Active Dads: Inherently Handsome (but only in Japan!)
When I inform Japanese people that I have been living here for sixteen years now, a common reaction is, “You must really love Japan!” Usually I just smile and nod, but if I'm feeling in a particularly gregarious or honest mood, I have to respond, “Actually it is Japanese ” I love. In English this statement is ambiguous: it could refer to either Japanese people or the Japanese language. In Japanese (the language in which this conversation invariably occurs), however, there is no ambiguity, and it is always clear I'm speaking about the language. When I was just beginning my study of Japanese in high school, my goal was to learn enough so I could read Yukio Mishima novels in the original without a dictionary, and understand them perfectly. Little did I know what a high bar I was setting for myself, for many Japanese people would have a difficult time with the task.
As a working translator and father of two small children, I find I have no time or energy to test whether I have achieved my old goal. And indeed, I am much more likely to understand a biomedical research paper or drug study protocol in Japanese than the beautiful, elevated language of Mishima. Such are the vicissitudes of making a living in the modern world.
If my natural inclination is toward the literary, while my vocation is more technical, I have very little desire or cause to keep up with the neologisms of popular modern Japanese. I think it was the first time I heard the phrase cho-beri-ba (ultra-very-bad) when I was living in Tokyo 20 or so years ago, that I decided I had zero interest in keeping up with or understanding popular slang. However, the way in which Japanese youth managed to effortlessly combine originally-Chinese characters with English fascinated me, if only morbidly. Maybe that's how virologists feel when examining a particularly virulent strain under the microscope.
And yet it is the very plasticity on display in such turns of phrase that makes Japanese such an interesting language. One example is particularly near and dear to my heart: ikumen. This is a play on words from another modern, slangy word: ikemen. Ike in this context means “good-looking,” and men is either the kanji for “face” or the English word “men.” (Apparently the derivation is ambiguous.) Either way, it means a good-looking guy. Ikumen, then takes this term and substitutes the iku (“child-rearing”) for ike (“good-looking”) to refer to the new generation of Japanese fathers who are more actively involved in raising their children than has been traditional.
The term is then a combination of the Chinese kanji for “child-rearing” and the English term “men,” thus demonstrating the inherent fluidity of the Japanese language that can be at once so beguiling and so infuriating (at least to the translator trying to pin the meaning of certain words down). And, it refers to a distinctly modern phenomenon, at least within Japan: men who take a proactive role in raising their children. Given that the term is a pun on a word originally referring to handsome men, I think it is safe to assume the phrase is complimentary.
I am glad that ikumen is used as a compliment, because I certainly am one. Since my job as a translator affords me flexible hours, and my wife works long hours as a doctor, most primary child-rearing duties during the week fall on my shoulders. Raising children in Japan is certainly an adventure, and a rewarding one at that, but I still cannot help but notice that when I bring my children somewhere the group of parents talking in a corner invariably consists of Japanese mothers and myself.
According to Japanese law fathers are allowed to take time off to raise their children, but few avail themselves of this opportunity for fear of disadvantaging themselves in the workplace. And, in my many conversations with Japanese mothers, they seem to assume that my proactive role in child-rearing is due to the fact that I'm American, rather than the fact that my job is simply more flexible than my wife's. Indeed, there is nothing in our particular familial arrangement that depends upon my being a foreigner. And yet, even within a culture that claims to laud its ikumen, I have yet to personally meet another family where the father is primary daily caregiver like me.
Cultures move more slowly than slang, though, and the very existence of this strange word, an amalgamation of Chinese and English sewn up together in a uniquely Japanese package, seems to signal a change. While I probably never qualified as an ikemen, I am more than happy to be called an ikumen, with all the positive connotations that word involves.
 Little did I know I knew little の倒置．以下 myself までは「どれほど高い目標を自分に設定しているのか当時は知る由もなかった」の意．
 protocol 医学研究実践の詳細な計画案（研究社『医学英和辞典』第2版）．
 it was the first time it は形式主語．意味上の主語は後の years ago, に続く that 節．また time の後に関係詞 when が省略されている（「初めて [耳にした] 時」）．
 strain 菌株．
 on display 表われて，示されて（研究社『ルミナス英和辞典』第2版 display 項）．
 turn of phrase 言い回し．
at once ここでは both の意味に捉えればよい．
 proactive 率先してやる（研究社『リーダーズ・プラス』）．
 a rewarding one at that 冒険である分やりがいもある．one＝adventure. at that その点では．
 our particular familial arrangement わが家に見られる役割分担．続く that は前の nothing に係る．