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More firms offering men parental leave but some workplaces struggle to adapt

Mercari Inc. has a convenient intracompany messaging tool that employees can use via smartphones, allowing employees on parental leave to easily communicate with colleagues in the office. An employee uses the tool on a smartphone in this file photo taken on June 27, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Keita Arai, a 40-year-old engineer, says he and his wife would not have even considered having a second child if he hadn't changed jobs. He recalls that it was the climate at his new place of employment, Mercari Inc. -- the developer and operator of the flea market app Mercari -- where men taking parental leave is an acceptable and ordinary practice, that allowed the couple to decide to try for another child.

At the communications firm where Arai was working at the time his now 4-year-old daughter was born, he knew his employer would not be understanding about him taking a leave of absence to care for his child. Arai gave up pursuing parental leave after both his supervisor and his colleagues told him, "It'll work itself out without you taking time off of work."

Arai often went abroad on business, and was forced to leave the burden of child-rearing to his wife, who also worked as a designer. For her, balancing work and childcare was too much, and the couple reached the conclusion that they would not have a second child.

In 2014, Arai switched to a job at Mercari Inc., where employees were encouraged to take parental leave regardless of gender, and where the company president, Fumiaki Koizumi, 37, took two months parental leave himself in 2017. The company pays employees 100 percent of their salary for up to eight weeks of parental leave, and 100 percent of female employees who have children take parental leave, while approximately 80 percent of male employees do. Arai took two months parental leave when his second child was born, which, he says, "Was appreciated by my wife, and gave me more time to interact with my first-born as well."

Men hold a key role in curbing the plummeting birth rate and realizing a society in which women play more significant roles in the workforce. Research carried out by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare shows that the shorter the time spent by husbands on housework and child-rearing on their days off, the less likely it is that a couple will have a second child. Also according to the ministry, just 5.14 percent of men took parental leave in fiscal 2017. And even among those who did take parental leave, the period of leave taken by approximately 80 percent of men was less than a month. There's a great gap between men and women; 80 percent of the latter take parental leave, of which 70 percent take at least 10 months off. Companies like Mercari are extreme outliers, not the norm.

"Particularly at large corporations, where the path to promotion is clearly drawn, employees (who might otherwise take parental leave) and those around them are afraid of veering from that path," Naoki Atsumi, a research consultant at Toray Corporate Business Research Inc., explains as the reason why more men do not take parental leave. Atsumi says there are cases in which male employees who seek long child care leave are given poor evaluations saying they lack motivation toward work.

That's not to say all large corporations are the same. Sekisui House Ltd., one of the country's largest homebuilding companies, announced in July that it would provide male employees with children under three years old parental leave of one month, as a general rule. However, before the rule's implementation set for September, company employees voiced concerns such as: "How are we supposed to function when a team member is missing for a whole month?" and "When are men supposed to take parental leave?" This was because there have not been many past instances of Sekisui House employees taking leaves of absence that extend as long as a month.

To respond to such concerns, the company's human resources department is planning to gather those eligible for parental leave and their supervisors for a training session in October to familiarize them with methods of reassigning and delegating work, as well as appropriate times at which to take parental leave.

"In Japan, long working hours that contribute to whether a certain type of work gets done is dependent on individual employees. So when the one person who knows the details about a certain task or issue takes leave, the others are left with a huge hole they don't know how to fill," says Yoshie Komuro, who heads Work Life Balance Inc., a company that advises companies on improving working practices. What can be done, then, to encourage workers to take parental leave and employers to promote it? Says Komuro, "It's necessary to share all relevant know-how and information, and create a framework in which the team as a whole can achieve results at any time."

This is Part 2 in a series.

(Mainichi Shimbun)

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