Shortly before Shinjiro Koizumi’s wife, Christel Takigawa, gave birth to a baby boy last month, the environment minister told reporters during a regular news conference he would be taking time off for paternity leave. It was a revelation that surprised some because after the pair had revealed she was pregnant last summer, Koizumi said in September he would only go so far as to say he would consider taking paternity leave. 

Given Koizumi’s high public profile owing to his pedigree, his rising political stature and his photogenic particulars, the announcement was touted as indicative of a sea change in Japanese society: An influential male politician was foregoing work obligations to attend to the needs of his family. The foreign press found this story irresistible. Koizumi was supposed to be the bread-winning messiah Japan had been waiting for.

Media outlets in Japan have been less positive. At a previous news conference, Koizumi refused to answer a reporter’s question about an article in a weekly magazine that claimed he had not only had an affair with a married woman in 2015, but that he paid for one of their trysts with money from his political fund. Koizumi replied that he doesn’t comment on private matters but next month made the paternity leave announcement. Several news outlets wondered: Is that not a private matter, especially since he raised it during a news conference in which, presumably, he’s supposed to talk about ministerial matters?

One theory advanced by certain news outlets is that the paternity leave reversal was made to deflect attention from the scandal. Shukan Bunshun reported on the affair, but the weekly magazine’s main rival, Shukan Shincho, followed up with a feature in its Jan. 23 issue that pointed out that the scandal was hardly surprising, since Koizumi was known to be a ladies’ man, albeit a discreet one in that his affairs have rarely penetrated the public’s consciousness. His love life is nobody’s business, but Shukan Bunshun also suggested illegality in that Koizumi used political funds for personal use. It added, however, that using public funds could technically be justified because he had attended a seminar tied to the alleged tryst as part of work.

Reportedly, the woman’s husband got wind of the affair and the couple subsequently divorced, at which point Koizumi dumped her. Several news outlets then assumed the woman, crestfallen, had leaked the affair to Shukan Bunshun as revenge. The attention is believed to have spooked Koizumi. His relationship with Takigawa started in 2018 but though he said later they were “dating,” no one knew they were because he was very careful. They never risked being seen in public together until they announced their engagement.

Shukan Shincho mentions other examples of Koizumi’s romantic proclivities, but the point seems to be that he’s been successful in keeping the press largely in the dark through a combination of extreme caution and strategic access. It really is all about image, according to the most skeptical media outlet, tabloid Nikkan Gendai, which reported on the perceived hypocrisy of Koizumi’s various statements. Nikkan Gendai says nothing about the paternity leave announcement being wielded to distract from the Shukan Bunshun story, because the very act of taking paternity leave and the way Koizumi is going about it reflects his cynicism. 

Had Koizumi simply said he wanted to help his wife and be around his newborn son, there wouldn’t have been a problem with the announcement. Instead, he presumably focused on the symbolism of the move. He wants to be a model of responsible fatherhood — first to other members of the bureaucracy and second to Japanese men in general — by helping bring about a society in which politicians taking paternity leave “is no longer news.” 

Nikkan Gendai claims this statement sounds great but is basically empty. An international politics professor interviewed by the tabloid said that Koizumi’s attempt to earn points for being a responsible father comes off as nothing more than an act. What he should do, it said, is show leadership as environment minister. In fact, Koizumi did precisely that last month when he criticized a coal-fired power plant project in Vietnam supported by the Japanese government.

As it turns out, the government is, relatively speaking, paradise for responsible fathers. According to a 2018 labor ministry survey cited by a post on a Fuji TV website, FNN Prime, male bureaucrats are more likely to take paternity leave (22 percent) than men working in the private sector (6 percent). Among qualified men in the labor ministry, whose job it is to promote paternity leave, the portion is 54 percent. Even in the Environment Ministry, it’s 32 percent. It should be noted that these sabbaticals are, in most cases, less than a month, and sometimes only for a few days. Koizumi himself is taking two weeks off, a period that drew opprobrium from revitalization minister Ryota Takeda, who said it was insufficient as an example for others.

Some media are also pointing out that Koizumi may not have much to do while on leave. Shukan Shincho believes Takigawa is staying at her parents’ home, where Koizumi would probably just be in the way. Online magazine News Post Seven points out that Takigawa can afford not only a regular pet sitter for her dog, but a babysitter for her new son. This contrasts with the situation for most couples, who often forego extended maternity or paternity leave because of loss of income. Japan has one of the most liberal child-rearing leave laws in the world, but the government only subsidizes part of a parent’s lost pay.

This isn’t to say that Koizumi shouldn’t try to set an example for paternity leave. The issue has as much to do with entrenched male attitudes as it does typical work culture, but his gesture does little to help advance an environment in which both men and women feel they can take time off for their families without risking their livelihoods. It merely suggests that men should be more assertive in taking responsibility. 

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