Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks about new goals for child care leave at a news conference on March 17. (Koichi Ueda)

With the clock ticking on dealing with the falling birthrate, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's newest solutions include having most of the male workforce taking child care leave by the end of the decade. 

At a March 17 news conference, Kishida outlined broad concepts and major goals to deal with the problem, saying, “We must change the overall consciousness and structure of society.”

The prime minister set an ambitious goal in boosting the ratio of men taking child care leave, seeking a ratio of 50 percent in fiscal 2025 and 85 percent in fiscal 2030.

In fiscal 2021, 14 percent of male employees took such leave.

Kishida pointed to statistics that showed births in 2022 falling under 800,000 for the first time.

He laid out three broad concepts for dealing with the falling birthrate--increasing the income of those in the child-rearing generation; changing the structure and consciousness of the entire society; and providing support to all households raising children.

In striving to meet the goals of male employees taking child care leave, Kishida said the situation at individual companies would be disclosed.

He added the government was considering a new program to provide support to small businesses that pay a special allowance to employees who temporarily assume the work of colleagues taking child care leave.

The government will also raise the child-rearing allowance paid to parents for a certain period after the birth of the child. If both parents take child care leave, the allowance would be hiked so the couple would not see a decrease in their take-home pay because they are on leave.

A new program will also extend the allowance to irregular employees, freelance workers and the self-employed.

To increase the income of child-rearing households, the government will consider revising the program for employees, often mothers, who work part time so they can maintain their status as a dependent of their spouses or parents and not have to pay social security insurance premiums.

Those employees have limited the number of hours they worked so their income does not exceed the limit that would remove them as a dependent. The change being envisioned would ensure that the employees do not face a reduction in their take-home pay because they worked more hours.

Kishida also touched upon expanding current child allowances as well as setting up a new program to subsidize housing expenses for child-rearing households.

Revisions will also be made to the repayment of student loans to reduce the monthly payments for those who marry and have children.

Kishida had said in his first Diet policy speech in January that his administration would compile an unprecedented package of measures to deal with the falling birthrate.

But so far Diet discussions have focused on tinkering with the child allowance program and sources said Kishida had become frustrated that the bigger picture was being ignored, leading to holding the news conference to refocus policy discussions.

While the measures Kishida outlined were extremely daunting, a major hurdle facing his administration will be paying for the various programs.

In particular, most of the child care leave allowance is paid for through the employment insurance program to which management and labor make equal contributions.

But even with the current low level of male employees taking child care leave, allowance payments in fiscal 2021 totaled 645.6 billion yen ($4.9 billion), a 2.5-fold increase over 10 years ago.

There is the possibility of a deficit arising in fiscal 2023, but it will not be easy convincing companies to agree to hike their contributions because several tens of billions of yen a year will be required to cover the allowance.

(This article was compiled from reports by Takashi Narazaki, Keishi Nishimura, Kentaro Uechi and Hayato Murai.)