Commentary / Japan

Paternity leave controversy: It's time to walk the talk

With the average age of Cabinet ministers in Japan being well over 60, their family birth announcements usually usher in a grandchild’s arrival. The birth of the first baby for Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi last week, therefore, should have been a rare and celebratory occasion for all. Instead, the announcement was met with mixed reactions.

The youngest minister in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet has decided to take paternity leave for two weeks, an unprecedented move in traditional Japanese politics. While some commended his decision, hoping his action will encourage more men to emulate his actions, others criticized him for being irresponsible and called his announcement a publicity stunt.

Also last week, Maasa Takahashi, a celebrity news reporter, announced her first pregnancy. She said she was hoping to return to work following a month of maternity leave after she gives birth. Much to her surprise, she was bombarded with reproving comments from many, who criticized her for being naive about her responsibilities as a new mother and claimed that she should actually take a much longer leave. Responding to the unfavorable public reaction, Takahashi apologized for her “careless comment” about maternity leave.

The responses to these birth announcements demonstrate how deeply gender-based roles, and gender biases, are entrenched in the minds of Japanese people. Despite the strong push by the government for a more equitable sharing of child-rearing responsibilities, most people are still trapped in the traditional division of work between men and women. That is to say, men belong at work while women belong at home.

According to data from the OECD, Japanese men on average spend 41 minutes a day on housework, while women spend 224 minutes. This gap is one of the largest among all participating OECD countries.

Interestingly, Japan offers the most generous paternity leave entitlements in the world. Both men and women with newborn babies can take up to one year of leave, during which time employers are required by law to protect their employment. Lamentably, however, only 6 percent of men take paternity leave. Data on the length of leave actually taken by men are not available, but it is widely thought that most men do not take longer than a week.

What is holding men back from participating in their family lives in a more meaningful way? In many cases, it is the combination of work culture and individual mindset. At companies with a lifetime employment system, employees’ loyalty is of utmost importance. If taking paternity leave is seen as a sign of a lower level of commitment and dedication to the company, no men would dare take this legally afforded privilege.

The most effective way to break away from this notion is for senior executives and managers to “walk the talk” and take appropriate parental leaves themselves. Managers should also be incentivized to encourage their subordinates to take time off.

Incorporating such elements in performance reviews for managers can be effective. In fact, some companies and government entities are starting to implement this type of incentive system to boost more use of paternity leave.

Perhaps a more fundamental paradigm shift will occur if Koizumi can continue the climb to political stardom after his paternity leave. Obviously, his merits as a top political leader need to be up to snuff, but by proving his time off has not been a detriment to his career progression would send a powerful message to the entire country, further signaling that taking paternity leave no longer brings reprisals at work.

Better yet, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga should also gets a career boost for supporting and approving Koizumi’s paternity leave, as his de facto supervisor. Now that would be a radical sea change for Japan!

In fact, Suga’s generation is much harder to convince of the need for change than people with younger families. For decades, the only success model for men has been that of a total devotee to the workplace, at the expense of family life. This model seemed to work well until the early 1990s, a period when Japan’s manufacturing industry was driving impressive economic growth. In those days, women took care of everything at home since men were practically married to their work.

Times have changed since then, as Japan entered its “lost economic decades,” but the notions around gender roles have not changed much for Suga’s cohort. For most men in this generation, who relied heavily on their wives to raise their children, the idea of paternity leave is simply incompatible with their value system. And yet Suga is now a cheerleader for Koizumi. As trailblazers in a land of conservative lawmakers, these two men deserve the highest praise as such positive reinforcement can serve as a catalyst for men to adjust their mindset to the realities of the 21st century.

Demographic challenges are at the top of Japan’s agenda. Attempting to address the dwindling working age population, the government has implemented a wide range of policies, such as encouraging more women to work, increasing child care facilities, providing free preschool education and promoting work-style reform. Thanks to these efforts, female labor market participation has increased to over 71 percent, exceeding that of the United States and the OECD average.

At the same time, however, the number of newborns in Japan has continued to decline to the lowest on record. The number of babies born in 2019 is estimated to have fallen by nearly 6 percent from the previous year — a rate of decline faster than earlier estimated by the government.

One interesting data point is the average sleeping time of Japanese women. OECD data show that Japanese women sleep far less than women in other member countries, and, interestingly, it is also shorter than that of Japanese men. Perhaps the most important ingredient that is missing from Japan’s policy mix is redefining the role of the father in the family, in the workplace and in society at large. Sleep-deprived women are not going to work more, earn more and have more babies simultaneously. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day.

Japan is known for its strong herd mentality. Leading by example, Koizumi and his colleagues in the government may have a chance to change the mindset of Japanese men. There is no better example than a popular Cabinet minister playing the active role of a father.

Yumiko Murakami is head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, where she engages in policy discussions between the OECD and governments, businesses and academia in Japan and Asia, covering a wide range of economic policy issues.

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