency.

“The younger generation in their 20s and 30s work hard at work, but once they go home they try to spend time with their families,” he said. “My colleagues in their 50s still go out for mah-jongg and drinking.

“The younger people now don’t even know how to play mah-jongg any more.”

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Chiaki Kitada, a researcher in The Times’ Tokyo bureau, contributed to this story.

Just Wait Until Your Father Gets Home. . .

Traditionally, fathers in Japan spend less time with their children than dads in other countries do--a pattern that is starting to change. Here’s a look at how 3,000 Japanese, American and German kids view their relationships with their fathers. * Fathers’ Involvement in Children’s Lives

SOMEWHAT OR VERY ACTIVELY INVOLVED:

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Japan: 47%

U.S.: 88.5%

Germany: 63.4%

TALKING EVERY DAY:

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Japan: 54.4%

U.S.: 87%

Germany: 63.3% * Children’s Image of Their Fathers

SOMEONE WHO DESERVES RESPECT:

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Japan: 26.9%

U.S.: 79.1%

Germany: 41.1%

DEDICATED TO WORK:

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Japan: 56.7%

U.S.: 70.7%

Germany: 17.6%

STRONG:

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Japan: 20%

U.S.: 69.2%

Germany: 47%

RELIABLE:

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Japan: 36%

U.S.: 69.5%

Germany: 60.7%

GENTLE:

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Japan: 45.5%

U.S.: 54.8%

Germany: 18.8%

CONSIDERATE:

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Japan: 17.8%

U.S.: 67.7%

Germany: 44.5% * Fathers’ Role at Home

(Children’s perception)

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AS CENTER OF FAMILY:

Japan: 62.4%

U.S.: 22.8%

Germany: 12.9%

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MOTHER AND FATHER BOTH CENTER:

Japan: 24.3%

U.S.: 53.5%

Germany: 36.5%

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TEACHING CHILD ABOUT MORAL ISSUES / SOCIAL BEHAVIOR:

Japan: 69.7%

U.S.: 84.5%

Germany: 73.6%

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TEACHING CHILD ABOUT MANNERS / POLITE BEHAVIOR:

Japan: 58.7%

U.S.: 81.7%

Germany: 74.7%

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GIVING ADVICE TO CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR PROBLEMS:

Japan: 44.9%

U.S.: 78.1%

Germany: 66.7%

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TEACHING CHILD ABOUT FACTS IF LIFE:

Japan: 15.1%

U.S.: 60.4%

Germany: 44.7%

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SETTING CURFEWS:

Japan: 37.3%

U.S.: 79%

Germany: 55.5%

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HELPING CHILD WITH HOMEWORK:

Japan: 28%

U.S.: 49.4%

Germany: 35.1%

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Source: 1988 Japanese government survey


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