Mayor champions paternity leave

by Sawako Obara

Kyodo News

Months before a legal change to promote paternity leave takes effect, one local authority stunned the public by taking about two weeks off work in April to look after his newborn son.

The move by Hironobu Narisawa, the 44-year-old mayor of Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, was quite rare in Japan where few mayors, whether female or male, take parental leave.

In a recent interview, Narisawa said: “I wanted to devote all my love to my child, who is such a precious blessing. I also took leave because no male staff of Bunkyo had ever taken paternity. . . . I wanted to encourage them to do so through my gesture.”

The mayor said the experience opened his eyes to many things, including the problem of negotiating raised curbs when walking with his child. “I also met mothers who did not look happy at a child care facility,” he said, which made him wonder if they lacked confidence about their mothering skills.

“I wouldn’t have noticed them if I were inspecting the facility in my capacity as mayor,” he said.

Narisawa also stressed that his paternity leave provided an occasion for personal fulfillment, saying, “While I was away from work, I didn’t miss even the slightest change in my son and I realized I could become a more mature father.

“Both the fun and hard aspects of child-rearing are something you should not miss out on by getting your wife to do all the work,” he said.

Narisawa’s decision drew flak from some quarters, however.

The ward office said it received slightly more negative than positive responses from the public on the mayor’s temporary absence from work, partly because he would not be present and in command in the event of an emergency.

A woman, who claimed to be a “traditional Japanese mother,” described the mayor’s action as “effeminate.”

“She believes that a man should work outside and a woman should remain a homemaker,” he said. “But if she falls ill and her son takes time off work to help around the house, she would never call her son ‘effeminate.’ “

“It doesn’t change the fact that a man is taking care of his family whether he takes leave for the sake of a parent or a child,” Narisawa added. He said the public tends to lack understanding for men who go to extra lengths to care for their children by taking leave from work.

After the mayor made his move, one of the ward’s male employees decided to follow suit.

Narisawa said men balk at taking paternity leave for financial reasons and also because they think taking time off might be detrimental to their careers.

But he said the biggest factor inhibiting men is the fear of how they will be viewed by bosses and colleagues if they take paternity leave, which is still rather novel in the Japanese workplace.

“It would help young men if we promote the idea that child-rearing is a cool thing for them to do,” the mayor said.