Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi’s decision to take paternity leave has drawn public attention, as there have been no other confirmed cases in Japan of Cabinet ministers having announced and then taken time off for child care.
Koizumi took a day off to be present as his wife gave birth, and intends to take leave of about two weeks until his child is 3 months old.
Unlike regular company employees or ordinary public servants, there is no child care leave system for Diet members and Cabinet ministers. Instead, politicians use telework or reduce their work hours to secure time to look after their newborn children.
Starting in fiscal 2020 the government will encourage male national public servants to take at least one month of child care leave. Koizumi’s paternity leave will be far shorter than this, but will still be beneficial in the physical and psychological care of his wife and their newborn child.
Nevertheless, his move has drawn a cool reaction rather than support in the political community. One critic commented, “Priority should be placed on creating an environment in which ordinary government workers can take paternity leave,” while another said, “The public may suspect he is using his privilege as a legislator.”
However, if the head of an organization takes the lead in utilizing child care leave, it will encourage other workers to follow suit. The environment minister’s decision has created an opportunity for discussion in the political community as well as among the general public.
In the past, a governor of the central Japan prefecture of Mie took a short period of child care leave. And in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern drew attention by taking maternity leave.
The fact that Koizumi’s paternity leave has drawn particular attention shows that it is still difficult for men to take such time off work in Japan.
Men can take more time off for child care and receive more benefits under Japan’s system than in many other developed countries. However, a mere 6.16% of eligible men used the system in fiscal 2018 — far below the 80% of women who did so. Moreover, among men who took child care leave, nearly 40% took less than five days.
As for why they were unable to take paternity leave, many men responding to a private organization’s survey pointed out that nobody could replace them at work when they were on leave, that the atmospheres at their workplaces did not allow for it, and that they were reluctant to see their income decline while they were away.
There are moves within the private sector to encourage men to take about one month off work to look after their newborn children. Some companies even take the rate of child care leave among male workers into consideration when assessing the performance of their bosses, or allow male workers to take partially paid child care leave to encourage more men to do so.
The national government is also considering raising benefits paid from the public employment insurance system for a certain period to help those who take child care leave make up for the loss of their income. Some experts predict that if men are allowed to spend more time on child-rearing, it will help curb the decline in the nation’s birth rate.
It would be meaningless if Koizumi’s child care leave were to end up being just a show. The government should strive to achieve a society where men can be proactively involved in child-rearing, even after taking child care leave.