THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
June 28, 2021 at 07:30 JST
Japan operates one of the most generous paternity leave systems in the world, yet few men take advantage of it due to longstanding gender-role stereotypes. Some local governments and companies are trying to turn the tide.
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Japan’s parental leave system is regarded as one of the most family friendly in the world. The program, which allows both men and women to stay home until their offspring turn 1 year old while still receiving 50 percent to 67 percent of their monthly wages, was ranked in first place in the category of paid leave reserved for fathers by a 2019 UNICEF survey out of the 41 countries offering such benefits.
Paid leave can also be extended up to the child’s second birthday. Yet, less than 8 percent of working fathers took advantage of the system in 2019--compared with 83 percent of working mothers--due to stereotypes over taking time off.
Noboru Hosokawa, who is 46 and manages a model home park in Tokyo for a multinational construction company, initially shied way from taking paternity leave, fearing he would be ostracized by his colleagues.
“I was very busy with work and thought it was impossible to take the leave,” he said. “As a manager, I needed to improve sales, and mistakenly believed that taking paternity leave would undermine my image among my subordinates.”
The stereotype of husbands as breadwinners and homemakers remaining in charge of domestic matters and child care remains strong in Japan.
Many men do not realize that taking time to fully participate in their children’s upbringing could have a positive impact on women’s employment rates and help achieve gender equality--for which Japan ranked a lowly 120th out of the 156 nations in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index in 2020.
Others have to deal with supervisors who believe that a man’s priority should be his work, accuse employees of being troublesome when they ask for time off to care for their children or even cunningly threaten them with withholding potential promotions.
Roughly 70 percent of nearly 3,000 businesses surveyed last summer by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry still “fully or somewhat oppose” efforts to oblige employers to make parental leave mandatory among male employees.
However, the central government, along with local authorities and some companies, is trying to change that mindset.
Two years ago, Hosokawa had little time to spare with his then 5-year-old son and soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter, except on holidays. He left home each weekday for work at 7:30 a.m. and often returned after 8 p.m. when the children were already in bed.
When his children were born, Hosokawa was unaware that households like his--with a full-time homemaker on hand--were eligible for parental leave.
Even when he eventually found out that he could, Hosokawa remained wary as no other managers around him had taken paternity leave.
The turning point came in 2018 when his company, Sekisui House Ltd., started urging employees with children under the age of 3 to take paternity leave for a month or longer.
The company’s president, Yoshihiro Nakai, initiated a top-down reform program that led to gradual changes in company attitudes toward paternity leave, including paying the first month of paid leave in full to ease potential concerns among employees about lost income.
At the time, Hosokawa’s daughter was about to turn 3, but he was still reluctant to take time off work. He finally opted to take advantage of the company’s paternity leave system after his superior and colleagues promised they would take over his duties and support his team.
During his leave, Hosokawa cooked, washed clothes and spent so much time with his children that he developed lumbago. The excruciating pain made him realize how little he had done up until then with regard to household chores and child-rearing. Today, he is back at work helping to prepare for a junior staff member to take paternity leave.
He now advises younger colleagues to “make full use of their time and spend it with their children, to watch them grow.”
Gifu Prefecture in central Japan and east of Kyoto, also has taken a top-down approach to raise the paternity leave ratio among its government employees.
The prefecture boasts the highest ratio in the nation, according to a 2019 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. But this only applies to prefectural government departments directly overseen by Gifu’s governor.
Of the 93 civil servants eligible in prefectural departments for paternity leave, 48--or 51.6 percent--did so in fiscal 2019, up 17.1 points from 34.5 percent the previous year. The figure far exceeds the national average of 16.8 percent among civil servants.
“A workplace atmosphere has emerged (in Gifu) where taking paternity leave is now considered normal,” said a representative of the internal affairs ministry’s Women’s Empowerment and Diversity Office.
“We realize it can be difficult for some workplaces to spare personnel for various reasons, but we expect that sharing the Gifu prefectural government’s measures will help municipalities and private corporations in the prefecture to improve their work situations.”
Since 2015, the prefectural government has required expectant fathers to submit child care plans detailing the estimated date of birth and whether they will take paternity leave.
If they refuse, the human resources department encourages those individuals' supervisors to adjust work schedules and motivate their subordinates to take time off for their children.
Gifu Prefecture now plans to raise its paternity leave ratio to 90 percent, but challenges remain.
When sections outside the governor’s direct jurisdiction are taken into account, Gifu ranks second nationwide with a 13 percent paternity leave ratio among eligible employees, trailing only Tottori Prefecture’s 26 percent.
The prefecture’s police department rate, for instance, stands at barely 5 percent, and the prefectural board of education at 4.9 percent. Private businesses and municipalities in Gifu are also struggling to raise their leave rates.
Examples such as these show that, however daunting breaking down long standing stereotypes may seem, Japan is slowly moving toward a family friendly society.
By 2025, the central government aims to increase the paternity leave rate among local civil servants and private companies to at least 30 percent. That would not only benefit working fathers, but also help narrow the gender gap.
(This article was written by Kenjiro Takahashi, Natsumi Nakai, Suguru Takizawa, Sawa Okabayashi and Yoshinobu Matsunaga.)
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This article is being published as part of “Towards Equality,” an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 international news outlets to highlight the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality. The Asahi Shimbun is participating in this campaign spearheaded by Sparknews.
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