Newly appointed Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi’s remark that he may consider taking paternity leave to help raise his first child, who will be born early next year, has sparked a heated public debate. While some hope he can serve as an example that will encourage other men to follow suit, others say he won’t be able to fulfill his responsibility as a Cabinet minister if he does so. No matter how mixed public reactions are, it’s a great opportunity for Japan to think about this issue seriously.

While 82.2 percent of working mothers in Japan take child care leave, a mere 6.16 percent of working husbands follow suit, according to a fiscal 2018 survey by the welfare ministry. The government aims to raise the percentage of men who take child care leave to 13 percent by 2020 but remains far short of this goal.

When it comes to Diet members, the situation is even tougher. There are regulations allowing maternity leave in both the Lower and Upper houses, but there is no rule enabling male lawmakers to take paternity leave. This means the popular 38-year-old minister has to overcome two hurdles. One is to persuade many conservative men who think it is primarily the job of women to care for babies, and the other is to enable him to take paternity leave even though there is no such system in the Diet.

It is an urgent task to raise awareness among men and their employers that fathers are equally responsible for child-rearing and that taking paternity leave is nothing extraordinary. According to a report released by UNICEF in June, Japan ranks among the best in the world in terms of duration of paid child care leave that men are entitled to take. However, the report also points out that very few men take advantage of this legal framework.

In another survey by the welfare ministry that asked full-time male workers why they don’t take child care leave, 27.8 percent said they are too busy due to a lack of coworkers who can take on their work, and 25.4 percent cited a negative mood in their workplace against paternity leave.

It’s true that many companies don’t have enough employees to take on absent coworkers’ responsibilities for an extended period, and a backlash against paternity leave is predictable. While the government provides benefits for firms that encourage paternity leave, employers should make efforts to introduce practices such as work-sharing to make it easier for new fathers to take leave.

Another factor creating sentiment against paternity leave could be the low social status of child-rearing compared with other jobs in society. Raising a child should be regarded as an important responsibility for nurturing the nation’s next generations, and this is especially true in a society that is rapidly aging. Unless young parents get social support for raising their children, the aging of the population will only accelerate. Unfortunately, not many people seem to share this concern.

Around the world, there are precedents for family-friendly work practices in politics. The most advanced country in this field is New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who gave birth to her daughter Neve in 2018, took maternity leave for six weeks. Today, Neve frequently accompanies her mother to work. A video of Trevor Mallard, speaker of New Zealand’s parliament, giving a bottle to a lawmaker’s baby while presiding over the house went viral late last month. In Norway, proxy voting by fellow lawmakers is allowed for parliamentarians who takes child care leave.

In Japan, Mie Gov. Eikei Suzuki took paternity leave for 3½ days to care for his first child and took five days off for his second child. In addition, he shifted the start of his work hours for three months to help his wife after she gave birth to their second baby, showing that there are various ways to take child care leave.

In New Zealand, Ardern’s job was entrusted to the deputy prime minister while she was absent. Likewise, people should keep in mind that Koizumi will have state ministers who can serve as his deputies in the ministry to carry out his tasks if he is absent.

Some people argue that it is not right for Diet members to take paternity leave since their salaries are paid from government coffers. But it should be noted that under current law there is no system for lawmakers to return their pay even if they want to. If they try to do so, they will violate the Public Offices Election Act that prohibits politicians from making donations.

The positive impact of male lawmakers taking paternity leave could be huge in Japan. Getting firsthand experience in child-rearing would deepen their understanding of what needs to be done and how much funding should be dedicated to building a family-friendly nation. They could also become a role model for many new parents. Instead of discouraging the practice, it is better to hammer out measures to enable them to take paternity leave.

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