Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Can Japan Kickstart Paternity Leave Among Workaholic Fathers?

Public support is growing to make parental leave compulsory for fathers. But will that encourage a more equal sharing of the childcare burden?

Thisanka Siripala
Can Japan Kickstart Paternity Leave Among Workaholic Fathers?
Credit: Pixabay

Last month, Japan’s environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, received worldwide attention after surprising the public with his plan to take parental leave shortly before for the birth of his first child.

As the son of a former Japanese prime minister, Koizumi, 38, is a high-profile politician described as the frontrunner to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He announced he will take two weeks off, spread over the course of three months, but would not skip “important public activities” such as diet and cabinet meetings so as not to “disrupt public affairs.” Koizumi intends to incorporate a flexible work schedule by corresponding via emails and video conferencing from home.

In Japan the childcare leave law only covers employed “workers,” which excludes parliamentarians from an official childcare leave system. It’s the first time a cabinet minister has announced and followed through with paternity leave. With no precedents to follow, Koizumi admitted he was somewhat confused about how to go about taking paternity leave, but added that “the system will not change unless the number of male public servants taking leave increases.”

Koizumi has since established himself as a trailblazer for “responsible fatherhood” — carefully navigating a work culture caught between old-fashioned expectations and wanting to meet international standards. He said he hoped “child care leave for politicians will not make bad news” but would rather “trigger a work style that makes it easier for everyone to take childcare leave, even within the ministry of environment.”

In a country where taking paternity leave goes against the norm, public opinion in Japan has been divided. On social media, critics called out Koizumi’s responsibility as a public servant, saying serving his constituents should come first. On the other hand, others have criticized taking two weeks off over three months as miniscule — equal to just one hour of childcare each day, on average.

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Japanese law grants both working parents a generous 12 months of parental leave. A UNICEF report in 2016 ranked Japan as number one from 41 countries for the length of paternity leave and its compensation system. However, few fathers actually utilize the provided leave. Ministry of Health statistics in 2018 show that only 6.16 percent of male employees took paternity leave, compared to 82.2 percent of working mothers. Even that figure is a big jump compared to just 3.16 percent two years ago.

For 2020, the government increased paternity leave targets to 13 percent.

Some people argue that the way to change social attitudes is by forcing all fathers to take childcare leave. Increasing childcare leave benefits – currently covering 67 percent of a worker’s normal salary — to 100 percent would also create a natural incentive.

The Ministry of Health’s 2018 Survey on Equal Employment revealed that 30 percent of male employees aged between 20 and 40 years who have young children under three said they wanted to take parental leave but could not due to workplace staff shortages and high workloads. Japan’s rigid labor market and lack of income safety nets for all workers means non-regular staff and freelancers from small- and medium-sized companies are not in a position to take childcare leave, even if they wanted to.

However, the corporate atmosphere at some companies is slowly warming up to the idea of paternity leave, with the Bank of Mitsubishi and construction firm Sekisui House both obligating expectant fathers to take paternity leave.

While paternity leave has entered the mainstream discussion, the equality of childcare burdens has not. It’s no secret that most men in Japan do the bare minimum when it comes to child rearing. A white paper on gender equality in 2018 found that among married couples with children under six, women undertook 3 hours and 45 minutes of childcare each day in stark contrast to 49 minutes by men. In addition, 2017 data shows 56.9 percent of fathers who took parental leave took less than five days, suggesting that rather than helping with childcare they were only present at the birth.

A survey taken in October by the Q&A app for mothers “Mamari” found issues with how to encourage the equal sharing of housework and child-rearing between parents. Mamari’s editor-in-chief told FNN that it doesn’t make sense for men to go on leave if they aren’t helping reduce the burden on mothers.