National / Social Issues

Japan paternity leave suit spotlights workers' rights

Dispute at Asics just one in the growing trend allegedly targeting men

by Ritsuko Ando

Reuters

A male employee is suing sportswear maker Asics Corp. for alleged mistreatment after taking paternity leave, a case that has cast a spotlight on gender equality and workers’ rights in Japan.

The lawsuit — filed by a 38-year-old man who says he was harassed by his employer after taking parental leave in 2015 and 2018 that is legally available to all workers but rarely used by men — began at a Tokyo court last Thursday.

Asics denies the allegations.

The man requested anonymity because of a Twitter backlash from users who accuse him of being selfish for taking a year of leave for each of his two children.

“I’d been thinking, I’m going to be a salaryman for something like 40 years, so what’s a year or two of leave compared to that,” he said in an interview.

Japan’s parental leave policies are among the world’s most generous, providing men and women partially paid leave of up to a year, or more if there is no public child care. Few men take it.

The case highlights the challenge of bolstering the role of women in the workplace, as championed by the “Womenomics” program under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a society where social norms discourage men from taking on child rearing or housework.

“There are plenty of people who want to take child care leave, as it’s their right, but they cannot because their workplace makes it difficult. Someone had to speak up,” the employee said.

The man says he was transferred to a warehouse run by an Asics subsidiary after returning from his first round of paternity leave.

It was not an official demotion or pay cut, but the job involved carrying and unloading heavy boxes — a big change from his previous role in Asics’ personnel department.

He hired a lawyer and complained to his bosses. Asics allowed him to return to a desk job but gave him what he said were meaningless tasks, such as translating company guidelines into English.

That situation has continued since the end of his second round parental leave earlier this year, he said.

Asics said it had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the worker’s legal and union representatives, and “looks forward to making the truth clear” in court.

A Gold Partner sponsor for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, the company bills itself as a socially progressive and inclusive company.

“We put effort into fostering diversity, and we will continue to make greater efforts to ensure our work environment and policies allow people to remain active through pregnancy, birth and childcare,” Asics said in a statement.

The Asics case follows similar disputes.

Glen Wood, a former equity sales manager at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, is suing the brokerage for harassment after he returned from paternity leave. The company has denied the allegations.

Chemical firm Kaneka Corp. was criticized in June after an employee’s wife said on social media her husband was told to move from Tokyo to the company’s Osaka office after taking a month of parental leave and denied his request for a postponement.

Kaneka said the relocation was appropriate and not punishment for taking paternity leave. The worker has since quit.

The cases have given rise to a new phrase, patahara, short for paternity harassment and modelled on the more common term matahara, or maternity harassment, used to describe abuse experienced by working mothers. Labor lawyer Yoshitatsu Imaizumi, who is representing Wood, said such lawsuits are rare because few male workers feel they can take action.

“You could say we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg in that there are many more people who want to take child care leave, but feel they can’t, or run into trouble when they try,” he said.

Only 6 percent of eligible fathers took child care leave last year, and most of them took less than a week off, according to government data.

While the takeup is double the 3 percent rate of a few years ago, it is far short of the 13 percent target set by the government for 2020.

The government is struggling to meet other gender equality targets as well, such as getting women into a third of corporate and public-sector leadership roles by next year. Women hold just 4 percent of corporate board seats, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

Niki Harada, president of the Tokyo Youth Union, which represents young workers, said men were beginning to grapple with some of the same issues faced by women for decades.

“As more men take part in rearing children, the disadvantages that women have been experiencing, around having children and taking childcare leave, are now being experienced by men,” he said.