Every day was a round of baby care, laundry, housework, cooking and grocery shopping.

That is the typical life of a Japanese housewife -- except that it was Mitsuhiko Sakaguchi living it, while his wife worked full time.

"There are a lot of things you have to do every day," Sakaguchi said of the time he spent at home with his infant daughter Moemi, now 4. "I was definitely more tired than I expected."

For nine months, Sakaguchi, 36, was one of a small but growing number of Japanese househusbands, an anomaly in a nation where child care and housework are still widely viewed as women's work and women are encouraged to stay home to do it.

More job opportunities, though, have made an increasing number of women economically independent, and many are reluctant to quit work when they have a child. The result is a dramatic drop in the birthrate -- down to a record-low 1.29 children per woman -- that has policymakers worried.

"The view that raising children is only a woman's work -- well, that's wrong," said Mikiko Yamazaki, dean of the Kanagawa University of Human Services. "Japan will have to really change, from within the household, or women just won't have babies."

Better job opportunities have also led to more divorces and more single fathers. In 2003, there were 173,800 single fathers -- still very few compared with the country's 1.22 million single mothers, but a rise of 28 percent in five years.

The number of men listed as dependents by the social insurance system the same year was 80,108, compared with 42,966 five years before.

The small numbers mean a lack of general social awareness and support. Until recently, there weren't even proper Japanese words to describe the situation.

More-serious troubles for single fathers include job woes ranging from a lack of sympathy to delayed promotion and poor work assignments.

"When a man has a wife, he's taken a lot more seriously by people around him, including at his job," said Hideo Ikeda, who raised two children after his wife died at age 40 of stomach cancer. "There's a sense that being a single father is shameful."

When Sakaguchi decided in 2001 to take paternity leave from his job at an engineering firm, he said, people were flabbergasted. It took days to convince his boss that he was serious, since even women at the company who became pregnant tended to quit.

Sakaguchi used to think a married woman shouldn't work. Once he and his wife wed, though, both kept their jobs, and the financial benefits were obvious.

When his wife became pregnant, the couple decided to share child-care leave as they had always shared housework, another area in which Sakaguchi was unusual -- Japanese men with working wives do only 21 minutes of housework a day, according to government surveys.

"It was really fun," he said of his leave, which began when his daughter was 6 months old. "Nothing big, but children -- every day they grow and change, and seeing this was fun."

There were hard times, as well. Sakaguchi said he felt self-conscious about shopping with his daughter during the day and found himself socially isolated.

"When I went to play areas with my daughter, it was hard for the mothers there to talk with me or for me to talk with them," he said. "The Internet was an important part of my day."

When he returned to work after his leave, he was hit with a job transfer to a place so distant he would have to live apart from his family, and he promptly quit.

"I got the impression I was being bullied," he said.

Still, the situation has improved since 1978, when Ikeda, now 71, lost his wife when his children were 10 and 12.

"At that time, there were never any men in supermarkets doing the shopping," he said. "People thought I was pretty strange."

Brought up in a generation for which "men do not go into the kitchen" was a motto, Ikeda also struggled to cook and clean.

"You get some sympathy if your wife has died, but not a lot," he said. "No special allowances are made if you're raising the kids yourself."

With the breakdown of the lifetime employment system, Japanese men no longer identify totally with their jobs, leaving some willing to take risks or forgo steady employment altogether.

"Work isn't their whole life anymore," Yamazaki said. "They put their private life first and want to take part in child care."

Recognizing that being a househusband is a lifestyle option could help avert the crisis presented by Japan's rock-bottom birthrate.

Sakaguchi says that despite the hassles of staying at home, he'd readily do it again. But he added, "Of course, I do sort of wonder what it would be like to do this for years and years. . . . Maybe not so good."

Hiroki Minagawa takes his daughter Karin for a walk in Tokyo in April. A growing number of Japanese men are staying home to look after children and do housework.