Commentary / Japan

Why paternity leave should be mandatory

by Toko Shirakawa

In late May, I attended a gathering of a Diet members’ league calling for introduction of mandatory child care leave for male workers. To my surprise, TV broadcasters gave the event heavy coverage. The time has finally come in Japan when a topic like this attracts the media’s attention.

With about 50 Diet members, including 11 former Cabinet ministers, the league will be a powerful lobby group. Former education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said businesses and society as a whole should raise awareness about the importance of men’s participation in child-rearing, noting that his experience of raising his child — after he lost his Diet seat following an election defeat — was the most memorable period of his life.

During the meeting, entrepreneur Yoshie Komuro stated that at an event involving the leaders of 140 companies, the executives of 60 firms promised to declare that they will give childcare leave to all male employees.

Gynecologist-obstetrician Song Mihyon, meanwhile, stressed the importance of husbands being close to their wives while they’re convalescing after childbirth to prevent postnatal depression, noting that female hormones rise to 200 times the normal level during pregnancy but rapidly decreases after childbirth, sometimes causing postpartum depression.

The Diet members’ league says it intends to prod businesses to “push” male workers to take child care leave.

There is a notorious custom in Japan in which women do all the housework and child-rearing by themselves in addition to holding down jobs. (The labor participation rate among women has already topped 70 percent and is nearing 80 percent.) Seventy percent of men don’t do housework or take part in child-rearing irrespective of whether or not their wives work. A strong message needs to be sent out stating that male employees should be obligated to take child care leave.

There are objections to making men’s childcare leave mandatory. Some people argue that such a rule would place too much of a burden on smaller firms, while others say that men who take child care leave will just be lazy and relax at home. But the results of a recent survey show that 80 percent of male university students hope to take childcare leave while 90 percent of female students want their future partners to do so.

Although women look forward to their husbands joining them in raising their children, their husbands are almost useless because they come home from work late at night. Even if they want to get involved in child-rearing, the way they work does not allow them to do so.

But society is changing gradually. Many companies are trying to shorten their employees’ work hours. Beginning this year, employers are obligated to make sure that all of their workers take at least five paid vacation days annually. A survey shows that people have become more conscious of how they spend their time at work. Now is a good time to push for mandatory child care leave for male workers.

Other research, however, shows that even when their work hours are shortened, men spend more time watching TV and women end up devoting more of their time to housework and child care. Women who clock 60 hours of overtime a month are said to spend more time taking care of their children than fathers who do no overtime. Even if people’s “work-style” has changed, more effort is needed to promote men’s participation in housework and child care.

In 2002, the French government introduced a 14-day childbirth leave for men, with the government paying for 11 days and employers covering the rest. According to a report, 70 percent of new fathers take this leave. Both parents are taught how to bathe their baby and change its diapers when the father visits the hospital while the mother is recuperating. But unlike childbirth leave, child care leave is hardly taken by male workers in France — just like in Japan.

The report says that childbirth leave is a crucial factor for establishing a good long-term father-child relationship, citing a survey that shows such leave has a positive effect on the fathers’ subsequent participation in housework and child-rearing.

Data shows that the No. 1 cause of death for new mothers in Japan is suicide. The French report says that childbirth leave for men prevents the isolation of women who are in a vulnerable situation after giving birth and improves the health environment for the mother and child. It serves as evidence that the education of both parents before and after childbirth and them being together in the initial stage of raising their child can solve the problem of men being useless at child-rearing even if they’re at home.

In Japan, medical institutions and local governments offer classes for expectant mothers. In some areas, such classes are also provided for men and for both parents. In municipalities where separate classes for men is difficult due to budgetary constraints, classes for mothers should be turned into classes for parents.

To involve men in child-rearing continuously from the beginning, giving them childbirth leave that lasts two weeks or more, and parental education before and after the birth, are necessary. I hope the Diet members’ league will take the necessary legislative action to make that happen. I believe that behind the declining child population and the lingering income gap between Japanese men and women is the fact that husbands and wives do not take part in raising their children together.

In fiscal 2010, only 1.38 percent of male workers took child care leave. The ratio was still 5.14 percent in fiscal 2017, even though ¥2 billion had been spent on publicizing the child care leave system for men. Making child care leave mandatory for men will carry a strong message that can potentially change society.

If women have to do engage in housework and child care in addition to working, how can Japan achieve the government’s target of women occupying 30 percent of responsible positions by 2020? To ensure a better future for the nation, Japan needs fathers who gladly take part in raising their children.

Journalist Toko Shirakawa is the author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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