A few weeks ago, male governors in Japan donned pregnancy vests in an effort to urge men to help out more at home. Women there do about five times as much housework as men thanks to the country’s fierce adherence to gender roles that keep women at home and, importantly, out of the nation’s rapidly aging workforce. Men, meanwhile, are known to work incredibly long hours and take a hands-off approach to parenting. For instance, just 2.7% of them take Japan’s rather generous statutory paternity leave.
The governors’ mission was noble but their execution was ill-conceived. Slate writer Elissa Strauss was one critic to bash the stunt, writing that it failed to emulate the real experience of pregnancy, which can include organ displacement, insomnia, exhaustion, and depression. Plus, it had no positive effect on men’s parenting skills because it didn’t encourage men to actually parent.
An organization in Japan seems to have gotten the gist of Strauss’s message loud and clear, and it’s taken a somewhat novel approach to tackling Japan’s long-held gender roles. Non-profit Fathering Japan is encouraging men to get more involved in child-rearing by teaching dads to read to their kids, from how to use an animated delivery to choosing an engaging book. Those may seem like pretty elementary techniques, but founder Tetsuya Ando says some men in Japan need instruction in the basics. “The priority of traditional Japanese fathers is work … they don’t know what to do even when they come home early,” he says.
The effort reflects a larger mission by the Japanese government, which wants more women to work outside the home. It’s investing $500,000 to create so-called “iku-men”—a play on the Japanese word for “child-rearing” and the English word “men.”