National / Social Issues

Ministry eyes Scandinavian plan to boost paternity leave and keep women working

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

In a bid to encourage men to devote more time to child-rearing, and to keep more mothers in the workforce, a labor ministry panel is eyeing introducing a quota system as part of a two-year parental-leave plan that would require the participation of the father as a prerequisite for eligibility.

The panel is set to finish up discussions by the end of this year, with an eye to submitting a bill to revise the child care and family care leave law to the Diet next year.

The plan is to extend the current maximum of 18 months to two full years. It comes as lawmakers struggle with rectifying the shortage of day care centers, which forces many female workers to quit their jobs when they fail to find a slot at such facilities for their child.

Still, some remain skeptical of the plan, saying the root of the problem for men is a culture that encourages them to be the breadwinner, while women are pressured to stay at home. The measure would not be obligatory, meaning men cannot be forced to take the leave.

Under discussion is obliging fathers to take a leave of at least about three months of the total in order for a family to qualify for the two-year leave.

According to the labor ministry, a quota system for parental leave was successfully introduced by Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Norway in the 1990s, where some 90 percent of fathers now take paternity leave.

But even with the new system, experts are doubtful that Japan can mimic their success.

“Japan still has this corporate culture of not appreciating men who prioritize child-rearing over work,” said Naoki Atsumi, a senior researcher at Toray Corporate Business Research Inc., who is an expert on work-life balance issues. “Male workers are often warned by their employers that it could damage their careers if they take leave for more than three months.”

So-called paternity harassment, where men are either barred from taking child-care leave or are given a hard time for even applying, still prevails, he said.

“Unless such culture changes, the percentage of male workers taking the leave will not change much,” he said. “Introducing the system is a good thing. But it won’t be a solution to significantly boosting the number of men taking paternity leave.”

Atsumi also said the incentive is not great enough to motivate men to take paternity leave when their career is at stake.

Even if men take the leave, it would only result in extending the current leave conditions by a few months, he said.

“Those parents’ dearest wish is not to extend the length of their leave but to return to work, and they want the government to provide enough day-care slots so they can do so,” Atsumi said.

The government introduced a similar system in 2010, extending the one-year paternity leave to 14 months, but only if both the father and mother took the leave in turns. But the measure failed to boost the number of men taking advantage of the program, Atsumi said.

Companies would probably not oppose the introduction of the new quota system as it would not change the current situation, he added.

Under the current law, parents can take child care leave up until their child turns 1 year old. If they fail to find a vacancy at a day care, they can extend the leave for another six months.

According to the government’s data, only 2.3 percent of fathers in the private sector took such leave in fiscal 2014, despite the push by the government, which aims to bring the figure to 13 percent by 2020.