By Emily Chapman
Pigeon, a Japanese family brand, advertises its baby soap with a father and his baby in the bath together, covered in soapy suds. The text reads: “Every time papa bathes you, you look more and more like him” (o-furo ni irete ageru tabi, dan dan papa no kao ni naru). The advert is not alone in singling out the father-child bond, but adverts featuring just papa remain rare. Of interest here is the use of bathtime as a space for the development of the father-child relationship exclusive of the rest of the family unit.
I asked Japanese friends whether the triumvirate of father, bath, and baby was familiar to them. With rapid assurance over coffee, one replied “it’s communication time” (komyūnikeishon-taimu), the implication of which is that there is no other time set aside for father-child bonding. It is perhaps too clean a jump to suggest that this is because of the rigid working schedules of urban male workers in Japan, yet, what if it is?
Tsipy Ivry’s 2010 monograph Embodying Culture compares the cultures of pregnancy in Japan and Israel. One of the strongest differences emerges in the expected and experienced roles of male partners during pregnancy. Ivry expertly unravels the knots of and around pregnancy’s institutions in Japan, in which the scope of male partners’ participation remains dually capped, first and foremost by “men’s enduring commitment to their workplace”. This obstacle is reinforced in turn by “the structure of prenatal care services” (Ivry 2010, 160). In Israel, prenatal courses surface as a place for father and foetus to coincide; however, as Ivry describes, in Japan “most of the “parents’ courses” feature only one lesson, out of five or more, in which husbands are actually invited to participate. The special class takes place during evening hours, to make it possible for husbands to attend, which again reinforces the primacy of their work over their partnership. The content of these lessons varies, but many of them include a practice session of baby bathing for the husbands. As participants explained, bathing is considered the “traditional” role of the father”. Ivry goes on to suggest that the “skinship” incarnate in bathtime is a sustained replacement for the “lack of opportunities to bond precisely because they are not as physically connected to their children as their spouses” (Ivry, 162).
Using the idea of gestation as a privileged bonding experience, bathtime may serve as a moment of exclusive gendered bonding and becoming which survives on the assumption that the mother will have had ample other time to bond with the child. Should her hours of bonding be reduced by virtue of her working hours, there is no allocated catch-up space – discursive or practical – since it has already been assigned to papa. It is his corporate-sanctioned runway for expressing and experiencing fatherhood through nightly ritual. From desktop to doormat, it is his “glory run”.
Sanctioned or otherwise, to what extent is Pigeon peddling a sud-fuelled imaginary rather than a viable reality? Drawing from the Nationwide Survey on Families and Children (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2009), the graph below plots the time at which working mothers and fathers return home.
Mothers’ return peaks between 6 and 7pm with the majority returning before 6pm, whereas fathers trickle through their front doors between 7.30 and 9pm. The graph bolsters Pigeon’s storyline, with the hours before bath and bed as the statistical preserve of mothers with the time for bathtime remaining staunchly at the frontline of fatherly performance. For those fathers who do not make it home in time to bathe in both Pigeon soap and their daily dose of glory, the changing Japanese father-scape does offers other opportunities – whether it is feeding your baby, changing a nappy, or being a pushchair papa out in the park at the weekend. The unspoken assumption, however, is that in papa’s statistically likely absence, mother will bathe baby, yet oddly enough she will encounter none of this tantalising glory.
Tsipy Ivry (2010) Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.
Tamago kurabu (June 2012), Tokyo: BenesseLifeSmile.
Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2009) Nationwide survey on Families and Children. Available at: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/list/72-16.html.
With an undergraduate degree in Japanese studies, Emily Chapman finished her MA in Gender Studies at SOAS in 2012 and will start a PhD in the SOAS History department this September. In the meantime, she blogs at didilockthedoor.wordpress.com with a focus on the gendered construction of the family in postwar Japan. Her work is geared in particular to broadening ways of looking at families in Japanese history in order to better appreciate the spaces and places of coping which do not, and have not, conform[ed] so cleanly to “work” and “home”.