Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal to have companies expand child care leave to three years is upsetting some personnel departments because it runs counter to current programs that support working mothers and fathers.

Abe’s call has also met with complaints from working mothers who argue they instead need greater support when returning to the office. But others have backed the idea because it could help them to strike a better balance between work and parenting.

At an April 19 news conference, Abe announced he had urged the nation’s three major business groups to allow employees to focus on their children instead of their work until they reach age 3, instead of 18 months under the existing law. The government would provide subsidies to firms that promote the plan, he added.

But the move comes at a time when the Cabinet Office, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and many companies, have been taking steps to help employees return smoothly to the office after maternity and child care leave.

“I can’t think of the proposal as anything but an evasive step to distract public attention from the current situation, in which there remain long waiting lists of families that wish to get their children into nursery schools,” said Naoki Atsumi, a senior researcher at Toray Corporate Business Research Inc. who is well-versed in work-life balance issues.

“It would be difficult for employees to return to work after leaving for six years because the loss of skills would be enormous and cannot be easily recovered,” said Atsumi, who himself has taken extended child rearing leave on two occasions.

Many businesses are also skeptical that their employees would elect to leave the workplace for a full three years.

A major trading house said that although its employees are allowed to take child care leave for up to two years, very few have actually taken the maximum duration. An official at the company’s personnel department expressed displeasure with Abe’s proposal, saying it could undermine its other efforts.

“We are in the middle of promoting diverse programs for workers on leave to help them return as soon as possible,” the official said.

Keiko Fukuzawa, a professor at Showa Women’s University, said, “A possible extension (to three years’ leave) will only add to the financial burden on businesses and they will move to avoid hiring women.

“Companies should keep child care leave for both male and female employees to a minimum and instead adopt steps to enable their workers to increase their tasks in stages, while working reduced hours,” she said.

Some experts also voiced concerns that an extension would result in the prolongation of traditional gender roles.

“An extension will likely help only mothers prolong their leave while keeping fathers away from home,” said Tetsuya Ando, founder of Fathering Japan, a nonprofit organization that promotes fathers’ participation in child rearing.

The latest survey conducted by the labor ministry found that only 2.63 percent of fathers took child care leave in fiscal 2011, in stark contrast with 87.8 percent of mothers.

Ando said that if the Abe administration is serious about promoting the greater participation of female workers in the nation’s workforce, it should come up with quotas to oblige fathers to take child care leave. He also argued that mothers’ extended stay at home may increase their burden from raising their children, which could potentially create a risk of child abuse.

Atsuko Yoshida, 52, a midwife, shares this concern. She explained that mothers today tend to depend on the Internet to gather information and have fewer connections with their local community.

“If these mothers take longer leave, they and their children will be isolated,” Yoshida said. “We need an environment in which children will be raised by many people instead of one parent.”

Fukuzawa at Showa Women’s University said, “The idea that raising children is unconditionally enjoyable and that people can work hard soon after returning from an absence of three years is not realistic.”

Abe also said he has asked corporate leaders to promote more female workers — at least one at each company — to managing or executive positions. But a human resource official at a major trading company said the longer female employees are on child care leave, the lower their chances of becoming integral in the workplace.

Contract or temporary workers do not hold out much hope either over the extension proposal, either. A 2005 legal revision made it possible for fixed-term employees to apply for child care leave if they have worked for more than one year and promise to return afterward.

But a 41-year-old female worker from Saitama said: “It has always been full-time workers who can take child care leave without hesitation. It is more important to eliminate gaps stemming from differences in employment status.”

Opinions among working mothers are divided as to who would be the most affected by Abe’s proposal.

A teacher, 40, from Yokohama who took a two-year leave of absence after giving birth to her second daughter, said, “It was great that I could spend plenty of time with my daughter and I am in favor of (Abe’s call for) extending the term of leave.”

However, a 43-year-old nurse from Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, who took leave for 2½ years after having twin boys, said that “it took time for me to get the feel of things back at office.”

Meanwhile, a 35-year-old company official said, “For an information technology employee, it is difficult to return to work after an absence of three years and a long time away will also eat away at family budgets.”

Some mothers are also asking that the government allow them to work reduced hours until their children enter the sixth grade or that it improve after-school care services.

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