Japan’s companies are beginning to rethink paternity leave policies

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

When it comes to child care in Japan, women typically take on the lion’s share of the workload. Men, by comparison, are generally too exhausted after work to help out in any way.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, however, more men are looking to take paternity leave in order to support their spouses better after they give birth. They also hope to use this time to bond better with their new offspring.

At present, just 3 percent of men take paternity leave after their partners give birth, usually taking as little as five to 10 days, according to a survey compiled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Twenty years ago the ratio was even worse, with just 0.5 percent of men taking time off to spend with their family. One could then consider 3 percent to represent something of an improvement.

Yet, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to improve this ratio, looking to increase the number of men taking paternity leave to 13 percent by 2020, according to an article in Nikkei Dual.

A number of employers are starting to act.

Pharmaceutical company MSD is now offering flexible paternity leaves, enabling dads to work from home or show up at the company for a certain number of days per month, according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun.

Masafumi Umeda took advantage of the system after the birth of his third son, first taking a month off and then working just 30 hours of the following month. During this time, Umeda was able to help out with child care and simultaneously maintain his presence in the company. This made it easier for him to eventually return to work full time.

Paternity leave has been a bone of contention in many Japanese families for decades. Many mothers have had to put their careers on hold as the shortage of day care forced them to look after their young children.

As a result, family finances have suffered. Online comments show that while many mothers would like hands-on support from husbands, they’re also worried about salaries being cut and/or careers being affected as a result of their partners taking paternity leave.

Until 2014, men who took parental leave were eligible for a government benefit that covered up to 67 percent of their salaries provided they didn’t work more than 10 days a month. The law has since been amended and new fathers can now work up to 80 hours per month, with parents able to receive 80 percent of their salary.

A more flexible approach to either paternity or maternity leave would be helpful to women as well. Many women who were in the workforce before giving birth find it difficult to stay home all day and are anxious about regaining a foothold in the company once they return to full-time work. If a more flexible system was introduced upon their return to work, it would certainly take a load off their minds.

Flexible leave also gives men an opportunity to bond with their wives. One man said he had no idea how difficult housework and child care was until he stayed home and observed what was required firsthand.

Speaking to the Asahi Shimbun, Umeda’s wife said her husband’s flexible paternity leave strengthened their ties as a family, adding that she could relax around her husband and so was glad “he was there.”

Interestingly, online comments suggest that men face little resistance from their bosses when taking time off for paternity leave.

One man said his company was OK with it, but his parents were not, arguing that work should be their son’s first priority. Once they saw how his paternity leave benefited the family as a whole, they changed their opinion and offered their support.

According to Mitsubishi UFJ Consulting, however, 26.6 percent of 1,100 dads surveyed in 2015 said that they didn’t take paternity leave because they felt that the atmosphere at work didn’t really encourage it.

Would they be able to take paternity leave if they asked? One would have to think it’s possible.

One man told online Kidsna magazine that once precedents are set, it will become easier for other men to follow.