Laws can lead, but society must grasp the value of childcare leave


In 1992 my wife, Susan, and I took ourfour children — then aged between 3 and 9 — from Kyoto to Sydney. The children, who until then had been going to Japanese kindergarten and primary schools, spoke Japanese among themselves. We felt they needed some time in an English-speaking environment if they were ever going to be able to speak, read and write the language fluently, because just being a native doesn’t make for a native-speaker.

We ended up spending three years in Sydney, living in the lovely and historical suburb of Mosman. Susan set up her own company to market Australian medical supplies and know-how to Japan. I stayed at home to write.

In the mornings, after I drove Susan to the bus stop, from where she traveled to her office, I would return home. The children were usually at school by then, so I had a lot of time to write . . . and to do the housework.

Now, it is important in life to know what one can and cannot do — or cannot get oneself to do. I love to shop for food and am a pretty mean cook (if I do say so myself). I like washing dishes and clothes. I know how to use a vacuum cleaner, even if it mysteriously misses the dust in certain parts of the room. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how a little girl’s hair gets all neatly braided and tied down; and woe betide any fabric that gets under an iron in my hand. Maybe it was my California upbringing, but I never seemed to grasp the difference between an iron for clothing and a branding iron.

While we were living in Mosman, Susan also made frequent business trips to Japan, and then I looked after the home and children as best as I could. I wrote what I still consider my best short stories during that time, and a play about the history of Mosman that was produced in 1993 for the 100th anniversary of it becoming a municipality.

However, I don’t want to paint a picture in which I was successfully taking on the responsibilities of childcare by myself. Susan would come home every day, exhausted from work, and have to do those home tasks that I had not. I put no tickets on myself as a successful childcarer and homemaker. But I do look back on those years as the most wonderful and fulfilling period of parenthood. I wouldn’t trade them in for a world of professional success.

Which brings me to the topic of this piece, one that is very timely in Japan: ikuji kyuka (childcare leave).

A revision in the Law for Childcare and Family Care Leave came into effect on June 30. Lawmakers hope that this revision, which extends the term of shared parental leave by two months to 14 months in all, will make it easier for fathers to take a hand in the rearing of their children. In addition, a father who takes time off during the first eight weeks of his child’s life will now be able to take a second period of parental leave.

The new legal provisions also state that a father may request a six-hour working day if his child or children are under 3, and the company may not refuse. But the regulations governing pay during parental leave have not changed. They remain at 50 percent of the normal basic salary.

The pay cut, plus the obvious pressures on a man in Japanese society to perform at his job and not cause inconvenience to coworkers, makes the option of childcare leave for fathers a fairly unattractive one in practice. It is no wonder that a government survey in 2008 found a mere 1.23 percent of men availing themselves of childcare leave. Indeed, many young mothers in Japan do not favor their husbands taking time off work as well, as they fear it might harm their chances of promotion.

The idea behind the revision of the law is to somehow arrest the declining birthrate. If women can manage to cope more easily with motherhood and career, then perhaps they will want to have more babies. One obstacle has been uncooperative fathers who work long hours and have little or no hand in the upbringing of their children.

Statutory provisions for parental leave in Japan are actually better than those in most countries, though they compare unfavorably with those in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Germany and Austria, which have generous leave laws for both parents. From Jan. 1, 2011, a father in Australia will be able to take off 18 weeks at the federal minimum wage and up to 51 weeks if he is the primary carer — though the employer retains the right to refuse. So, it is not the case that Japan, at least as far as the law is concerned, is conspicuously backward in this area.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare actively promotes paternal childcare leave and has recently sponsored symposia on the subject in six major cities. It has also set up a Web site, called “Fathers’ WLB (Work, Life Balance),” to publicize its efforts.

But, whether the new provisions will stimulate men to stay at home and look after their infant or toddler children remains to be seen. The financial incentives are weak; and the disincentives emanating from society, company, boss and coworkers are still formidable despite admirable governmental efforts.

Moreover, the image of father with a dust cloth in his hand and an apron around his waist is not one most men would wish to make public. And a man at home with his children would miss out not only on work in the office but also on the very important after-hours sessions in restaurants, where the real nitty-gritty of company life is exposed and disposed of.

For paternal childcare leave to take off in Japan, a revision of values must follow where the law is leading. In fact, society needs to come to the realization that it will be healthier, happier and, in the end, more prosperous if its working people are fulfilled personally. A father who looks after his little children will have more respect for the home and the demands it makes on a mother. He will bond with his children in a way other fathers can only imagine and envy.

My situation in Sydney in the early ’90s was easy. I did not have a salaried job; there was no one to reproach my absence. It may not be possible for a salaried Japanese father to look after his children as I was able to do for those three most wonderful years — thanks to my wife’s help and guidance. I am grateful to Susan for having supported us then. But more than anything, I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.