Respect Equality

Japanese politician takes paternity leave and sends a powerful message

Japanese politician takes paternity leave and sends a powerful message
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Story at a glance

  • A prominent Japanese politician is taking paternity leave, setting a powerful example for the country’s workaholic fathers.
  • Japan’s laws provide some of the most generous paternity leave in the world, but just slightly more than 6 percent of fathers take advantage.
  • There is hope that the example set by Shinjiro Koizumi, who serves as Japan’s environment minister, will help push the culture toward being more permissive of fathers who wish to prioritize their families.

Shinjiro Koizumi, a Japanese politician seen as a potential future prime minister, announced on Wednesday that he would be taking time away from his duties as environment minister when his child is born later this month. The move sets a strong example for other fathers in Japan’s workaholic culture, The New York Times reports.

Koizumi is taking a total of two weeks off spread over three months — a short break compared to the length of parental leave in other affluent countries. But in Japan, where zero days off is the norm, a man taking any time off after the birth of a child is a borderline revolutionary act.

“I hope my taking paternity leave will lead the way of working styles to one where everyone can easily take child-care leave without hesitation in the environment ministry,” Koizumi said.

Japanese men sometimes work with almost religious zeal, dedicating themselves to their employers above all else. The announcement from Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, offers hope to those hoping for a new status quo. 

“It’s a good precedent, and it’s about time that this kind of thing becomes more normal,” political scientist Koichi Nakano told the Times.

Still, Koizumi says he experienced backlash over taking time off, and Nakano said this doesn’t bode well for those in less privileged positions to do the same without personal cost.

Confusingly, Japan’s paternity leave laws are among the most generous in the world, granting new fathers and mothers the right to take up to a year off after the birth of a child. But few men take advantage: Barely more than 6 percent of eligible men working for private companies took time off in 2018.

By contrast, more than 82 percent of new mothers took time away from work. 

Among the few dads who did try to take paternity leave, some have accused their employers of discrimination. Two men sued their employers in 2019, alleging they docked their pay or demoted them upon their return. 

Glen Wood was one of those men. The American worked in the financial sector and told the Times he was glad to hear of Koizumi’s intention: “I think it really points in the right direction for the country and for corporations.” 

Wood went on to emphasize that Japan’s long history and entrenched cultural attitudes meant change was likely to be slow, but expressed optimism that such a shift was possible.

Koizumi spoke to some of the difficulties of going against the grain in a society that still values devotion to work above all else in its men on his personal blog.

“There are men who are going through similar difficulties. They want to take the leave, but it’s hard. Child-care leave will not be prevalent, unless we change not only the system, but the atmosphere as well.”