Kensuke Miyazaki planned to take a few weeks off work after his wife gave birth to their first child. Some of his colleagues and superiors are unhappy.
It is a familiar standoff in workplaces across Japan, but this time it is playing out in the Diet, where Miyazaki and his wife, Megumi Kaneko, are both lawmakers for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Miyazaki, 35, would be the first member of the Diet to take paternity leave.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect such a fuss,” a bleary-eyed Miyazaki said in an interview at his office Friday, hours after the baby boy was born in a Tokyo hospital. “We are both working and we’re completely equal in status,” he said. “I don’t think we should stick to the old system where everything was left up to the wife.”
As the labor force ages and shrinks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for men to be more involved in child care to help allow their wives to stay in work after becoming mothers. His government is set to announce new measures in the coming months to try to bolster the birthrate and help women, the elderly and the disabled remain in the workforce. Failure to buck current trends could see Japan’s working population collapsing by more than 40 percent by 2060.
There is a long way to go. In 2014, only 2.3 percent of eligible male employees took advantage of generous laws that allow them to take up to a year of leave, with almost 60 percent of their salary paid by an employment insurance system. Women are entitled to similar benefits, as well as six weeks paid maternity leave before giving birth.
While female lawmakers may take leave from parliamentary proceedings to give birth — and six members of the legislature have done so — there is no specific system in place for male lawmakers to take paternity leave. That contrasts with Norway, where several Cabinet ministers have taken time off.
Even so, a survey carried out by the Sankei newspaper last month found almost 54 percent approved of Miyazaki’s plans, while 40 percent said they were opposed. That varied according to age, with 80 percent of women in their 20s saying they supported him, while a majority of men over 60 were critical.
Among the more high-profile critics is Sadakazu Tanigaki, 70, secretary-general of the LDP. “The child care leave system basically applies to employees,” he told reporters on Jan. 8. “The self-employed don’t get child care leave, and I believe lawmakers are basically the same.”
Miyazaki plans to make sure he is in the Diet for votes, while turning party duties over to a colleague and skipping events in his constituency in Kyoto for about a month after his wife leaves the hospital next week. He acknowledged concern about his own career and whether he can win his next election, with opinions as divided in his constituency as elsewhere. Kaneko, a former beauty queen, plans to stay off work until the end of March, he said.
Democratic Party of Japan deputy leader Renho last week criticized the couple for taking their whole salaries while not at work — something she said would be “hard for taxpayers to understand.”
Lawmakers receive a stipend of about ¥13 million a year, as well as other allowances. This compares with Japan’s average salary of ¥4.15 million. The current system does not allow lawmakers to return their salary, Miyazaki said, adding that while he would like to pay the money back into public coffers, he plans to make a charitable donation instead.
Miyazaki, who recently published pictures on his blog of a wooden baby cot he had put together for his child, said the row over his announcement had brought home to him why so few Japanese men take child care leave.
“The atmosphere makes it hard,” he said. “There are people like Ms. Renho who criticize you and the bosses harass you. They think child care leave is just relaxing. They think it’s just a refreshing holiday. There are a lot of people in the older generation who think that way.”
Others may see his break as simply a special privilege of the powerful, said Mieko Takenobu, a professor of sociology at Wako University in Tokyo.
“There is a system in place, but it’s for show,” she said. “The reality is that people can’t take it. So they are jealous of those who do and see them as privileged.”
Lawmakers must do more to help the general public take paternity leave, or that view will become a reality, Takenobu said. Miyazaki has set up a panel that began by discussing parliamentary rules on paternity leave and has broadened its remit to look at how the government can help self-employed fathers take time off with their children, he said.
Men’s involvement in the home “is absolutely necessary for women’s advancement in society and to tackle the low birthrate,” Miyazaki said. “We need childcare leave as a gateway to that. If people get into the rhythm, they will be able to figure out how to deal with their kids and get the housework done. That will lead to a change in the way people work.”