Photo/IllutrationShinjiro Koizumi, now the enviroment minister, on Aug. 7 announces his marriage with Christel Takigawa, a television personality known as the face of Tokyo's successful bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Shinjiro Koizumi, the new environment minister and an expectant father, described Japan as “old-fashioned” and “pigheaded” after a heated debate erupted over his suggestion that he would take paternity leave.

Koizumi was apparently taken aback by the reaction in the political world and on the Internet concerning his plans for the birth of his first child in January.

“I only said that I was considering taking (paternity leave),” he told reporters at the prime minister’s office on Sept. 11, when he joined the reshuffled Cabinet.

But he implied that the country remained stuck with backward thinking, “judging by the debate about whether or not I should do it.”

Much of the criticism against Koizumi was that he should keep working because he now has a greater responsibility to the public as a Cabinet member.

But many others voiced support for his words, hoping that his example will lead to positive changes concerning child-rearing in Japan.

“I would like to find the best way to proceed for my wife after talking sufficiently with her,” he said.

Koizumi had personally seen a member of New Zealand’s Parliament breast-feeding during a session when he visited the country. He said he also listened to the experiences of Mie Governor Eikei Suzuki, who had taken several days off work for paternity leave.

Although men are entitled to take paternity leave in Japan, very few take the time off work to help their wives with their newborns.

Moves are being taken to encourage men to take paternity leave. But the thinking that work takes priority over family remains firmly entrenched among politicians in various political parties.

In the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, of which Koizumi is a member, a former Cabinet minister said: “A minister’s job is not that easy. Working for the country should be (Koizumi’s) top priority.”

Ichiro Matsui, the Osaka mayor who heads Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), told reporters on Sept. 11, “Now that he is a Cabinet member, he is no longer in a situation to be considering paternity leave.”

Kenta Izumi, policy research council chief of the Democratic Party for the People, told reporters at the Japan National Press Club on Sept. 9 that he is against the idea of Koizumi taking time off to be with his family.

“(Working for) the people should come first,” he said.

However, Lower House member Norihisa Tamura, an LDP politician who is a former minister of health, labor and welfare, supported Koizumi’s plan and noted that such a move could have widespread positive effects on society.

“If a Cabinet minister takes paternity leave, that message will be conveyed to private companies, and people will be significantly aware of (the message),” Tamura said.

Another Lower House lawmaker, Ikuo Yamahana of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, was the first male Diet member to take “maternity leave” when his first daughter was born in 2001.

“Koizumi is in a position as a Diet member who makes laws that are related to the lives of human beings,” Yamahana said. “Moreover, it is important for him to witness the birth of a new life and feel the importance of life.”

86% WANT TO TAKE PATERNITY LEAVE, 10% DO

Toshiaki Takahashi, 37, who lives in Tokyo and operates the website “Ikukyu Danshi.jp” (paternity leave men), took paternity leave for nine months from his company starting from 2015 when his son was born.

“I would like (Koizumi) to help create a society where it is acceptable for men at any position to proactively get involved in child-rearing,” Takahashi said.

Yoshie Komuro, 44, president of Work Life Balance Co. in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, which provides personnel consultation services, said she hopes the issue does not become simply a “problem of Koizumi.”

She said she wants Koizumi’s words and actions to provide an opportunity for all of society to hold deep discussions over the promotion of paternity leave.

In many foreign countries, such as nations in Northern Europe, more than 50 percent of men take paternity leave.

In Japan, where about 80 percent of women take maternity leave, only 6.16 percent of men took paternity leave in fiscal 2018, according to the labor ministry.

En-japan Inc. in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward conducted a survey in August targeting 2,509 men and women aged 35 or older. The results showed that 86 percent of men wanted to take paternity leave, but only 10 percent actually did so.

Among the men who didn’t take paternity leave, 72 percent cited as the main reason, “The atmosphere in my workplace makes it unacceptable to take paternity leave.”

But seeds of change have been planted.

Lawsuits have been filed against companies accused of punishing employees who take paternity leave.

And the promotion of men’s child-rearing was included in the government’s basic policies that were approved at a Cabinet meeting in June.

Furthermore, an LDP association of lawmakers recommended to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the same month that companies should be obliged to have their male employees take paternity leave.

Many negative comments were posted in the Internet concerning Koizumi’s words.

However, Komuro said: “Their criticisms show that such a large number of men could not take paternity leave despite their wishes. These are not criticisms; they are almost like a cry for help.

“It is essential (for society) to create an environment so that men can take more responsibility for child-rearing and help solve the problems of declining birthrates and other ripple-effect challenges.”