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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.


TOKYO — 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?

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.

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.

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.

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