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Illustration: Adolfo Arranz

Japan encourages fathers to take more active role in child care

Japanwants fathers to be more active in bringing up children, allowing mothers to get back to work


Manabu Tsukagoshi, a Tokyo-based consultant, took a month of paternity leave after his second child was born. That prompted his stay-at-home wife to get a full-time job in the financial industry.

"When someone asks why I would take such leave when my wife was a stay-at-home mum, I tell them it was for her to go back to work," said Tsukagoshi, 38.

He plans to take leave again later this year from Toray Corporate Business Research, when his wife returns to work after having their third child. "We need role models to show that there are fathers who can do this."

The culture has to change first so men will view taking child care leave differently

While Tsukagoshi is among a tiny minority in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants men to take more active roles in bringing up their children.

The government's campaign is dubbed the "Ikumen Project", which translates as "men raising children". Just 1.9 per cent of Japanese men took paternity leave in 2012, according to figures from the government's Cabinet Office. The goal is to raise the figure to 13 per cent by 2020.

Some financial firms, including Nippon Life Insurance and Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance, have responded with programmes to encourage men to take time off after children are born.

Nippon Life, Japan's largest insurer, announced on March 20 that paternity leave participation had reached 100 per cent.

Economic incentives may help encourage changes in behaviour

"The Ikumen Project has helped make people realise that men can have an important role in child-rearing," said Masako Ishii-Kuntz, a sociology professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. "Having said that, there's a huge gap between the ideal situation and the reality, and that gap needs to be filled."

The government is also seeking to increase the percentages of employees taking annual paid vacation from 47 per cent to 70 per cent, as well as encouraging women to return to work after giving birth - to raise their number from 38 per cent to 55 per cent by 2020.

If paternity leave and women's workforce participation rise, "the entire society will likely grow more prosperous," according to the goals of the Ikumen Project's policy, outlined on its website.

"The culture has to change first so men will view taking child care leave differently."

Under Japanese law, male employees with young children are entitled to one year of childcare leave if they have worked more than 12 months for the same employer. While on leave, employees can qualify to receive government unemployment benefits and the employer isn't obliged to pay salaries.

Paternity leave is most common in Scandinavia and some countries of western Europe, with men taking two to 14 weeks, according to a 2012 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Kazuki Shiota, a manager in Nippon Life's corporate planning department, took advantage of the company programme for a week to help care for his one-year-old child on a family trip.

"I didn't expect men would be allowed to take childcare leave, but when I took a closer look at the company policy, it did say we could," said Shiota, who tended the child alone for a day. "You realise the difficulty of multitasking when you are actually faced with playing with your child while doing chores. If I am allowed to take more days, I would, because my child is growing up every day as we speak."

Nippon Life's male employees with young children are eligible and are recommended to take a week off, according to Kyomi Nakakura, manager of the department supporting the initiative, which started last April.

Fathers embraced the policy after an internal campaign that included sharing experiences of those who took leave, as well as discussions with eligible employees, she said.

"The biggest challenge for us is to make this a norm," Nakakura said. "We want to plant the idea that we will be able to support them so that they can continue working for us."

Corporate change needs to come from the bosses, so the government is funding programmes and lectures to get managers to encourage paternity leave, Minister of State for Gender Equality Masako Mori said.

"Just because there's a companywide system in place, it doesn't mean people feel able to say they're going to take time off," Mori said. "So we will have the bosses encourage them to do it by saying, 'Your kid is small, so go home early. The others will take up the slack.'"

Japanese employees, asked why they don't take even the vacation days to which they are entitled, cited reasons such as embarrassment - "because others don't take them" - not wanting to trouble colleagues and too much workload, a report by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training showed.

An evaluation system weighted towards seniority and time spent in the office rather than productivity and merit also discourages men from taking leave, said Kathy Matsui, the first female partner at Goldman Sachs in Japan and known for her "Womenomics" reports.

"If men feel that taking paternity leave will negatively impact their evaluations, then naturally they will be reluctant to take such leave," she said.

"If, however, evaluation systems were more performance- or merit-based, this should allow for more paternity leave."

Meiji Yasuda Life is among companies changing performance review systems accordingly. Japan's third-largest insurer now increases the evaluation level of a boss and his or her department when a subordinate takes leave, said Nanae Awaji, a former human resources supervisor who now works as a business manager.

"Taking leave to boost your own assessment isn't reflected nicely among men, so we created a system whereby, in taking such leave, the assessment of the entire division to which the person who took the leave belongs will be boosted," Awaji said.

Abe has said he wants a society where "women can shine" by eliminating day care centre waiting lists and training mothers to return to work.

He has encouraged publicly traded companies to have at least one female executive and set a goal of women holding 30 per cent of leadership positions in all areas of society by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics.

The prime minister told a meeting of advisory panels on March 19 to reconsider a system that discourages women from working more hours lest they face additional taxes and exclusion from their husbands' insurance and pension plans.

Japanese women's workplace participation is lower than in comparable developed countries - 74 per cent compared with 86 per cent in the US and 93 per cent in Sweden, the 2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum showed.

The rate ranks Japan 87th globally, more than 50 places behind China, which is 34th.

Women made up 52 per cent of employees in financial firms and insurers, above the 43 per cent average for all 18 industries tracked by the government in 2009, according to the most recent data available.

The financial industry ranked fourth for women's participation after service industries including hospitality and restaurants, followed by medical and entertainment, the data showed.

More men deciding to take leave and help their wives start working will lead to faster economic growth, Matsui said.

Japan could expand its workforce by 8 million and increase its gross domestic product by as much as 14 per cent by raising the level of women in employment to about 80 per cent, the same as men, she estimated.

"The statistics suggest that the amount of paternity leave taken by Japanese fathers is low versus other developed countries, so more can probably be done to change this," Matsui said, citing the example of Sweden, which provides government-funded parental leave benefits.

"Japan doesn't necessarily need to replicate this, but some kind of economic incentives may help encourage changes in behaviour," she said. Japan has suffered through 15 years of falling prices and saw China overtake it as the world's second-biggest economy in 2010.

The nation's population will probably fall below 100 million in 2048 for the first time since 1966, from 127 million this year, based on estimates from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. One reason is that women lacking child care support keep birth rates below replacement levels.

Lack of help is a factor for working women like Yuko Nagai, who wants to step up to a management role after earning an MBA. Nagai, whose husband is a manager at an internet media company, said it was almost impossible for her husband to take any leave to help with their four-year-old child.

"It's absolutely impossible without my husband's help," Nagai, who works full-time at a publicly traded company she declined to identify. "If only my husband could take three to six months off. Or if the government can at least make it mandatory for employees to take 10 days off a year, that would even do."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: From here to paternity