Japan has taken another step to reverse its declining birthrate, as a law revision extending parental leave took effect last month with the hopes of encouraging fathers to play a larger role in raising children.
Leave is now up to 14 months if both parents share it, instead of the previous 12 months allowed for either parent.
The revised Law for Childcare and Family Care Leave also enables a father who has taken time off from work during the first eight weeks after his child’s birth to take leave for a second time.
While some say there is still a long way to go with policies, fathers who have taken the leave are using the time available to become confident in their child-rearing skills. Corporations have also devised systems more generous for their employees with young children so they can meet the new requirements.
One day at 6:30 p.m., Motomasa Oshima, 35, opened the door of a day care center in Tokyo, calling out to his 20-month-old son, “Hey, have you been a good boy today?”
Toddler Mikimasa came running for his dad with a smile. This is the moment when his fatigue from a day’s work vanishes, Oshima said.
In May last year, Oshima took one month’s paternity leave after his wife, Tokiko, 31, went back to work following the end of her own leave.
During his paternity leave, Oshima learned to cook and worked out a minute-by-minute, daily timetable for him and his wife to be followed after he resumes work. On an “early shift,” one of them will go to work early and head for the day care center in the evening. On the “late shift,” he or she will take the boy to the day care center in the morning and will have the evening free.
With mother and father taking turns with the paternal leave, the couple became able to handle both their jobs and child-rearing.
The Oshimas work for group firms of Kirin Holdings Co., which presides over Japan’s major beer and other beverage producers.
Oshima said he took paternity leave because “I wanted my wife to concentrate on her job while she regains the hang of things once she got back to work.”
Tokiko said she was at first at her wits’ end, wondering how she was going to manage all the things she needed to do to look after her baby and do housework besides keeping her job. After muddling through the birth of her first child with the help of her husband, she now says, “I want at least two more kids.”
Unlike the old law, the new rules let husbands take leave regardless of whether their wives have a job.
Manabu Tsukagoshi, 34, a certified public accountant with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu LLC, took a two-week leave immediately after his first son, Wataru, was born and took another month off when the child was 9 months old.
His spouse, Naomi, 40, is a housewife. Still, he decided to take leave, saying, “The mother of a newborn baby is sleep-deprived and the baby learns to stand up by holding onto something nearby in about 9 months. Then it becomes impossible to take your eyes off him.
“Many husbands have the gall to say, ‘What’s for dinner?’ without noticing how frazzled their wives are,” Tsukagoshi said. “Our family ties have strengthened thanks to my paternity leave.”
Atsushi Hayashi, 35, who works for major home product maker Kao Corp., took two weeks off at the encouragement of his boss. He says that his leave, albeit short, turned out to be something of an eye-opener. “I’ve acquired a new appreciation for the value of my company’s products (including diapers and detergent),” he said.
Under the revised law, companies are required to let workers with children younger than 3 work shorter hours, or six hours per day, when requested.
Kyowa Interface Science Co. already has a shorter work plan for employees with children and Yuko Kobayashi, 35, an employee of the Saitama Prefecture-based precision measuring equipment maker, said her company is parent-friendly.
Still, she is always the one to take her 2-year-old son to his day care center and pick him up in the evening.
Although the law is changing, Kobayashi thinks much more is needed to alleviate the hardships young parents face.
“It is unlikely that my husband, who is busy (at another company), can take paternity leave that easily, so I can’t think about having another child right now,” she said.
Shigeki Matsuda, a senior researcher with Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc., noted the revised law fails to address serious problems.
“There is a major policy flaw in that the new law encourages fathers to take paternity leave although nothing has been done to reduce their long work hours,” he said. “Men will also have to take a pay cut by taking paternity leave or working shorter hours, and that’s another reason why they cannot take time off.”
The amount of pay workers can get while on leave remains unchanged, or half the usual sum, under the revised law, he pointed out.
Practices at various companies demonstrate pay is the key incentive that may or may not prompt workers to take paternity leave.
Major chemical maker Asahi Kasei Corp. said the number of men going on leave increased dramatically after it instituted a five-day paid paternity leave.
Panasonic Corp. gives its employees a choice of whether to take parental leave and work shorter hours at lower pay, or work at home without taking a pay cut. Many men have opted for working at home.
Only 1.23 percent of men take paternity leave, according to a 2008 government survey. Government findings in 2005 showed that the percentage of women who continued to work after having their first child stood at 38 percent.