Last year, the Japanese government amended a law aimed at making parental leave more flexible for fathers. Both men and women are already entitled to more than 12 months’ paid leave, but the latest amendment seeks to make the system more attractive to company workers and management.
In Japan, only a small percentage of men use paid paternity leave. A government survey conducted in 2020 found that less than 13 percent of male respondents exercised the right to take paternity leave, compared to 82 percent of women.
Japan’s rigid corporate culture and deeply embedded gender child education roles have contributed to the slow rise in paternity leave.
Under the amended Child and Nursing Leave Act, companies are required to create an environment that encourages the use of paid parental leave and to inform and follow up workers on leave after they have reported that they or their partner is expecting. The new system aims to shift the emphasis on businesses to ensure staff know that childcare leave is available to them.
The new system, which is being deployed in phases, allows parental leave to be taken in four installments rather than a continuous 12 months. Under the conventional child care leave system, it was forbidden to undertake work tasks while on leave. Parents will now be able to take home a fixed amount of tasks to help take pressure off employees and companies, a change the government hopes will especially encourage fathers to take leave.
Previously, a request for childcare leave must be submitted one month before the start date. Now requests can be made two weeks in advance. In addition, companies are required to disclose the inclusion of childcare leave among staff.
A major setback, however, is the lack of a legally binding guarantee for childcare leave. The amendments only apply to large corporations with more than 1,000 employees. The corporate culture in small to medium-sized companies and the existing pressures that make it difficult for men to take paternity leave remain unchanged. The updates also leave out part-time workers and unmarried workers expecting a baby.
Japan is facing a unique demographic time bomb. Rapidly declining births and an aging population are causing a severe labor shortage. With the childcare, nursing and elderly care sectors facing acute staff shortages, the announcement of a pregnancy can be a major burden for business operations. This led to a phenomenon called “sin face”Or childbirth harassment, in which a woman who is pregnant or has given birth is subject to unfavorable treatment or abuse by staff or management.
Pregnancy is unpredictable, as is a baby’s deadline. But getting time off to be up for a baby’s arrival remains a challenge. Technically, a company has the right to ask an expectant father to stay at work, even in the case when their partner gives birth earlier than formally requested.
Last month, a Japanese Supreme Court rejected allegations of paternity harassment made by a former Canadian employee at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley. Glen Wood, who has lived in Japan for 30 years, said his request for parental leave in 2015 was rejected by the company. After the premature birth of his son, Wood says he has been “degraded” and deprived of his responsibilities. He was finally fired in 2018. According to the Tokyo High Court, the company’s actions were considered “inevitable”. The company welcomed the ruling and called it proof that their position is not unreasonable.
When former Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro took 14 days of paternity leave over three months in 2020, he became a role model for working fathers overnight. It was the first time a Japanese cabinet minister had taken paternity leave. In a formal announcement, Koizumi referred to the struggle to juggle his work commitments and new family. He reassured the public of his commitment to upholding public duties, while also emphasizing the pressure on raising children that women experience after giving birth.
Corporate Japan has struggled to address work-life balance and the new system is seen as a step towards a more responsive work environment. Koizumi’s public explanation after the birth of his son sparked heated debate and made international news. But two years later, the latest changes do not stop at resolving the structural bottlenecks and cultural expectations associated with child rearing.