National

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi challenges Japan's workplace norms with decision to take paternity leave

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi declared Wednesday that he will take two weeks of paternity leave after his first baby is born, a pledge that may affect the mindsets of working fathers in a country where few men take time off to care for newborns.

“I intend to take a total of two weeks of paternity leave in the three months after childbirth, during which the mother bears the heaviest burden, on the condition that I prioritize my official duties and thorough crisis management, as I have done,” Koizumi told reporters. Koizumi noted that he also will not skip “important public activities,” such as the Diet and Cabinet meetings.

To allow for flexibility, Koizumi said he would make greater use of digital methods, such as emails and video conferencing. He could ask a deputy minister or other officials to perform work on his behalf, if necessary. Digitization has been slow to permeate within the government.

According to Yoshie Komuro, president of working style consultancy Work Life Balance Co., Koizumi’s decision “will change the commonly held notion that those in responsible positions cannot take child care leave.”

“I rate highly that he is also willing toadjust the way he works, rather than continuing the same work habits,” Komuro said.

Japanese law grants both men and women up to one year of leave from work after a child is born. However, very few men take advantage of the perk.

Health ministry data from fiscal 2018 shows that only 6.16 percent of working fathers applied for or took child care leave, compared with 82.2 percent of working mothers who did so. Among those who took paternity leave, 36.3 percent — the largest proportion — took fewer than five days of paternity leave. The corresponding figure for women who took the leave was 10 to 12 months or less.

Young male workers, however, appear to be keen to change the trend. According to a 2017 survey by the Japan Productivity Center, 79.5 percent of new male hires indicated that they wanted to take child care leave on the birth of their child.

Among male state government workers, 12.4 percent took paternity leave in fiscal 2018, narrowly missing the government goal of 13 percent by 2020, according to the Cabinet Secretariat.

According to Komuro, the most common cause of death in mothers soon after giving birth is suicide linked to postpartum depression. Symptoms usually peak at two weeks to a month after childbirth because of a hormonal imbalance.

The father’s support during the period is important, she argued, to improve the quality of life of a vulnerable mother, including the length and quality of sleep.

“It is reasonable that (Koizumi) said he will take two weeks off soon after childbirth,” she said.

Koizumi, 38, is married to TV newscaster Christel Takigawa, 42, who is expecting their first child this month.

Many have been waiting to see whether Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and often seen as a potential future prime minister himself, would actually take paternity leave since he floated the idea last year.

His plan has sparked reactions, both positive and negative, in political circles and online.

Some say it would set a positive precedent, with one tweet posted Wednesday welcoming the move as “a good decision.”

“I hope this will make it easier for more people to take child care leave,” the tweet said.

But opposition lawmaker Kenta Izumi of the Democratic Party for the People has not seen such moves favorably.

“I want Koizumi to tell the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party and Keidanren that unless all workers get 100 percent of their paternity leave payments, he will not take paternity leave,” Izumi said during a news conference in September. Kendanren is Japan’s most powerful business lobby group for major companies.

Among male politicians, Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki and Mie Gov. Eikei Suzuki have taken child care leave.

Staff writer Ryusei Takahashi contributed to this report.