With the issue of Japan’s declining birthrate looming ever larger, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to create a society where women can actively participate. Some 60 percent of Japanese women still give up their jobs upon having children, largely due to a work culture that demands long hours of men, placing the burden of child-raising firmly on women’s shoulders. Ironically, Japan has one of the world’s most generous paternity-leave provisions, yet currently only 2.3 percent of eligible new fathers take it.
A small but potentially very significant step in the right direction came when Kensuke Miyazaki, a Kyoto lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, recently announced that he would become Japan’s first politician to take paternity leave when his wife, fellow MP Megumi Kaneko, gives birth next month.
However, on Jan. 6, senior members of the Diet Affairs Committee summoned Miyazaki and hauled him over the coals for his plans. Among the reported accusations were that he was sullying the reputation of all Diet members and only using the impending birth as a platform for self-promotion. A number of mothers, both foreign residents and Japanese, were eager to comment about the situation.
Laura Kurotobi, an American based in the Chugoku region, juggles parenting two preschoolers with a demanding job as assistant professor at a university.
“Japan needs children and it needs women in the workforce, but Japan’s lack of work-life balance is the biggest impediment,” she says. “Miyazaki is doing exactly what is needed. He is someone in a visible, respectable position, leading by example. There needs to be more men like him willing to stand up to the old guard and take paternity leave without being quiet about it.”
The recent birth of her first child made Yuka Hayashi realize just how tough working mothers have it. Hayashi operates her own nail salon in Tokyo, and while she is grateful her daughter got a place at public day care, she says every day is a struggle.
“Frankly, I’m only managing because my widowed dad lives close and can back me up,” she explains. “My husband works long hours, and although we briefly discussed him taking paternity leave, he was afraid of upsetting his boss so didn’t even ask. I fully support Miyazaki! Change has to come from the top.”
Vicky Kobayashi, a British woman living in Hokkaido, echoes this sentiment.
“Fifteen and 20 years ago, I gave birth to our sons. I have managed child care and my career as an English teacher ever since with minimal support from my husband, who longed to be more involved with his children. Legally, he could have taken leave, but in practice it was impossible,” says Kobayashi. “I am upset to see that so many years later the situation has not changed. I urge Mr. Miyazaki to take his paternity leave.”
School librarian Masayo Shimatani of Kanagawa Prefecture says the whole debacle over Miyazaki’s plans is an embarrassment to Japan’s ruling LDP.
“As citizens, how can we believe all their claims about wanting to empower women when senior politicians won’t support moves by their colleagues to improve work-balance?” she asks. “I hoped things would become easier for us mothers over time, but my daughter is now in college and little has changed.”
Canadian mother-of-two Miriam Nakamura has some tough words for the Diet.
“The LDP bigwigs who took Miyazaki to task would be better served spending their time taking a walk in their constituents’ shoes,” says Nakamura, who lives in Kyushu and works full-time in the medical industry. “If they can’t figure out how to balance meeting a client, meeting a report deadline and a PTA meeting all on the same afternoon, how can I trust them to balance the budget and deal with big issues like the economy and national defense?”