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Kumamoto Symposium on Raising the Next Generation: Fathers and Childrearing

A symposium on Raising the Next Generation, jointly sponsored by Fukuda Hospital and Benesse Corporation, was held on Sunday, August 27 in Kumamoto, Japan. A journalist with a local Kumamoto newspaper who had taken childcare leave spoke about his childrearing experience as a father. This was followed a very informative and enlightening discussion on fathers and their involvement in rearing children.

Issues pertaining to childrearing cannot be addressed in a simplistic manner and must, of course, be considered within the context of the family and society and related matters. In this regard, what is needed is the perspective of human ecology, in particular, a perspective that understands how these issues are related to society and culture.

Although not directly relevant, the involvement of male monkeys in rearing their offspring is often raised to make the point that human fathers also need to participate in childrearing, but it is not quite that simple. In the case of South American monkeys in which males play a major role in rearing the young, primatologists explain that if the females are responsible for childrearing, they will produce fewer offspring because breastfeeding suppresses ovulation. In the harsh natural environment, the father's active role in childrearing is a means of promoting increased reproduction.

Cultural anthropologists have noted that women in some desert tribes of Africa where the climate is exceedingly harsh continue to breastfeed until the child reaches the age of five or six. In this case, the reason is contrary to that of the monkeys above. Even when it no longer offers any nutritional benefit for the child, mothers continue breastfeeding as a form of birth control. From this, we can say that living beings apply their knowledge and experience in rearing offspring to ensure their life and that of future generations.

In the early stages of human society, men hunted while women cared for children and gathered fruit. As life became more stable and richer, societies formed, constituting civilizations and cultures. Rudimentary childrearing was no longer sufficient and, men themselves came to play a role in child care. This has been the trend in Japan over the past ten years and in the United States for the last twenty. There are a number of factors that explain the tendency or necessity for increased male participation in childrearing in our affluent society of today.

As such, the reasons that men also participate in childrearing today are related to the family and social environment. Let me name a few that come to mind. First, compared with the two- or three-generation households of the past, the nuclear family of today is an isolated unit consisting of the couple and their children. Furthermore, while the husband's income alone was sufficient to support the family in the past, today this requires two incomes, and both the husband and wife have to work. Moreover, the 800-year history of human rights seems to also have played a role, having evolved from citizen's rights, or rather rights for men, in America's War for Independence and the French Revolution to the recognition of women's rights and children's rights in 1979 and 1989, respectively. We can say that the time has finally come when, given the right conditions and motivation, women can do whatever men do.

In today's gender-equal society, the differences between men and women are primarily biological and involve pregnancy, childbirth, and child care (breastfeeding), that is, a very short and limited time during the child's life. In terms of clothing as well, we can say that the differences between women and men are becoming blurred. These factors have become a major driving force in achieving gender equality or equal opportunity for men and women in various fields of society.

Considering this situation, we now have to create and establish systems that will support pregnancy, childbirth, and child care in different ways and at various levels, both within the family and society. In terms of tangible infrastructure, this entails supporting child care facilities, that is, increasing both the quantity and quality of child care centers. In terms of practices and activities, the numerous possibilities include instituting a system that encourages fathers to take child care leave or handling child care as a team together with close neighbors. Fortunately, many of these options are already being tried out, but our attitudes and thinking still stand in the way and present some unresolved problems when it comes to actual practice. This points to a need to form a basis for exchange of information.

According to a survey conducted by the Benesse Institute for the Child Sciences, Parenting, and Aging, only 2.4% of fathers took child care leave while 23% reported wanting, but not being able to take advantage of the child care leave policy. Because the practice is not yet a generally accepted idea in Japanese society, it is not widely known or discussed. The first step is then forming a basis for exchange of information and discussion. This would be a way of breathing life into the system of support for pregnancy, child birth, and child care and ensuring that it begins to function on its own. This is what I feel we must do now.
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