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Japan gov't aims to boost paternity leave rates but concerns remain over how it's used

A male journalist at the Mainichi Shimbun who took paternity leave is seen carrying his baby daughter outside while pushing along a stroller. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Paternity leave has become a hot topic in Japan. Following Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi's decision to take such leave, more people have come forward calling for it to become an obligatory break from work.

However, roughly a third of men who apparently take parental leave don't devote enough time to child care and housework, according to a private survey.

From fiscal 2020, the government intends to encourage male national public employees to take at least a month of paternity leave, but questions have emerged not just around the time taken, but also the quality of its use.

Company workers enrolled in employment insurance are eligible for leave until their child turns 1. While off work, they are entitled to 67% of their normal wages, falling to 50% if six months or more is spent off.

Members of the National Diet and Cabinet are essentially exempt from the system, just like self-employed people. But Koizumi's choice to take parental leave has undoubtedly encouraged new debate around the issue.

In truth, the system of parental leave for men in Japan is seen as generous in terms of time and money even when compared to other developed countries. Even so, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare figures as of October 2018 showed that the rate of uptake was just 6% among eligible men working at private companies.

Among the reasons given for not taking up paternity leave, many notably blamed a working culture that makes using the time difficult, as opposed to their own lack of interest in it. Some said their companies didn't have measures prepared for people to take leave, while others reported that staff shortages meant they couldn't take time off. Another wrote that the atmosphere at work discouraged them from asking for paternity leave.

Due to these kinds of responses, there has been a surge in activities to try and make taking paternity leave obligatory, rather than leaving it up to people seeking to take it.

The male workers leading the way in taking paternity leave are national public employees, who recorded an uptake of 12.4%, close to double their peers in the private sector. The cohort is closing in on the government's target of a 13% uptake in 2020.

One public employee in Tokyo aged 38 took half a year off starting in autumn 2019. At first, he was not very good at cooking or household chores. When he and his wife married, they agreed to each take half of their daughter's first year off to take care of her, and applied for parental leave. Because it would be for six months, he spoke to a superior at work about it a year before taking parental leave. "I was so grateful when my boss told me to 'take as much as you can,'" he said.

He gets up daily at 6:30 a.m., and starts his day by preparing and serving breakfast for his wife, who works fulltime. At around 9 a.m. he makes his daughter's meal, then after he's got her to nap he has lunch. In the afternoons he goes to events at nearby children's centers and day care facilities, and goes out for walks.

Once 6 p.m. rolls around he starts making dinner, and feeds his daughter. Her first word was "papa." Her father said happily, "Normally their first word is mama, but she said papa."

From fiscal 2020, the government will encourage all of its public employees welcoming the birth of a child to take a month or more of paternity leave. It appears to be serious about pushing the system. According to government guidelines, workers in a position of seniority are to display leadership on the issue, and the state of parental leave uptake will be reflected in administrators and executive's appraisals, among other measures.

But it doesn't seem like the issues will be solved purely through systems and measures. Some have said it could lead to a situation in which men take leave for the sake of it, and don't engage in housework or child rearing activities.

According to a survey aimed at 4,000 women with children by Connehito Inc., a firm which runs a smartphone app providing information to mothers, 500 of the respondents' husbands took parental leave.

Among them, some 20% of husbands were judged to have spent over eight hours a day on housework and child care activities. Another 32% said their husbands devoted less than two hours to their duties, and 15% said their spouses did between two and three hours. The overall results seemed to show that almost half of men on paternity leave don't spend a particularly great amount of time on child-rearing or chores.

The app's editor, Daisuke Yuasa, said, "Debate on the quality of paternity leave is behind the curve. As a result, if taking leave is made obligatory, we'll see more cases of men taking it just for the sake of it, and the burden on women will actually increase."

But for men who do take the time off, how best can they support their partners? According to obstetrician and gynecologist Mihyon Song, when women give birth the pelvic floor muscles that protect their internal organs are damaged. Some 40% of women experience urinary incontinence after delivering a child, and it can take at least three weeks to recover. Song says that during this period it is vital that women avoid carrying heavy objects, or even walking around, and should instead spend the time lying down.

Additionally, there are changes in the way hormones are released after giving birth, making it difficult to feel settled mentally. Reportedly around 10% of new mothers in Japan develop symptoms of depression in around the first two weeks to a month after childbirth.

It can lead to suicide, so Song says it is hugely important for those around new mothers to be able to offer support. "Even if it's for a short period, it's important to be around 24 hours to help raise a child," she said.

(Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa, Ryosuke Abe and Keisuke Umeda, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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