Japanese government minister Shinjiro Koizumi taking parental paternity leave draws mixed reactions in workaholic country
Tokyo – The Japanese public widely applauded a decision that made headlines by the country’s environment minister this week: Shinjiro Koizumi, a photogenic 38-year-old politician sometimes touted as a possible future prime minister, announced that he would take two weeks of paternity leave after his wife gave birth to their first child.
This decision is not just about letting Koizumi help his wife and allow him to discover the joys of fatherhood, but to make him a role model.
“My greatest wish is that the day will come when our society will no longer regard a politician’s parental leave as news,” Koizumi said. Many seemed inclined to agree.
“I support him wholeheartedly,” Tokyo politician Hironobu Narisawa told the Asahi newspaper. “It will encourage other male employees.”
“The feeling on the streets is that it’s time for someone in the government to take paternity leave,” said Kaori Shoji, a Japanese writer and mother. “And he better change diapers and get up every two hours with his wife, otherwise what’s the point?”
Of 100 passers-by interviewed by Fuji TV Network, 88 praised Koizumi’s high-profile parenting act. “If a government minister aggressively embraces parental leave, it will be easier for others to follow in their footsteps,” said one woman.
But in this hard-working nation, which continues to slip in the global female empowerment rankings, old habits die hard and the impact of Koizumi’s admittedly modest act of fatherhood is likely to take a toll. be attenuated. This is all the more tragic because of the exceptionally generous, but barely used national paternity leave policy.
“Japan’s parental leave system is world-class,” Yasuyuki Tokukura of the nonprofit Fathering Japan told TBS News. “But the social climate in Japan has not kept pace, so the paternity leave system cannot be put to good use.”
The United States ranks dead last among 41 developed countries for parental leave; the government does not grant any leave to new dads. Japan guarantees each parent a full year off work, which can be extended for up to one more year. Mums and dads who work for companies and the public service are entitled to 67% of their salary for the first 180 days after giving birth, and half of the salary after that to end the year – paid for by taxpayers , not employers.
But despite this gold-plated parental leave system, a measly 6% of new dads took paternity leave in fiscal year 2018 — and the most common length of time for those who did was just a few days. The Japanese blame a work atmosphere that frowns on men using their legally mandated paternity leave.
Hostility towards new dads who take time off to help with childcare is so widespread and ingrained that it has a name: “pata-hara,” or paternity harassment. (The female counterpart is “mata-hara”.) Men who work reduced hours or refuse to work overtime to help with childcare have been threatened with demotion and may even return after leave to find that they no longer have an office.
Attitudes seem to be split along generational lines, with the strongest resistance from middle-aged and older men.
“I don’t think anyone paid by taxpayers should make such a statement,” a man in his 40s grumbled about Koizumi’s move. “I’ve never seen a guy take parental leave.”
“Honestly, I just wish he did his job as a minister,” another older man said.
Harangues were even heard from members of Koizumi’s own conservative political party.
“He’s smart, Minister Koizumi, so he surely won’t let his free time negatively affect parliament business,” said 74-year-old Diet (congress) committee chairman Hiroshi Moriyama.
But surveys by the Japan Productivity Center and other organizations reveal that male fresh graduates and new company hires are overwhelmingly in favor of paternity leave. Experts say management is the sticking point – and the key to de-stigmatizing starters.
“To drive paternity leave uptake, the (role of the boss) is extremely important,” said attorney Tokukura, calling for more managers to understand and tout the value of paternity leave.
A handful of Japanese private companies have embraced paternity leave, including the Japanese unit of US insurer Aflac, which has about 5,000 employees here. Aflac emails new dads — and their bosses — urging dads to take time off. Managers are assessed on how they implement paternity leave programs. The effort paid off, with 70% of fathers in the company now taking an average of 10 days off.
A video promoting paternity leave, titled ‘I wish I had spent more time with you’, features regrettable testimony from CEOs of seven other companies who tell how they sacrificed their family lives for their jobs. CEOs implore other men not to follow their lead.
“I have almost no memories of my children before I was 2 years old,” says Tomoyuki Shigenaga, president of Pacific Consulting, in the video, co-produced by Forbes Japan and consultancy firm Work-Life Balance.
“My son’s first word was ‘mom’, I don’t remember him learning to say ‘dad’,” says Takumi Sakata, president of Sakata Manufacturing. “The days when the value of a man lay in the insane duration of his work – those days are long gone.”
The video, posted on social media a few weeks before the minister’s announcement, has been viewed more than 12,000 times.