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Turning salarymen into day-care dads

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Japanese fathers learn new skills
  • Fathering Japan is a non-profit trying to change gender stereotypes in Japan
  • Fathers being encouraged to take a more active role in childcare
  • Tough economic times mean that corporate life isn't so secure anymore
  • Need for change in corporate culture says Goldman Sachs strategist

(CNN) -- The way Koji Azuma saw it, two choices faced him: work to death in corporate Japan like a traditional Japanese businessman or take a pay cut help raise his young daughter.

The choice was surprisingly easy.

Azuma quit his job and moved his family outside of Tokyo, in a more affordable, less urban neighborhood. He became a consultant, teaching seminars as a freelancer. Azuma's wife, Kumi, started working as a nutritionist at a day care center.

With his new flexible job and involvement in raising his 3 year old, Kana, Azuma is living the life preached by "Fathering Japan." Fathering Japan is a non-profit group, which pledges to "promote understanding and acceptance for dads who want to play an active role in their children's lives."

That pledge isn't just for the men themselves, but to "influence the corporate mind" and "contribute to society."

Basically, the group wants to change Japan's long-held notions of a man's role (to earn money) and a woman's (to run the household).

Promotion is now tough. Wages flat. Both parents have to work.
--Koji Azuma

Fathering Japan runs night seminars, dubbed "Papa School." The sessions they hold are part group therapy, part step-by-step parenting class. The young fathers talk about and write down their life priorities. It's something that Japanese society rarely asks of its men: choose family, career, or a mixture.

"It used to be in Japan that men worked for big companies and could count on lifetime employment and promotion," says Azuma, the teacher of the evening's Papa School when CNN visited.

"But the system changed. Promotion is now tough. Wages flat. Both parents have to work."

Kathy Matsui is Goldman Sachs' Chief Japan Strategist and author of "Womenomics 3.0: The Time is Now."

"I think the younger generation is beginning to question whether those mores are applicable to Japan going forward," she says.

Matsui says the traditional gender rules worked when Japan's economy grew by leaps and bounds in the 80s and early 90s. But Japan's economy is flat, as it has been for 20 years.

The country's aging population has led to what Matsui dubs a "demographic tsunami," where by 2055, the population will shrink by 30 percent. According to the 2007 UN World Population Prospects, the working population is shrinking at a faster pace than any other developed country on the planet.

By 2030, states the same UN report, Japan will have only two workers for every retiree/child. For a country with the world's highest debt to GDP ratio, that spells economic trouble.

"It's a crisis in slow motion, some would argue... I still think there's time to come up with solutions. But if you wait five, ten years, it may be too late," says Matsui.

I believe there will be more men in the future just like me.
--Koji Azuma
  • Asian Economy
  • Japan
  • Family
  • Japanese Economy

The solution, believes Matsui, is to utilize women as a workforce, by equalizing the duties at home between men and women.

A simply stated solution, she explains, but difficult to carry out.

Japan remains a patriarchal society where lawmakers and corporate managers are predominately men and over the age of 50. Structural changes from appropriate childcare to the eradication of discrimination in corporate Japan are just part of the necessary changes, argues Matsui.

Those changes are "easier said than done," says Matsui.

"You can't wave a magic wand. You can't force people to change their behavior. The first step is education. Making people recognize that this is part of the obstacle."

There's no need to sell Azuma on changing his Japanese home. He believes that others must follow, especially as Japan redefines itself in its shrinking economic state.

"I believe there will be more men in the future just like me," he says.